The adolescent – Mental development

Growing self-consciousness is characteristic of mental development during the years of adolescence. It is typically an intermediate stage, during which the young human being is in fact still a child, but already has something of the adult without actually experiencing adulthood. The adolescent experiences this period as being confusing. Mental development rarely begins before the age of twelve and usually reaches its peak .•tween fifteen and seventeen years of age. As with all forms of development, there also exist many differences. Some people mature somewhat sooner, others somewhat later. Adolescents begin to take an interest in their own personality and environment. They begin to ask themselves questions: ‘Who am I?’; ‘Do other people think and feel the same as I do?’; ‘What do I appreciate in my friends and what not?’; ‘What kind of person do I want to be?’; ‘And how can I work toward that myself?’. The answers to these questions may differ from day to day, because adolescents experiment and practise the kinds of reactions certain behaviour evokes from the environment. They know neither their limitations nor their potential completely. That is why they quite often go too far. It is obvious that many conflicts will arise from this.

The relationship between the parents and the adolescent is rather complicated because an ambivalent attitude exists on both sides. The parents are ambivalent because on the one hand they like to see their child becoming an adult, but on the other hand it saddens them to lose their small child. And the adolescent wants to be regarded as a mature, adult person, although he or she has to – sometimes unconsciously – rely on parents or others in the environment for help and support.

For healthy development it is important that parents give their children room and freedom to discover a new world, but they must also have them bear full responsibility for their own actions and behaviour. It is however essential that the children never get the idea they can no longer rely on their parents; their love for them must be clear.

Because of their greater self-dependence adolescents will break loose from their parents, and at the same time they will supplement the loss in this relationship by experimentally seeking new intimacies with people who are ‘strangers’.

Mental growth

By mental growth is understood the process of arranging experiences, including both the functions directed towards knowledge (so-called cognitive functions) and the emotions.

During adolescence changes occur concerning the cognitive functions. These are related to the way of thinking and not, for instance, an enlargement of intelligence. Research has demonstrated that children, from around eleven or twelve years of age, are able to think not only about concrete matters but also about abstract suppositions based upon words. This means, among other things, that an adolescent can think about thinking. As a result, the adolescent is capable – unlike young children – of understanding and creating theories.

The search for identity

This new phase of mental development may be disturbing to many young people. It can alter their relationship with families and friends, and make them unsure of themselves. As many parents will testify, this uncertainty makes adolescents extremely sensitive to criticism. Because of their emotional instability at this time, they often come in for harsh words but they themselves frequently feel that they are being unjustly found fault with, and that adults do not really understand them. They tend to revert to early childhood in this respect and view things from only one standpoint – their own.

Teenagers sometimes also have an underlying fear of being insignificant to other people. As a result they may start making plans for the future, sometimes planning several careers within a week. If they fail to find a ‘solution’ to their insignificance, they may become noisy and exhibitionist to make at least some impression on other people. Adolescents try hard to find an identity with which they are comfortable. One way of doing this is to express grandiose ideas about the world at large, taking up causes that they claim offer some sort of future salvation. Through what might appear to adults as brash or unrealistic prattle, adolescents sort out and test their own beliefs. The intimate company of friends from the same age range is one way of testing out their ideologies. This way they avoid attracting the scorn of adults such as their parents, as well as the humiliation of being treated as a child.

Another part of the process of self-awareness is the importance adolescents begin to attach to outward appearances. The adoption of outrageous fashions and hair styles is partly a rejection of parental influences and partly an experiment to gauge the reactions of others. Being a punk or skinhead is also one way of finding an established identity different from one’s parents.

Parents often think their adolescent child is just being rebellious, but the preoccupation with appearance may also reflect their need to be like their friends. Because they lack self-confidence, teenagers may look for protection and support in the uniformity of dressing and behaving like the rest of their group. Other ways adolescents challenge adult parental conventionality include: drug taking and heavy drinking, neglecting hygiene, being ‘anti-authority’, being secretive, preferring loud, discordant music and sexual experimentation. In general these are temporary phases, superficially adopted to provide the thrill of exploration, risk and strangeness, and quickly outgrown.

Tension within the family

During this time, intra-family relationships are at their most strained. The demand for independence is usually the first manifestation of adolescent behaviour as far as parents are concerned. Their child starts to resent being controlled and guided as a child, and wants to be accepted as an adult. This can result in a refusal to accept the usual family way of life and there may be arguments over every trivial detail. Teenagers may start to argue about the necessity for punctuality, a set bedtime, tidiness, helping out with household chores, the need to do homework, and so on. There may also be resentment of the freedom of older children and any apparent discrimination in favour of brothers and sisters. As adolescents approach the mid-teens they find themselves vaguely anticipating adulthood. This period can be one of great uncertainty. The questions of work, marriage, and the future start to occupy their minds and they feel nervous about it all. Adolescents often want to discard any similarities to their parents, although they may not have any idea what they themselves want or what they are competent to become.

And for fear of being left alone. This so-called primary bond is not effective any more when the child grows older. A first step for an adolescent in becoming a truly free individual should be to loosen the primary, unquestioned bond with the family. If he or she learns to accept and love the parents for more than just traditional reasons, a secondary bond develops. In this way their relationship is based on mutual respect of each other’s individuality and freedom.

The generation gap

The young adolescent, who has just passed puberty, starts to acquire strong sexual feelings along with feelings of self-awareness and the need for an identity. Often the teenager feels able to discuss these feelings with other people of the same age but not with adults. He or she is uncomfortable or embarrassed to discuss personal matters with adults, who have been through the phase before but now seem distant from it. The adolescent may have the sexual desires and mature physique of an adult, yet feel unsure and incompetent in comparison. As a result adolescents may gather together and criticize adult behaviour as a sort of defensive ‘scapegoating’ against their anxiety at feeling inferior.

Parents can feel embarrassed by their child’s increasingly adept criticism of their lives and habits. They often protect their self-esteem by reacting strongly against this criticism, not wanting to be told what is right by a young person, and so the generation gap