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Overview of Adolescent Development: Part III

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Morally, adolescents can mature in significant ways. As the adolescent mind matures and become increasingly capable of handling abstract concepts, this influences their moral judgments. According to the theorist Piaget, adolescents move beyond a simplistic sense of fairness based on exact reciprocity. Instead, teens will begin to make moral decisions based on ideal reciprocity which is best described as a modified version of the Golden Rule, and includes a consideration of someone's best interests. Piaget's theory considers ideal reciprocity the final stage of moral development. However, research has not been able to completely substantiate Piaget's theory of moral development

smiling teenagerIn contrast, recent research has tended to support Kohlberg's six stage theory of moral development, which borrowed heavily from Piaget's earlier work (Colby, Kohlberg, Gibbs & Lieberman, 1983; Rest, 1986; Walker, 1989; Walker and Taylor, 1991). Kohlberg theorized younger adolescents are heavily influenced by the opinions of other people and make moral decisions based on how their decision might be judged by people who are important to them. Some adolescents will move on to next highest level of maturity where moral decisions are made based on what they believe is best for the larger society. Finally, a few adolescents may reach the highest level of moral development, where moral decisions are guided by a set of ethical principles that may even supersede commonly accepted rules and laws.

Sexually, youth experience new sexual urges as their sexual interest climbs during adolescence. In early adolescence, youth develop a general interest in sex and sexual topics and often begin to masturbate during this time. As teens grow older, sexual activity usually increases in both frequency and/or intensity and may include both masturbation and partnered sex. By late adolescence, some youth are continuing to experience casual romantic and sexual relationships, but others are forming long-term, committed relationships.

Adolescents also solidify their gender identities. Most youth will establish a single gender identity that corresponds to their biological sex; however, a minority of youth will identify themselves as transgendered, meaning their gender identity does not necessarily align with their biological sex. Usually this is described as having a physical body of one gender but the emotional and psychological makeup of the opposite gender, or both genders.

Adolescents also explore and begin to understand their sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is usually described along a continuum ranging from a pattern of heterosexual attraction to the opposite gender ("straight"), to a pattern of homosexual attraction to the same gender ("gay" or lesbian) with bi-sexual attraction in the center.

As is evident from this brief overview, adolescent development is multi-faceted. While it is necessary to discuss each of these developmental dimensions separately, we hope the reader does not loose sight of the inter-relationships among these various aspects of development. For instance, as children's minds become capable of handling abstract information, their moral judgments change accordingly. Similarly, as children develop greater emotional maturity, their social relationships change and become more intimate.

Furthermore, as we have emphasized throughout this series of child development articles, each child will mature according to their own unique timetable. The following sections will more thoroughly explain and explore each of these developmental areas and discuss the developmental milestones that occur along the way.