This chapter appeared as Chapter 2.3 in “The Blackwell Companion to Social Work: 4th Edition” by Martin Davies, published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2013.

  • What is adolescence?
  • Lifespan theory as an aid to understanding adolescence
  • Social change
  • The importance of the family
  • Risk and vulnerability
  • Antisocial behaviour
  • The promotion of resilience


What is adolescence?

This stage of life is a challenge for many. For parents the teenage years bring with them a host of uncertainties and difficulties, whilst for professionals there is much that is troubling and troublesome when working with adolescents. It is important, however, not to over-emphasise the negatives. In many respects the teenage years can be a positive life stage, during which even those suffering adversity can demonstrate strengths and resources to a surprising extent.

There are many different ways to define adolescence, but for the purposes of this chapter it will be taken to mean the second decade of life. Broadly speaking this fits with the period of secondary education. Having said this, however, there are many caveats to note. First, there are a variety of different indicators of maturity used by various agencies concerned with young people. The age of criminal responsibility is 10 in Britain, compared with the age of consent to sexual behaviour which is set at 16. An individual can get married at 16, join the Army at 17, and cast the vote at 18. In addition, originating in the field of health, there is the concept of “Gillick competence” (developed in more detail in the Fraser guidelines), both of which avoid chronological age whilst emphasising the intellectual and social maturity of the individual young person.

A further complication arises from the fact that the boundaries of adolescence are changing. In some respects adolescence can be seen to be starting earlier and ending later than was the case for previous generations. Puberty for some girls starts before the age of 10. At the other end of the scale, and as a result of the changing labour market and scarcity of jobs for young people, many individuals in late adolescence or early adulthood remain dependent on their parents. Thus no definition of adolescence is entirely straight-forward, and many of these uncertainties will become apparent during the course of the chapter.


Lifespan theory as an aid to understanding adolescence

The easiest way to understand adolescence as a psychological process is to see it as a transition from childhood to adulthood. By looking at it as a transition many of the puzzling aspects of behaviour become less of a mystery. It is worth remembering that all transitions have characteristics in common. These include:

  • An eager anticipation of the future;
  • A sense of regret for the stage that has been lost;
  • A feeling of anxiety in relation to the future;
  • A major psychological re-adjustment;
  • A degree of uncertainty about the individual’s status during the transition.

As will be readily apparent, all these characteristics apply in important ways to the adolescent stage of development. In addition to the emphasis on understanding transitions, lifespan theory has some key elements which are helpful in making sense of the adolescent period. First, there is continuity. By this is meant that adolescence does not arrive out of the blue. The adolescent is very much the product of his or her childhood experiences, and the process of development involves a gradual change and movement towards adulthood rather than an abrupt shift from one stage to the next. Another element of lifespan theory has to do with context. It is argued that we cannot understand the individual unless we take into account the historical time and the environment in which development is occurring.

A third element of the theory concerns the timing of major life events. This is especially significant for adolescents, and refers to the fact that the number of life events occurring at the same time influences the degree of stress experienced. The more life events there are that occur simultaneously, the more stress there will be. Finally life span theory emphasises the notion of agency, an idea which is closely linked to the search for autonomy and independence so central to adolescent development. The notion of agency refers to the fact that the adolescent will be playing an active role in shaping the context in which he or she develops. This concept has important implications for interventions, and it is one to which we will return at the end of the chapter.


Social change

Adolescence is very much affected by social change. The experiences of young people growing up today are not the same as those of previous generations. This is a point that is central to life span theory, and one that has already been noted in the suggestion that the boundaries of adolescence have altered. This has occurred both because of biological change and as a result of shifting social circumstances. There are many different ways in which social change impacts on adolescence. The main areas of note include the changing family, the nature of education and the labour market, alterations in concerns about health matters, globalisation, diversity in culture and ethnicity, and the impact of the digital world. There is only space here to make a few brief points on this topic.

Of all aspects of social change, it is probably the changing family that has the greatest influence on the way individuals experience the adolescent stage of life. The increase in the numbers of children and young people growing up in families headed by a lone parent is one obvious change that has affected societies in the Western world. Other shifts include an increase in step-families and what are known as blended families, the changing role of the father, and an increased role for grand-parents as older people live more active lives.

While not wishing to underplay the other aspects of social change, it is clearly very important to point out the effect that alterations in education and the labour market have on young people. As has been noted, there are many ways in which maturity is defined in our society, but it is probably the achievement of financial independence that is the most salient. The fact that this has been gradually shifting further and further into young adulthood is of central significance for our understanding of the adolescent stage of life. The postponement of financial independence leads to alterations in such fundamental things as self-concept, autonomy, and relationships within the family.


The importance of the family

This idea leads on to a consideration of the role of the family for adolescent development. Three topics will covered here: parenting styles, the impact of divorce and family breakdown for adolescents, and recent work on support for parents of teenagers. Looking first at parenting styles, there has been a great deal of research on this subject over recent years. Broadly speaking studies show that the authoritative style of parenting leads to the best outcomes for young people. This style is contrasted with the authoritarian, indulgent and indifferent styles of parenting. It is agreed that the authoritative parenting style includes warmth, the provision of structure, and the encouragement of age-appropriate autonomy.

As far as divorce and family breakdown is concerned, it is evident that adolescents can be just as affected by these experiences as younger children. What is clear, however, is that it is not the divorce itself that is most significant, but what has happened before in the family, and what happens afterwards in terms of family relationships. The most damaging experience for teenagers is to be “caught in the middle” where there is continuing parental conflict following divorce. By contrast adolescents can do very well if they are able to maintain good relationships with the non-residential parent, and if their own needs are recognised.

There has been much work done in the last decade or so on parenting programmes for parents of this age group. This has come about in Britain partly due to Government policy relating to the use of Parenting Orders, and the objective of supporting parents of young people in the youth justice system. However practitioners have also shown an interest in the growth of new programmes, such as the development of Triple P from Australia, for use with a wider group of parents. Much has been learnt about how best to deliver these programmes, and there is no doubt that this is a field which will continue to develop in the future.

To conclude this section it is important to note that parents of teenagers matter. They matter just as much as the parents of younger children, but they matter in different ways. Research shows that the involvement of parents during the adolescent years can make a major difference to outcomes, whether these are to do with educational achievement, health behaviours, the development of values, or future employment. It is not uncommon for parents to believe the opposite, since their sons and daughters may be sending the message that at this stage their friends are more important than their parents. Practitioners can and should take every opportunity to address this false belief. Parents, and carers, have a central role to play during these years. The more this can be disseminated, the better it will be for adolescent development.


Risk and vulnerability

There are, of course, a multitude of risks that may affect the development of an adolescent. These may include poverty, racism, living in a deprived neighbourhood, war, natural disasters, family dysfunction and parental illness, abuse, neglect, and so on. Early studies tended to look at each of these individually, but it became clear that risk factors often co-occur, so that it is the accumulation of risks that leads to the greatest adversity for a young person. Many writers have opted to consider risks in terms of whether they fall into the categories of individual, family or social factors. These can be defined as follows:

  • Individual factors: anxious or irritable temperament, low intelligence, poor health, hyperactivity, low frustration tolerance;
  • Family factors: parental ill-health, chronic conflict or domestic violence, involvement in crime, harsh or erratic punishment, death of a parent;
  • Community factors: poverty, poor housing, ethnic conflict, dysfunctional schooling, crime rate, lack of role models, low community cohesion.

Obviously not everyone is affected by risk factors to the same extent, and this leads on to a consideration of what are known as protective factors. These are often classified in the same way as risk factors: i.e. they are divided into individual, family and community factors. As an example it may be considered that good schools, strong social cohesion, high profile role models in the community, and adequate housing may all be community protective factors. In attempting to understand the impact of adversity on the individual young person it is necessary to take into account the balance of risks and protective factors. Many commentators have emphasised that the two processes interact, and that it is only by considering both that we can come to any conclusions about the vulnerability of any one individual.

Some conclusions that can be drawn from the literature on risk in adolescence are as follows:

  • The major risk factors for young people tend to be those that are chronic rather than acute:
  • The more serious the risk, or the greater number of risk factors, the stronger the protective factors will need to be to overcome adversity;
  • The circumstances that tend to lead to the greatest vulnerability are those where there is an accumulation of risk, rather than those where there is only one risk factor present.


Anti-social behaviour

There are many different spheres of risk that could be selected to illustrate in more detail how young people’s lives can be affected by adverse circumstances. Sexual exploitation or abuse, placement in care or custody, having poor mental health, being excluded from school, and so on are all examples of situations posing a threat to the health and welfare of this age group. Given limitations on space involvement in anti-social behaviour will be chosen here as one topic through which to illustrate some more general conclusions.

The first point to note is that there are many types of anti-social behaviour, as is the case with other types of risk. One key conclusion from the longitudinal studies of anti-social behaviour has been that there are different trajectories of involvement in criminal activity. In particular it is important to make a distinction between anti-social behaviour that is life-course persistent and that which is adolescence-limited. Research shows that there is a small group who show clear signs of difficulty in early childhood. These are the life-course persistent group, and in adolescence they account for a larger proportion of the criminal behaviour in the population than would be warranted by their numbers. They are also less likely to desist from crime in early adulthood than those who follow other trajectories.

Young men are significantly more likely to engage in criminal behaviour than are young women, yet rates of male youth crime have fallen since the mid-1990s, whilst this is not true for female youth crime. Factors associated with anti-social behaviour include having a family member involved in crime, as well as parental neglect, harsh or erratic discipline, poverty, and living in neighbourhoods with high levels of community risk factors.

Much has been learnt about the possible interventions available for those involved in antisocial behaviour. These include the development of the young person’s social and cognitive skills, the enhancement of parenting strategies, the modification of disadvantaged environments, and the support of positive peer groups. Studies of interventions show that opportunities for employment are possibly the most powerful of all options, but that in addition those interventions which are multi-modal are more likely to be successful than those that concentrate on one modality at a time.


The promotion of resilience

It is only too easy in the world of practice to concentrate on the problems and difficulties faced by young people in disadvantaged circumstances. Indeed a portion of this chapter has been devoted to risk and vulnerability. Nonetheless there has in recent years been a welcome move within social work and other disciplines to develop an approach which has more of a focus on the positive capabilities of the individual. This is sometimes known as a strengths-based approach, or the use of an asset model. This is linked with an increasing interest in young people’s participation, and a growing recognition that adolescents can have a role to play in the development of policy and service planning.

These trends are closely associated with work on the promotion of resilience. Such work identifies the protective factors that may be available for any individual young person, and attempts to reinforce these, or harness them in the service of adolescent development. One aspect of this work relates to the notion of agency mentioned at the beginning of the chapter. The theory here is that, while adults believe that it is their influence which determines events, in reality it is the young person who is shaping and constructing their own environment. This is a central concept for any intervention. If professional adults are able to work collaboratively with the adolescent there is a much greater chance of success than if they assume that it is the adult who is in control of events.

At first sight it may seem a tall order to find ways of promoting resilience in young people facing serious adversities in their lives. Yet a number of commentators have suggested ways in which it is possible to do this. Sometimes this requires a different way of thinking about young people involving a focus on the strengths rather than the weaknesses. At other times it demands an approach which concentrates on how to limit risk and promote whichever protective factors that are available. Here are some suggestions:

  • Reduce the young person’s exposure to risk. This may involve changing the environment, finding safe spaces for the young person to work or study, or offering more contact with positive role models.
  • Interrupt the chain reaction that occurs after negative events. Key events such bereavement, trauma, coming into contact with the police, or change in living circumstances may all lead to a downward spiral. Intervention at these times can make a significant difference.
  • Offer the young person positive experiences that play to their strengths, or enhance whatever protective factors are available.
  • Lastly, remember the notion of agency. The young person will be hard at work constructing a life for themselves, even in adversity. The choices they make may not be positive ones, but the goal should be to help them make better choices, rather than impose someone else’s choices on them.


Fiver Key Points

  1. Many factors affect the definition and understanding of adolescence, including concepts of puberty, social change, and differing legislative and policy criteria for identifying the age of maturity.
  2. Lifespan theory is a helpful way to look at adolescent development. Concepts of transition, continuity, context, the timing of events, and agency all contribute to a better understanding of this stage of life.
  3. Parents of adolescents matter. They matter just as much as parents of younger children, but they matter in a different way. Parents and carers have a key role to play in providing support and engaging with young people’s lives.
  4. Some adolescents suffer more adversity than others. It is therefore important to consider the risk factors that may affect young people’s lives, and these are often categorised as being either individual, family and community risks. It is the accumulation of risk that creates the greatest adversity.
  5. In understanding outcomes for young people it is necessary to consider the combination of risk and protective factors. It is possible to promote resilience by enhancing protective factors, or by taking a strengths-based approach as part of any intervention.


Questions for Discussion

The family is changing. How have the changes in the family which have occurred over the past 20 years affected adolescent development?

Young people face many risks during the adolescent years. To what extent are these an inevitable part of growing up in our society?

It will be easier to promote resilience in some adolescents than in others. Discuss the factors that may facilitate or hinder the promotion of resilience.


Further Reading

Coleman, J (2011) The nature of adolescence: 4th Edition. Routledge. London.

Coleman, J and Hagell, A (Eds.)(2007) Adolescence: risk and resilience. John Wiley. Chichester.

Hagell, A (2012). Changing adolescence: social trends and mental health. Policy Press. Bristol.