The the fruit. Some individuals have difficulty






The Science of Adolescent Development

Pankaj Bhatta

William Carey University













This paper tells us how to study adolescent development effectively, so we can make a room for more exploration and discoveries regarding the subject matter. The paper explains the scientific method that can be applied to the adolescent development studies. The articles and books used as the sources in this paper unfold the step-wise process of the development. Smith, 2013, suggests the scientific methods, theories and research are the primary categories for studying adolescent development. Scientific methods teach us how to conceptualize a process,

collect research information (data), analyse data, and draw conclusions. Theories help set up coherent ideas or understandings that explains the process and make predictions. Finally, research helps us test the theories, compare it to other similar theories, and approve or reject them depending on their practicality or usage. The science of adolescent development goes through these three scientific cycles to give us a better knowledge of it.

Keywords: scientific methods, theories, research, adolescent development








To define in brief, adolescent development is the study of developmental activities happening in adolescents. However, to study the developmental activities, one might have to dig very deep to get the fruit. Some individuals have difficulty thinking of adolescent development as being a science in the same way that physics, chemistry, and biology are sciences. Can a discipline that studies pubertal change, parent-adolescent relationships, or adolescent thinking be equated with disciplines that investigate how gravity works and the molecular structure of compounds? The answer is YES because science is not defined by what it investigates but by how it investigates. Whether you are studying photosynthesis, Saturn’s moons, or adolescent development, it is the way you study the subject that matters. So, to understand adolescent development completely, we must study it scientifically just like any other science subjects.

To understand science, we need to know what theory and hypothesis are first. A theory is an interrelated, coherent set of ideas that help explain phenomena and make predictions. And, hypothesis, which are ideas, assertions, predictions that can be tested scientifically. Since, this the study of adolescents’ psychological development, we need to know about psychoanalytic theories as well. Psychoanalytic theories are theories that describe development as primarily unconscious and heavily coloured by emotion. Behaviour is merely a surface characteristic, and the symbolic workings of the mind have to be analysed to understand behaviour. Early experiences with parents are emphasized.

In taking a scientific path to study adolescent development, it is important to follow

the scientific method (Smith, 2013). This method is essentially a four-step process:

(1) conceptualize a process or problem to be studied

(2) collect research information (data),

(3) analyse data, and

(4) draw conclusions.

For any study that needs to be studied systematically, the scientific method is highly effective. Adolescent development is also studied scientifically that’s why we have come to learn a lot about their growth and behaviours’ patterns. When researchers are formulating any problem to study, they often make theories and construct hypothesis (Smith and Rose, 2011). For instance, a theory on restriction might say lots of boundaries and set of rules set by parents at home make children disciplined but not out-going and friendly to other people because it put them in restrictions to many outdoor activities with friends.

Moving on from the scientific method to the heart of the adolescent developmental study i.e. theories of adolescent development, which are the important pieces that help to solve the puzzle of adolescent development. Although the theories disagree about certain aspects of development, many of their ideas are complementary rather than contradictory. Together they let us see the total landscape of adolescent development in all its richness. The key aspects of four theoretical orientation to development are:

1.      Psychoanalytic

2.      Cognitive

3.      Behavioural and socio-cognitive

4.      Ecological

Psychoanalytic theorists emphasize that behaviour is merely a surface characteristic and that a true understanding development requires analysing the symbolic meanings of behaviour and the deep inner workings of the mind. Psychoanalytic theorists also stress that early experiences with parents extensively shape development. These characteristics are highlighted in the main psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud (Freud, 1966).  

There are lots of psychoanalytic theories regarding adolescent development, but Freud’s theory is one of the most studied and important. He talks about his patients in his studies; after analysing his patients, he became convinced that their problems were the result of experiences early in life. He thought that as children grow up, their focus of pleasure and sexual impulses shifts from the mouth to the anus and eventually to the genitals. As a result, according to Freud’s theory, we go through five stages of psychosexual development: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Freud stressed that adolescents’ lives are filled with tensions and conflicts. To reduce conflicts and tensions, he said adolescents bury their problems in their unconscious mind. He further explains, even the trivial matters may have a vast unconscious conflict. They can be triggered by simple things like a twitch, a joke etc. Freud divided personality into three structures: the id, the ego, and the superego (Freud, 1966). The id consists of instincts, which are an individual’s reservoir of psychic energy. In Freud’s view, the id is totally unconscious; it has no contact with reality. As children experience the demands and constraints of reality, a new structure of personality emerges—the ego, which deals with the demands of reality. The ego is called the “executive branch” of personality because it makes rational decisions. The id and the ego have no morality—they do not take into account whether something is right or wrong. The superego is the moral branch of personality. The superego takes into account whether something is right or wrong. The superego as what we often refer to as our “conscience.”

Another important theory to study is Erikson’s psychosocial theory. Erik Erikson recognized Freud’s contributions but argued that Freud misjudged some important dimensions of human development. Erik Erikson recognized Freud’s contributions but argued that Freud misjudged some important dimensions of human development. For one thing, Erikson said we develop in psychosocial stages, rather than in psychosexual stages, as Freud maintained as Freud maintained. Freud says, the primary motivation for human behaviour is sexual in nature; according to Erikson, it is social and reflects a desire to affiliate with other people. In Erikson’s theory, eight stages of development unfold as we go through life (Erikson, 1970). At each stage, a unique developmental task confronts individuals with a crisis that must be resolved (Erikson, 1970). The eight stages of development are:

1.      Integrity versus despair- late adulthood (60s onward)

2.      Generativity versus stagnation – middle adulthood (40s, 50s)

3.      Intimacy versus isolation- early adulthood (20s, 30s)

4.      Identity for identity confusion – adolescence (10 to 20 years)

5.      Industry versus Inferiority – middle and late childhood (6 years to puberty)

6.      Initiative versus guilt – early childhood (3 to 5 years)

7.      Autonomy versus shame and doubt – infancy (1 to 3 years)

8.      Trust versus mistrust – infancy (first year)

Psychoanalytic theories stress the importance of the unconscious whereas, cognitive theories emphasize conscious thoughts. Three important cognitive theories are Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, Vygotsky’s sociocultural cognitive theory, and information-processing theory. Piaget’s theory says that the individuals actively construct their understanding of the world and go through four stages of cognitive development (Piaget, 1972).

1.      Sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years of age) – The infant constructs an understanding of the world by coordinating sensory experiences with physical actions. Some infant progresses from reflexive, instinctual action at birth to the beginning of symbolic thought toward the end of the stage.

2.      Preoperational stage (2 to 7 years of age) – The child begins to represent the world with words and images. These words and images reflect increased symbolic thinking and go beyond the connection of sensory information and physical action.

3.      Concrete operational stage (7 to 11 years of age) – the child can now reason logically about concrete events and classify into different sets.

4.      Formal operational stage (11 years of age through adulthood) – the adolescent reasons in more abstract, idealistic, and logical ways.

Just like Piaget, Russian developmentalist Lev Vygotsky gave social interaction and culture far more important roles in cognitive development than Piaget did. Vygotsky’s theory is a sociocultural cognitive theory that emphasizes how culture and social interaction guide cognitive

development. And, information-processing theory emphasizes that individuals

manipulate information, monitor it, and strategize about it (Kuhn, 2013). Unlike Piaget’s theory, but like Vygotsky’s theory, information-processing theory does not describe development as stage-like (Piaget, 1972). Instead, according to this theory, individuals develop a gradually increasing capacity for processing information, which allows them to acquire increasingly complex knowledge and skills. All these contributions on cognitive theories include a positive view of development and an emphasis on the active construction of understanding.

            Behavioural and social cognitive theories hold the idea that we can scientifically study only those things that we can directly observe and measure. Out of the behavioural tradition grew the belief that development is observable behaviour that can be learned through experience with the environment (Chance, 2014). The behavioural and social cognitive theories emphasize continuity in development and argue that development does not occur in stage-like fashion. Here, we discuss two versions of behaviourism: Skinner’s operant conditioning and Bandura’s social cognitive theory (Bandura, 2009).

According to B. F. Skinner, through operant conditioning, the consequences of a behaviour produce changes in the probability of the behaviour’s occurrence. A behaviour followed by a rewarding stimulus is more likely to recur, whereas a behaviour followed by a punishing stimulus is less likely to recur. In Skinner’s view, such rewards and punishments shape development. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory agree with the behaviourists’ notion that development is learned and is influenced strongly by environmental interactions (Bandura, 2009). However, unlike Skinner, they argue that cognition is also important in understanding development.  The social cognitive theory holds that behaviour, environment, and person/cognition are the key factors in development.

Another theory to discuss is the ecological theory, it has important implications for understanding adolescent development was created by Urie Bronfenbrenner. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory holds that development reflects the influence of five environmental systems: microsystem, mesosystem, exo-system, macrosystem, and chronosystem (Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998). All the theories discussed above are not enough to describe the complex development in adolescents, but each has contributed in understanding the development more.

Research in adolescent development is vital to complete the scientific studying of adolescent development. It determines that one feature of a theory is better than the other. It helps us to pick the better one for more accurate studying. Through scientific research, the features of theories can be tested and refined. Generally, research in adolescent development is designed to test hypotheses, which in some cases are derived from the theories just described. Through research, theories are modified to reflect new data and occasionally new theories arise. Research on adolescent development has increasingly examined applications to the real worlds of adolescents. This research trend involves a search for ways to improve the health and well-being of adolescents (Rosnow & Rosenthal, 2013). To do the research the scientifically, data need to be collected and studied.

Whether we are interested in studying pubertal change, cognitive skills, parent-adolescent conflict, or juvenile delinquency, we can choose from several ways of collecting data. Here we consider the measures most often used, beginning with observation, then survey and interview. It could also be standardized tests, physiological measures, experience sampling methods, case studies, descriptive research, correlational research, experimental research etc. (Rosnow & Rosenthal, 2013).

There also has been a special concern of developmentalists i.e. the time span of a

Research, which investigates studies that focus on the relation of age to some other variable are common. Researchers have two options: They can study different individuals of varying ages and compare them, or they can study the same individuals as the age over time. Cross-sectional research involves studying people all at one Time whereas, Longitudinal research involves studying the same individuals over a period of time, usually several years or more (Reznick, 2013).

Using the three steps i.e. science and scientific method, theories of Adolescent development, and research in adolescent development, we can study the development scientifically, but each step is a long process of finding out the process of development. Although to understand adolescent development can be very complicated, luckily, it can be studied using the scientific methods above to help us understand all the aspects and subjects that adolescent development uses or can be used in near future.


Smith, R. L., & Rose, A. J. (2011). The “cost of caring” in youths’ friendships: Considering

associations among social perspective taking, co-rumination, and empathetic distress. Developmental Psychology, 47, 1792–1803.

Freud, A. (1966). Instinctual anxiety during puberty. In The writings of Anna Freud: The ego

and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1970). Reflections on the dissent of contemporary youth. International Journal of                                                                   

Psychoanalysis, 51, 11–22.

Bandura, A. (2009). Social and policy impact of social cognitive theory. In M. Mark, S.     

Donaldson, & B.  Campbell (Eds.), Social psychology and program/policy evaluation. New York: Guilford.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. (1998). The ecology of developmental processes. In W.    

Damon (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1). New York: Wiley.

Rosnow, R. L., & Rosenthal, R. (2013). Beginning psychological research (7th ed.). Boston:


Reznick, J. S. (2013). Research designs and methods: Toward a cumulative developmental

science. In P. D. Zelazo (Ed.), Handbook of developmental psychology. New York:

Oxford University Press.

Chance, P. (2014). Learning and behavior (7th ed.). Boston: Cengage.

Kuhn, D. (2013). Reasoning. In P. D. Zelazo (Ed.), Oxford handbook of developmental

psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Piaget, J. (1972). Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood. Human Development, 15,