How Long Does Adolescence Last?

The developmental stage squeezed between childhood and adulthood is called adolescence. It corresponds more or less with certain physical changes, like puberty, but is really defined more by  psychological changes that have to take place in order for an individual to mature. Those changes do not occur sequentially and in an entirely orderly way. There is considerable moving back and forth along certain behavioral dimensions before it can reasonably be said that a real transformation has taken place; and someone is at last grown up. These are some of those changes:

  1. Growth into adulthood requires that the individual considers and then finally determines his/her own values, rather than simply accepting parental values, or, worse, simply rebelling against parental values. This means, for instance, deciding how religiously observant one wants to be. The transition is from going to church—or not going to church—because that it the way one is brought up, to deciding for oneself to follow that tradition or to do something different–even if parents disapprove. Similarly, there are sexual customs inculcated during the period of growing up which inevitably change. How much of a change depends on the particular person. Attitudes  about the importance or relative unimportance of money– or about the various roles of men and women—all begin to take shape. They are unlikely to change further during adulthood. Political opinions, like many of these other values, are likely to be those of parents; but not necessarily. Family arguments about all these matters are not uncommon. This emotional development is often described as separating from parents.
  2. Young men and women spend more time away from home as time goes on, particularly if they are away at college. Most experience homesickness to a greater or lesser extent; but this distress is transient. The greater challenge is to make friends among strangers in unfamiliar circumstances. Special social skills must be developed. The ability to feel comfortable meeting people at a party or in a lecture hall full of strangers does not come naturally; it must be learned. The ability to feel comfortable in new situations in new places is a sign of maturity, although even those who are fully grown will still feel uncomfortable from time to time at a new job or in an entirely new setting such as the armed services. Still, a feeling of self-confidence grows in fits and starts throughout adolescence.
  3. Sexual growth, which means becoming comfortable in sexual situations, begins. This adjustment, too, does not come naturally without anxieties and doubts. It is not just the relatively simple matter of how to perform sexually, it is about the social expectations young people have about sexual behavior at different times and places, and at different ages. It is a matter of learning what is proper sexual behavior— and what is considered proper changes as individuals grow older. In general, what was considered completely inappropriate in childhood becomes commonplace in adults. This change takes place over a matter of years, usually a little at a time.

Many young people have to wrestle with issues of sexual orientation, that is, sexual attraction to those of the same or opposite sex. These are matters still charged with ethical considerations.

4. Growing up includes deciding what work to do. Both men and women are expected these days to work. To a considerable extent they are defined by the work they choose to do and are capable of doing. Certain professions have more status than others, and imply somewhat different life styles. It is not possible when considering potential marital partners to rise above these considerations, even if one is in love. People strive to succeed. What constitutes success is a debatable matter which each person has to decide over time. Simply making a lot of money is not enough for most people.

What is obvious in the matter of work—namely, that people can head off in a different direction even at an advanced age—is true also for the other psychological dimensions which must be traversed in growing up. Contrary to conventional wisdom, some men and women can switch sexual orientation late in life. Certainly, attitudes about work can change. Changes take place throughout life, but the capacity to change takes place during adolescence.

So, how long does adolescence last? Adolescence lasts in some ways for a long time; longer than most people think; and in some ways, in certain people, growth can be stunted. Some young men and women never mature socially or sexually. Probably a great number never find work that is satisfying and fulfilling over an entire lifetime. Still, adolescence is usually thought of as taking place during those years when these challenges are first confronted. Therapists speak of the teen age years—extending often into the mid-twenties. If someone is still immature in later life, he is not likely to be regarded as adolescent.  (c) Fredric Neuman Author of “Caring.”