There's a First Time for Everything: Understanding Adolescence

By Siegel, Janna; Shaughnessy, Michael F. | Adolescence, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

There's a First Time for Everything: Understanding Adolescence


Siegel, Janna, Shaughnessy, Michael F., Adolescence


Much has been written about the phenomenon of adolescence. Erikson developed the idea of the "identify crisis" (1963); Kohlberg (1971) discussed moral development, and Sullivan (1953) examined the place of the "chum" and peer relations in adolescence.

Marcia (1966, 1980) contributed the idea of identity diffusion, moratorium, identity achieved, and other major constructs relative to the adolescent years. Elkind's construct of the personal fable does much to explain the behavior of teenagers. Piaget also discussed the cognitive changes in adolescence, the rise of formal operations, and hypothesis testing. However these theorists have only partially explained the pervasive emotional elements of adolescence.

Adolescence is a time of one's first kiss, first dance, first job, first date, first crush, and first "love." Childhood had been a period of "make believe" with much adult supervision. In adolescence, the teenager is confronted with "the real thing" for the first time.

A common thread that runs throughout these theories is the idea of a new awakening, or a fresh perspective. The "first time" is a crucial time for an adolescent - be it a first handholding, or a first sexual encounter - it is heavily weighted with a flood of feelings never before encountered by the adolescent who may not be emotionally prepared for that first encounter. It is suggested here that the glory and trauma of adolescence is due to the intensity of these events.

This is not to say that children under the age of 12 do not have feelings or dreams, but that the cognitive and emotional awareness that accompanies adolescence compounds the effects. The teenager begins to develop a new perspective on interpersonal relationships.

Friendships

An example would be friendships. During this period, peers become of critical importance. Adolescents believe that their friendships will last forever. But as they grow into adulthood, they find that "wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine" and that their peer group is leaving for different places including colleges. Sullivan (1953) wrote about the importance of a "chum." The chum is an integral part of adolescence and also lays a foundation for later adult relationships. Berndt (1982, 1986) investigated the phenomenon of friendship during adolescence and the role it plays in the transition to adulthood. The "best friend" becomes critical for many adolescents as the parents' role as confidante diminishes. Peers become the new support system.

Adolescent Views of Time

Prior to adolescence, children do not look extensively toward the future. Usually, they are self- and ego-centered in the present. As adolescents they can perceive a future, but the future they perceive may be identical to the present. How they feel today is how they think they will feel tomorrow. If they are in love, they will be in love forever; their friends will be friends for a lifetime; if their heart is broken, this is how they will always feel. They may not completely understand that their intense passion or pain will pass with time and they may not have developed the skills for coping with the trauma, for example, of a lost love.

One explanation is that for many adolescents it is the first time for these intense feeling. Thus, they cannot understand that others may feel the same way, or that one day they may feel differently.

They are convinced that no one has ever loved as they have, or been hurt as deeply, or felt the same exhilaration or depth of anxiety. There is a desperation to adolescent "first times" - a desperation to engage in the behaviors other adolescents are enjoying. They emulate their peer group in an attempt to be part of it. They are jealous of what other adolescents have - be it a car, a job, girl/boyfriend.

This desperation may also reflect earlier deprivation. If teenagers have not received much love from their parents or have come from a single-parent home, or have not been able to form relationships, there is an inordinate sense of loss. …

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