Helping all children become happy learners
We tend to think of adolescence as the teenage years but the process of change from childhood to adulthood generally starts before and continues beyond this time. The onset of puberty is an obvious sign that a child has entered adolescence particularly when they experience a period of rapid growth and their appearance becomes more adult like. However, the influence of social and cultural factors must not be underestimated in their power to affect the process and timing of puberty; and also in shaping and determining the behaviours associated with adolescence.
By the time that a child reaches puberty they are very experienced at growing and accept the process of getting physically bigger and generally more coordinated and skillful. Unfortunately, it is little preparation for the pace of change encountered through puberty when 8-9cm of growth in a year is possible. Such rapid growth often leads to a deterioration in gross motor coordination as the brain adjusts to the new body and clumsiness is the result. At the end of puberty the body has reached it's adult size and shape and this determines how other age groups perceive and interact with them. For example, society tends to accept the movement of groups of children whilst viewing groups of youths as threatening.
Puberty is of course associated with the maturing of the sexual reproductive organs and the visible signs that they have become functional. This provides two main challenges for the adolescent. The first challenge is in understanding, exploring and coping with these changes to their body and the new feelings and sensations they encounter. The second challenge is in understanding, exploring and coping with how others perceive them as sexually attractive. Girls in particular may become very aware of been noticed by males of all ages. There is further information on puberty in the page about sexual development.
Childhood is or should be a time of care-free dependence on parents who provide for all their needs. Adulthood is about autonomy and self-sufficiency. Adolescence is the transitional period between the two. Achieving these adult goals requires behavioural changes not only for the adolescent but also for their parents and their wider adult influences such as teachers. The right to greater freedom and self-determination i.e. more say in what they do and where they go is matched by increased responsibilities. The adolescent will be expected to take on household chores, making their own bed, taking responsibility for homework and getting ready for school, college or work. Older adolescents who begin work may be expected to become more financially independent particularly in terms of buying clothing and meeting the cost of their social activities. Some may be asked to make a small contribution to the household budget. Adolescents can feel that these additional responsibilities are unfair and unreasonable.
Similarly, as the individual matures from child to adulthood society will offer new freedoms and rights. These will go hand in hand with increased responsibilities including making a positive contribution to society as well as greater penalties for when they do not. The main way a person can contribute to society is by working and of course this provides the route to financial independence as well.
The adolescent has a bewildering choice of occupations to chose from. Some require highly specialised qualifications and are accessible only by high academic achievement. Others require particular talents or personality traits to be achieveable. Adolescence is therefore a period where the individual is being expected to make a lot of choices that may have life long consequences. In order to inform these choices the adolescent needs to develop their sense of identity in order to answer questions like: What am I good at?; What can I achieve?; What sort of person am I?; Am I a good person? and so on.
Sense of identity
A person's sense of identity is an evolving state of mind that starts to form from birth and perhaps even before. Life experiences influence and shape our genetic inheritances to determine our physical and mental being. Thus it is the accumulative impact of our interactions with our environment that largely determine our sense of who we are. For the infant and child the relationship with parent is the most important influence. By adolescence, parental influence is waining and being replaced by a number of significant factors:
Friends and peers
Being accepted by your peers is a powerful driver of adaption by the individual to conform and fit in.
Culture, race and religion
Each of these will determine how the individual sees themselves and how others interact with them which in turn reinforces their sense of belonging to a particular culture, race or religion.
Significant adults such as teachers, sports coaches that the adolescent may know personally as well as those they see in sport, music and popular culture.
Ability and performance
Comparing oneself to one's peers and the wider society is probably a life-long behaviour but perhaps more so during late childhood and adolescence. Accepting the limitations of our abilities and achievements requires maturity and security of being which is generally not reached until much later in life.
Social and economic factors
These include access to resources, social opportunities and extra-curricular activities as well as the influence of housing conditions, diet, health and education.
A difficult time
Adolescence can be a challenging time for the individual who has had the best opportunities and nurturing experiences during childhood. For the many who reach this crucial stage without such fortunate experiences it is likely to be more difficult and problematic. The physical, emotional and social changes that they have to deal with can make this group highly vulnerable. Risk factors include:
mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders, self harm and suicide.
problematic use of alcohol and other drugs
anti-social behaviour and crime
disengagement and withdrawl
The majority of adolescents survive this stage and become successful adults. Not many, though, will emerge without a few emotional scars that they would rather never remember again. Unfortunately, when they in turn become a parent of an adolescent these memories are likely to resurface and they may have to learn to deal with these again.
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