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Theories of Adolescent Development

By: , Posted on: July 3, 2020

The study of adolescent development has captivated us throughout our academic careers, beginning with our doctoral dissertations under the direction of James G. Kelly. Jim welcomed us into his multi-school project and introduced us to the ecological perspective on coping and adaptation in adolescence. That work resulted in the publication of Adolescent boys in high school, (Edited by James G. Kelly), Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers, 1979 (Republished by Routledge Library Editions, 2017).

Theories of Adolescent Development is an outgrowth of a chapter on Theories of Adolescence that was published in the Encyclopedia of Adolescence (2011). We want to thank B. Bradford Brown and Mitchell J. Prinstein, editors of the Encyclopedia of Adolescence, for inviting us to contribute that chapter and for encouraging us to embark on this full length book. Theories have played a key role in exploring and explaining the marvelous transformations that take place during adolescence.

You can read Chapter 2 – Evolutionary theory for a limited time on ScienceDirect

Theories have uncovered advances in reasoning, emotional expression and regulation, physical maturation, self-understanding, and the expansion of social roles and interpersonal relationships. Theories have led the way by focusing attention on the capacity of adolescents to direct the course of their development through their emerging sense of purpose, self-regulation, and the formation of a personal identity. Yet, no theory of adolescent development addresses all these domains. There is no contemporary single volume that provides an overview of theories. Theories of Adolescent Development was written to fill this gap.

It is probably not surprising that there is no one agreed-upon theory that accounts for all aspects of adolescent development. The families of theories discussed in the book differ in their emphasis on domains of development, focusing to a greater or lesser extent on physical, cognitive, social, and emotional processes. The theories differ in their emphasis on particular periods of life, some more attuned to early, middle or later adolescence. The theories differ in their emphasis on universal patterns as compared to unique cultural and historical contexts that influence development. The theories also differ in their level of analysis. Some theories focus on very specific moments in daily life; others focus on broad, system changes that may occur gradually over long periods of time.

One of the intriguing features of the science of adolescent development is the ambiguity surrounding its definition. Adolescence is typically viewed as beginning with puberty. However, research regarding pubertal development finds that for some children the biological beginnings of puberty are in evidence as early as ages 8 or 9, earlier than we typically associate with the term adolescence (Dorn, Dahl, Woodward, & Biro, 2006). The period of adolescence is viewed as ending with maturity or adulthood. But that term is also ambiguous as it is linked with biological, social/cultural, legal, historical, and religious meanings.

The idea of the “age of majority” suggests an end of adolescence, implying that the person has legal control over actions and decisions. In the U.S., age of majority varies by state from 18 to 21 (U.S., 2018). What is more, age of majority is not identical to the age associated with specific activities such as age of sexual consent, marriageable age, school leaving age, drinking age, driving age, voting age, smoking age, gambling age, or the age at which a person can consent to medical treatment without parental permission. Again, these all vary by state in the United States.   Research on the maturation of the prefrontal cortex suggests that cognitive capacities for self-regulation and higher order decision-making continue into the mid-twenties (Giedd, Stockman, Weddle, et al. 2012).   These ambiguities surrounding a beginning and end of adolescence support the need for theories of adolescent development that highlight particular aspects of this stage of life and the conditions that support or undermine development.

Not only is the definition of adolescence ambiguous, but there is a lack of agreement about the terms used to refer to this period of life. Terms including youth, teen or teenager, pre-teen, adolescent, and emerging adult are examples of words used to denote this stage of life. Studies that claim to focus on adolescent development may include young people in middle school, high school, or college. They may focus on young people who are not in school, employed or not employed, or in the military. Studies about adolescents often do not include information about pubertal status, thereby ignoring important developmental differences that may exist among children of the same chronological age. The concept of adolescence has different connotations in different societies. Cultural groups differ in their recognition of adolescence as a distinct period of life, the status or power allocated to adolescents, and the tightness or looseness of cultural constraints regarding their behavior.

Understanding adolescent development requires a multidisciplinary perspective. This period of comparatively rapid biological change is accompanied by numerous changes in family, school, peer group, community, government, and technology resulting in a cascade of transformations. The period brings new physical and reproductive capacities, new cognitive abilities and insights, new understandings about oneself and the nature of one’s society, one’s role in the community, and new opportunities to express one’s talents, formulate meaningful goals, and achieve clarity of purpose. At the same time, complex demands of post-industrial societies make entry into the full enactment of adult roles more difficult, prolonging adolescence and delaying the sense of oneself as fully “adult” (Furstenberg, 2010).

Theories change over time. New evidence and observations have resulted in the expansion, revision, or rejection of aspects of earlier theories. Many contemporary theories take a probabilistic view of development, conceptualizing the dynamics of the changing person engaged in multiple environments that are also changing. The diversity of youth, including racial, ethnic, gender, social class, and cultural variations as well as international studies, cast a new light on normative expectations about pathways from childhood to adulthood.   The diversity of settings has also received new attention through the study of families, peer groups, schools, and communities, resulting in an appreciation for the challenges adolescents face as they traverse multiple environments.

Adolescents’ decisions and behaviors have significant physical, social and mental health consequences. Attitudes formed regarding gender roles, educational goals, career aspirations, religious/moral values, and family formation can impact future opportunities and resources. Theories can be useful in guiding applications and interventions including: human services, education, health, mental health, recreation, arts and music, sports, family life, social welfare, civic engagement, religious education, consumer science, the law and juvenile justice.

Adolescence is a time that links generations. Theories help account for how the history of a person’s infancy and childhood contribute to the unfolding of a young person’s self-understanding, values, morality, and desires for the future. Theories further understanding of the role adolescents play in the transformation of cultures as they encounter new technologies and social messages that guide them toward changing values. What is happening for youth serves as a precursor for the future of the society. Do young people come of age in a time of civility, productivity, and openness, or a time of fearfulness, cautiousness, and a survival orientation? Characteristics of the historical period as well as features of the immediate environment guide adolescents’ adaptations. Adolescents’ definitions of what it means to be successful, moral, and fulfilled, and their access to resources and opportunities guide the outlook for each new generation of adults.

About the book

  • Includes biological, psychological and sociological theories
  • Identifies historical roots, assumptions, key concepts, applications, measurement, strengths, and limitations of each theory
  • Compares and contrasts theories
  • Concludes with an integrated perspective across theories

 You can read Chapter 2 – Evolutionary theory for a limited time on ScienceDirect. Theories of Adolescent Development is available now on ScienceDirect, want your own copy? Enter code STC320 when you order via the Elsevier store to save up to 30%


Brown, B.B. & Prinstein, M.J. (2011). Encyclopedia of Adolescence. London, UK: Elsevier/AcademicPress.

Dorn, L.D., Dahl, R.E., Woodward, H.R. & Biro, F. (2006). Defining the boundaries of early adolescence: A user’s guide to assessing pubertal status and pubertal timing in research with adolescents. Applied Developmental Science, 10, 30-56.

Furstenberg, F.F. (2010). Passage to adulthood. The Prevention Researcher, 17, 3-7.

Giedd, J., Stockman, M., Weddle, C., Liverpool, M., Alexander-Bloch, A., et al. (2012).

Anatomic magnetic resonance imaging of the developing child and adolescent brain. In V.R. Reyna, S. B. Chapman M.R. Dougherty, & J. Confrey (Eds.)

The adolescent brain: Learning, reasoning and decision-making (pp. 15-35). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kelly, J.G. (Ed.) Adolescent boys in high school. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. (Republished by Routledge Library Editions, 2017).

U.S. (2018). Age of majority law and legal definition. Retrieved from the internet on March 2, 2018 from




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