Transitioning to Teaching Online – Contemporary Issues in Youth Development, Chapter 2: Adolescence

This is another post in my series on developing my Adolescent and Youth Development for Youthworkers class as an online course for this fall. The series begins with Part 1.

This is “Chapter” 2 of the interactive and experiential OER I will develop with my students this fall. This will likely be module 2 / week 2 of the course.

Chapter Overview: “Adolescence” – Adolescence is a psychological framing given to young people (typically in their teenage years) that is age-based and understands them as “developing” along a psychological trajectory. Importantly, this framing typically differentiates between what a person is and is not capable of doing/thinking. What are psychological models of understanding youth? What do they offer us? How do they impact our ways of understanding youth or ourselves?

Learning Aims: As a result of participating in this “chapter”, participants will be able to:

  • Know that the phrase “adolescence” is historically associated with psychological theories of development stemming from people like Sigmund Freud and G. Stanley Hall.
  • Understand that “adolescence” is one of many ways of understanding youth development, and that it is invested in age-based delineations of mental limitations/abilities.
  • Connect ideas of adolescence to ways they were raised in the schools, communities, and programs that constituted their lifeworld.
  • Apply this lens to understanding a youth program.

Part 1: A Brief History of “Adolescence”

My family and I recently decided we would raise chickens. COVID-19 meant we were home all the time anyway, and we wanted to get a pet. I have terrible allergies, so we needed an outdoor pet. Hence, chickens. As part of our preparation for having baby chicks at home, we got a book that guides us through, week by week, the stages of a chicken’s development. As I write this, our chickens are basically “teenagers” – somewhere between the stage of chick and adult chicken.

Though human bodies develop and grow (much like chickens, though very differently), there hasn’t always been a singular idea of how we move from childhood to adulthood. In other words, the period of life referred to as “adolescence” has not always existed. Though many societies throughout the world have long differentiated between children and adults (think of the ways that many cultural / religious groups have initiation rites for a child to become an adult), the term “adolescent” did not take shape in the ways we currently conceive of it until a little over a hundred years ago. In the interim, it has become a powerful – perhaps the primary – way we understand teenagers. “Adolescence” is an age- and stage- graded frame for thinking about development that is attached to psychological and physical development. Because this frame of thinking is so prolific, many of us (especially outside of Youth Studies) have difficulty thinking of youth in any other way!

How did this particular way of framing youth development become the “Kleenex” of youth development? Let’s explore…

Read: Selections from G. Stanley Hall

Respond: In, respond as you read. What resonates with you? What is upsetting? Why?

Watch (or read transcript): Adolescence

  • This provides a brief summary of a number of ideas in the history of thinking on adolescent development.

Collaboratively Develop: In a shared Google Document, we are going to collaboratively develop a critical glossary of ideas of adolescence. Your purpose is to find 3 terms about adolescent development (that have not been used yet) and provide a definition. It’s fine if you copy and paste someone else’s definition – just make sure to cite it with a link and put it in quotations.

A critical glossary starts as a standard glossary – using the definitions provided by others, but goes a step further. In a standard glossary, terms are defined as if they are the truth! But we need to remember that the people who created these terms were trying to forward a particular argument about how we should frame young people! A critical glossary helps the reader identify the framing that gives us this idea or the result of that framing. For example,

  • puberty – the age at which a person is first capable of sexual reproduction (source). This definition focuses exclusively on physical changes in the body, obscuring changes in an individual’s identity, social interactions, psychological development, and the ways that others see and interact with them.

So, most importantly – add sentence that explains – when you frame a young person using this language, what does it do to how we see them?

  • This slideshow has a number of definitions of terms in adolescent development.
  • Please cite your source – a link is all you need.

Hint: If you are getting stuck, define some of the people referenced – what does Piaget say, for example?

Part II: Modern Ideas of Adolescence

One of the key elements of ideas of adolescence that arguably began with folks like G. Stanley Hall is the notion of age-/stage-grading. This frame believes that at certain ages or stages, a person is capable of certain things and incapable of others. Again, this idea of youth development is so powerfully ingrained in how we think of youth that it is difficult to conceptualize a frame that doesn’t involve some notion of evolving capabilities over the course of childhood, youthhood, and adulthood.

Image result for jean piaget stages of development

Though arguably they have not lost their connection to psychological development or age-/stage-grading, adolescent development ideas have evolved over the years. Here, we use Dan Siegel and Richard Lerner to examine those changes.

Watch: Dan Siegel – Myths of the Adolescent Brain

Watch: Richard Lerner – The 5 C’s of Adolescent Development


  • How do the ideas of people like Dan Siegel and Richard Lerner challenge some of the ways adolescence was framed by G. Stanley Hall and associates?

Investigate: Here’s a few options for investing this further…

  • Read: Find an article in a publication – online or print – that talks about teenagers or adolescents. What ideas do you notice from our critical glossary or from modern ideas of adolescent development? If you were visiting from another planet and read this article, how would you understand this “adolescent” person?
  • Journal: Think back to your own “adolescence” – how were you treated by others based on these ideas of what an adolescent is? Can you think of a time where someone broke out of these ideas?

Part III: Being Seen as “Adolescent”

Mind Mapping: Create your own age- or stage-graded model of youth development based on transformations in your own thinking / doing / acting/behaving in your childhood/youthhood. Try to think of a few major changes you can remember. For example, though I cannot remember why this happened, I remember that as a younger child I had “friends that were girls” and that at some point those friendships faded away (they of course came back). This might be a “stage” of my development. Our ages/stages might feel very problematic or embarrassing to our present selves (as does my example above).

You will not be asked to share your entire model, though it would be great if you would be willing to share at least one “stage” of your model.

Part IV: One Lens Among Many

Source: Flickr

Extend Mind Map: What does your model of adolescent development miss about you?

For example, earlier I shared that female friends disappeared from my life (age 7? 8?) for a while. This was easy to characterize as a “stage” of development based on my development age. One might say, “around the age of 7, individuals begin the work of differentiation, with relationships transforming to be closer to some and further from others. One way this typically happens is differentiations about gender.”

Here’s where we can extend our mind map: my family did a lot of work gendering my sister and I growing up. Though I don’t remember them saying anything like, “boys shouldn’t be friends with girls,” this gendering took place in terms of what they encouraged me to wear, to do/not do, and so on. By age 7 or 8, with no negative intentions on the part of my family (I assume), I was developing a strong idea of what it meant to be a “boy”. G. Stanley Hall would argue this is natural – that boys are meant to develop in this way (and that, if they do not, there’s something wrong with them). However, I think if my family saw gender differently, I might have learned to do so as well.

So in this case, my model of adolescent development misses all of the familial and societal messages I received about what it meant to be a boy (remember back from Chapter 1?). For arguments about adolescent development to work, they have to be rooted in an argument about the “nature” of our minds/bodies.

Return to your mind map and extend it by providing the context that each developmental stage missed. What happened that made this “stage” happen the way that it did? What do you think could have happened that would have made this “stage” turn out very differently?

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