Adolescence and Family Life Cycle Development

Many theories exist that describe the developmental tasks of adolscence. Piaget describes the cognitive development of adolscents (starting at age 11) as a discrete stage called formal operational thought in which children become able to reason in an abstract manner and test hypotheses using systematic logic. Kohlberg, building on Piaget’s work, ascribes a conventional level of moral reasoning to adolescents; they are seen as likely to adhere to society’s views and expectations concerning right and wrong. Erikson‘s theory of psychosocial development (1993) describes adolescence as a time of identity formation (ages 12-20), suggesting a conflict between identity and role confusion. Havighurst (1952) theorized from an education perepective and he saw the main tasks of adolescence (ages 13-18) as relationship and vocational exploration; however, Super (1963) pointed out that exploring vocational choice is more important to older adolescents and young adults (ages 15-24).

Notably, these theories disagree on the ages when adolscence begins and ends, with ages being chosen particular to the domain of interest of the theorist. While puberty remains the most reliable marker for the onset of adolscence  –menarche for girls (between 9-12 years of age) and ejaculation for boys (between 10-14)– a decade of neuropsychology research using modern technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, has found that adolescent brains are complex, retaining unconnected sections while growing areas with rapidly myelinating synapses (Rudder, 2008). Myelination, a process that improves cognition by increasing the speed at which impulses travel along neural pathways, continues into the early twenties at which point the adolescent brain becomes the adult brain, making that a more suitable marker for the end of adolescence in terms of development.

Given the long span and active nature of development, contemporary perspectives commonly divide adolescent development into three age groups (Brown et al., Apr2008 Supplement; Burrow, Tubman, & Finley, 2004; Kruger & Prinsloo, 2008; Park, Weaver, & Romer, 2010; Rosenthal & Kobak, 2010; Saleh & Hilton, 2011; Vecchione, Alessandri, Barbaranelli, & Gerbino, 2010; Villanti, Boulay, & Juon, 2011; Wigfield, Lutz, & Wagner, 2005), early adolescence (approximately 10-14), middle adolescence (approximately 15-17), and late adolescence (approximately 18-21). These age groups differ significantly across three main domains; sexual/physical growth, cognitive activity, and psychosocial experiences, with younger adolescence being more exploratory and later adolescence being more action oriented (American Academy of Child and Adolescent’s Facts for Families, 2008).

Early Adolescence

With the onset of puberty (ages 9/10-14) come dramatic physical changes; both genders grow body and pubic hair, perspire more, grow in height and weight, and produce more oil in the hair and skin. Girls develop quicker and generally experience changes in breasts and hips that may draw attention to their physical appearance, while boys experience growth in the penis, voice changes, and facial hair. Both genders experience an increase in sexual desire that may include wet dreams and fantasizing about sexual activities, but boys tend to masturbate more than girls (Leitenberg, Detzer, & Srebnik, 1993). These and other activities increase the demand for privacy and the tendency to worry if he/she is ‘normal.’

Hormonal changes contribute to emotional outbursts and different sleeping needs during early adolescence. Boys have an increase in testosterone while girls increase estrogen and progesterene production, which fluctuate throughout the day, prompting moodiness and fatigue , which is expressed differently by gender (Walsh, 2005). Boys often become agitated and aggressive while girls may become sad and cry, often without provocation. For both sexes, hormonal luctuations contributes to erratic sleeping habits but girls experience more daytime sleepiness than boys (Lee, Mcenany, & Weekes, 1999).

Neural activity is focused increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex (the executive control center of the brain), which allows for abstract reasoning, decision-making, and attentional control. Early adolescents can think abstractly, engage in complex moral reasoning, and develop their own interests, but they tend to remain focused on the here and now. Improved thinking skills can be seen in deepening personal values and new perspectives on human relationships. Parents are now seen as imperfect and peers take center stage in terms of influence. Friendships become paramount, for girls these friendships may be more transient than for boys, who are likely to form long lasting friendships during this time. Emotionally, adolescents explore identity both relationally and in terms of suitable roles (Levinson, 1978; Erikson, 1968).

Middle Adolescence

During middle adolescence, puberty is thought of as complete and physical growth slows for girls, but not for boys. Myelination continues, thus cognition continues to improve, which can be seen moral thinking and existential exploration, such as pondering the meaning of life. In terms of sexuality, middle adolescence is marked by a transition from private sexual fantasy to more active sexual engagement in the forms of love and passion. This is also a time in which sexual orientation and the sexual self is generally solidified (Lee et al., 1999). Self-involvement continues and if normalcy is still a worry, low self-esteem and poor body image may occur.

Late Adolescence

While young women are typically fully developed by late adolescence, young men continue to experience physical growth and brain changes into the 20’s.  If all has gone well in previous stages, this age is marked by a firmer sense of identity, emotional stability, concern for others, and the development of significant and romantic relationships. There is a shift from present oriented thinking to future planning. Gratification can be delayed, goals accomplished, and ideas can be thought through. Hormonal fluctuations decrease, mood swings are less frequent, and sleep habits tend to return to a circadian rhythm (Walsh, 2005). Young people in this stage with proper support look and sound like adults and have a firm sense of self.

Developmental Outcomes

Each of the substages of adolescent development has an impact on family functioning and adolescent perceptions of developmental outcomes in terms of family relationships have been found to vary by sub-stage; one study found that early adolescents’ ratings of mother-closeness, father-closeness, and family closeness were significantly higher than parallel ratings by middle adolescents and late adolescents, who perceived the greatest distance with regard to familial relationships (Burrow et al., 2004). While it has been noted that family clossness can serve as a protective factor for youths during the adolscent stage of the family life cycle (Carter & McGoldrick, 2004), outcomes depend in large part on the context in which he/she lives.

Early Adolescence

In early adolescence, children face some vulnerabilities that are highly culture dependent. For instance, health risks for girls and boys differ widely according to culture: in high conflict areas of the world, many young girls are at risk for trafficking and sexual abuse and many young boys are often at risk for being recruited as child soldiers (McIntyre, 2004). Also, puberty rituals, meant to foster separation, liminality, and reintegration through tradition and mentoring (Gennep, 2010), may make this period of adolscence particularly difficult as  puberty can signal the onset of life altering rites of passage. For instance, female genital mutilation persists in Africa and some communities in the Middle East and Asia (Moukhyer, Van Eijk, Bosma, & De Vries, 2006; Mudege, Egondi, Beguy, & Zulu, 2012; “Policy Statement — Ritual Genital Cutting of Female Minors,” 2010), coming-of-age parties, such as bat mitzvahs (Jewish rite of passage for girls at 13), can heighten anxiety in adolescents who were unusually focused on the negative aspects of becoming independent adults (Logan & Meltzer, 2006), and liminal periods, such as the Amish ‘rumspringa’ in which youth (around 16) expore the dangerous world of ‘temptations’, can contribute to excessive risk-taking when unsupervised (Larson & Martin, 2012; Stevick, 2007).

Even in cultures without a demarcated rite-of-passage ceremony, young adolscents often test the boundaries of childhood and adulthood by engaging in high risk behavior, such as drinking excessively, engaging in sexual activity, and taking illegal drugs (Larson & Martin, 2012; Ponton, 1998).  Risk-taking may be especially high when parenting style is unsuitable for the tasks of adolescence and the impact is long term; parenting that has moderate control and high responsiveness and support (i.e., authoritative parenting) is most beneficial and related to positive outcomes for adolescence and post-adolescence, while parenting that is extremely high or low in control and high in rejection (i.e., authoritarian, permissive, or neglecting parenting) and low in support and responsiveness is related to less positive adolescent and post-adolescent outcomes (Baumrind, 1991; Baumrind, Larzelere, & Owens, 2010).

Middle Adolecence

In middle adolescence, parents must be able to adapt to increased autonomy needs without putting too much responsibility on the adolescents plate, striking a balance between freedom and nurturing. Culture has a big role to play in how balance might be achieved; some cultures value family needs over individual growth, which may feel restricting to middle adolescents and can especially be a problem for girls since boys are often given more freedom, regardless of culture (Carter & McGoldrick, 2004). However, resources and socioeconomic status may moderate autonomy gains even for boys; lower income families may need adolescents to work and growing adolescents are particular vulnerable around the age of 14, when they may be forced to choose between work and school (Carter & McGoldrick, 2004, p. 275)

In middle adolscence, existing rites of passages and culteral norms continue to influence development in that they are generally laden with gender role expectations, which when restrictive, can have a negative impact on the emergent identity of youths (Jacobs, Bleeker, & Constantino, 2003). Conversely, gender egalitarianism has been found to be postively related to the role expectations for middle adolescents; having more egalitarian views of gendered work and family roles makes one more likely to desire a college education and a graduate or professional degree (Davis, 2007).

Egalitarian parental values seem to be especially important for girls; a longitudinal study investigating the impact of expected adult role transitions found that among 411 rural youths followed from Grades 9 through 12, egalitarian values were linked more strongly to a broader scope of possible futures and more consideration for higher levels of adult attainment beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother for female participants compared to male participants (Crockett & Beal, 2012). Gender roles may be particularly hard on middle teens struggling with sexual identities outside the mainstream heterosexual culture and for many GLTB teens, safety becomes an issue both at home and in the community as he/she may experience little room for minority sexual status (Carter & McGoldrick, 2004).

The Family System

As adolescents ascend the stages of development, family system members must make many personal adjustments, which can be quite challenging, particulary for parents as they may experience a sense of powerlessness in the face of all the worries they have for the emerging adult in their care. These worries can activate old schemas, family of origin issues, and values differences, thereby increasing parental discord (Carter & McGoldrick, 2004). In turn, siblings can feel diplaced as more attention becomes focused on the adolescent and problems, which can increase sibling conflict. Grandparents can be drawn into the mix when conflict in the home has spillover effects, such as grandparents becoming caregivers again if parents divorce. Thus parents, siblings, and even grandparents have to renegotiate roles and adapt to the adolescent stage of family life cycle development.

What is required of the system for positive outcomes is flexiblity and support (Carter & McGoldrick, 2004); parents need to promote egalitarian values (Crockett & Beal, 2012; Davis, 2007; Jacobs et al., 2003), adopt an authoritative parenting style (Baumrind, 1991; Baumrind et al., 2010), and aim for low parent–adolescent, sibling-adolescent conflict (Ehrlich, Dykas, & Cassidy, 2012).  Seeing the parent-adolescent relationship as a model for the youth’s other relationships may help and good functioning at home can improve functioning in other contexts; high conflict between adolescents and parents has been associated with peer-reported aggression and delinquency and poor social functioning, particulalry when conflict with best friends is also high (Ehrlich et al., 2012). Carter and McGoldrick (2004, p. 285) also suggest  connection with other families of adolescents can be healing for adolscents, parents, siblings, and grandparents .


  1. Lavelda Naylor said:

    I got an email correction: Bat Mitzvahs are at 12 for girls, Bar Mitzvahs at 13 for boys.

  2. La Velda Naylor said:

    I posted this after talking to you! enjoy 🙂

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