The Story of Adolescence as told by Psychology, Sociology, Neuroscience, and Others

In my last post, “Opposition as Advocacy,” I raised the question, “if opposition in itself is not a problem, could it be a means to a desired outcome?” I say, yes!  I made the claim, “To make a difference, bring about a change, or move forward sometimes requires opposition or a fight.” I support my claim of opposition as advocacy, especially as it is illustrated by the Civil Rights Movement and the call to every social worker to challenge the status quo on behalf of their clients. But why is opposition as advocacy supported and encouraged by social workers and activists, while it is seen as a negative and a threat when associated with adolescents?


In my previous post, I challenged the story that is still with us today of adolescence as a period of storm and stress and the image of the adolescent depicted as moody, unstable, irresponsible, and incompetent.

 “Their rebellion is doomed against the mature orders of the world,”  writes Stephen Marcher.

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The video of the adolescents in Bronx transforming New York’s segregated schools would suggest otherwise.

According to Amanda Ripley “teenage rebellion can be virtuous—even wholesome—depending on the situation.”

In this post, I will continue to discuss the image of the adolescent and how we have come to understand the adolescent by examining the stories of adolescence and the adolescent told by psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and other disciplines.



Many stories or theories cast adolescence as a transitional period, where the adolescent is focused on identity development and crisis; is impacted by the environment; experiences body and hormonal changes; displays irresponsible or poor judgment, selfishness, and bad behavior; is in search of independence; and needs to separate from family. The value of the adolescent and this stage of their life differs based on the adolescent’s family and culture.

Laurence Steinberg writes in Age of Opportunity (2014) “adolescence is not a deficiency, a disease, or disability, but is a stage of life when people are less mature than they will be when they are adults.” He uses the term “adolescence” to refer to ages10 to 25.” Steinberg goes on to claim that adolescence is a “stage of development that begins with puberty and ends with economic and social independence of the young person from his or her parents.”

Steinberg argues that adolescence is a “remarkable period of brain organization and plasticity.” It is a time when “the brain is sensitive to experience” and he urges adults to be careful and thoughtful about the experiences we give to persons in adolescence as they develop from childhood into adulthood. He goes on to describe how “adolescence is when we acquire the last set of skills and capabilities we need to be able to function independently and, most importantly, to survive.” According to Steinberg, persons who are able to stay in adolescence longer are “lucky and may actually have an advantage,” as long as the environment is supportive and continues to stimulate and challenge without “causing harm that can assault a malleable brain.”

n her TED talk, Sarah Jayne-Blakemore gives an overview of neuroscience’s understanding of the adolescent brain, and she stresses the importance of brain development in adolescence and why it is important that adults understand the adolescent’s brain.

Both Steinberg and Blakemore describe the period of adolescence as one of opportunity and potential harm for the adolescent. I differ on a few points, primarily with the idea that the goal of adolescence is for the person to emerge one-hundred-percent separate and independent or that persons are mutually exclusive of one another. But, both speak with respect and optimism about adolescence. You get a clearer picture of a developing, capable, and competent person who, with the right support and guidance, can flourish, but also who, with lack of support or ignorance, as well as other factors such as abuse and neglect, can develop mental health conditions.

Steinberg writes, “whatever story adult society tells about adolescents at any given moment is one that portrays young people in a way that best serves the needs of adults.”

I encourage you to consider the ideas in this post and to ask yourself, are you supporting the adolescents in your life or with whom you work with experiences that stimulate and challenge, thereby fostering growth and development, or are you creating and contributing to the problems and challenges of the adolescent, which may cause harm during this sensitive and developing time?

If you feel challenged by my question and the ideas I present, I want you to think about why it bothers you. Why should you consider the part you play in the development of the health and wellbeing of the adolescent with whom you are connected? Why does it matter?

Consider John Russon’s challenge in his book, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life. He argues that we need to free ourselves from the traditional prejudices that we are one-hundred-percent separate beings, are fully present at all times and in total control as actors on our own behalf, and create connections and influence others as separate beings. This prejudice implies that connection follows the act of experiencing one another as disconnected and uninvolved beings. Only after this experience do we come to establish a relationship.

Russon argues the opposite, and that we experience a situation in which all participants are already connected and involved with one another, already shaped and defined by others. In Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities, Combs and Freedman write that, as people, we are “born into stories … we become who we are through relationship—how others perceive us and interact with us and how we make meaning of the social interaction.”

The person and the other are not independent but interdependent, and they are already in connection and involved with one another. The one exists in relation to the other, and they are not separate beings. Russon challenges us to embrace this human reality. If you think this way about your connection and involvement with the adolescent in your life and work, you will understand and experience the adolescent in humanly ways.

We will continue to explore the stories of adolescence and adolescents told by others and by adolescents themselves and what is HUMANLY WAYS?

Don’t forget to let me know what you think about the ideas in this post. What do you think I am suggesting by “humanly ways”?

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