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Lauren Wild and Sharlene Swartz
When I was younger…back then, it was just like: me. You know? My feelings and my
mind and my stuff…But now, you’re thinking of everyone around you…it’s just, like,
snowballed into this huge big picture of, like, everybody that I know: my family, my
school, my friends, boyfriends, where am I going to work one day, what money will I
get in…You know, all these things…You have to learn how to manage your feelings
and stuff. Or else it just gets unmanageable … (Leanne, girl, aged 17, Fish Hoek).
When I was 13 I moved to my aunt in Retreat because things were hectic at
home in Ocean View…. I started high school near my aunt’s house and I was really
nervous because the place was totally different from Ocean View. I met a cool bunch
of friends. We got on well because I could share my feelings with them and they with
me. We would sing and dance around the school. One of my favourite days at school
was a Friday; we would all throw money together and buy pies and chips. We would
talk about where we would live and what we will be one day. (Brian, boy, aged 17,
Ocean View) (Bray, Gooskens, Kahn, Moses & Seekings, 2010, p. 208, 224, 253).
By the end of this chapter you should be able to:
• Critically evaluate the view that adolescence is a period of ‘storm and stress’
• Describe the physical changes associated with puberty, and the psycho-
logical implications of its timing
• Distinguish adolescent thinking from the thinking that is typical of middle
• Describe the impact of parent–child relationships and peer relationships
on adolescents
• Understand how adolescents think about moral issues
• Explain the signicance of the adolescent period for the development of
the self and identity.
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e quotations in the case study above illustrate the experiences of two
adolescents growing up in dierent communities in Cape Town’s Fish
Hoek valley (Bray, Gooskens, Kahn, Moses & Seekings, 2010, p. 208,
224, 253). Adolescence is the period of transition from childhood to
adulthood. It is a recognised stage of life in hundreds of societies across
the world. e adolescent period begins around the onset of puberty,
and ends with the adoption of adult roles such as employment and mar-
riage (Schlegel & Barry, 1991). Although there is disagreement as to
how exactly to dene adolescence, it is often linked to the second decade
of life. Some writers distinguish between early adolescence (11or 12 to
14 years), mid-adolescence (15–17 years) and late adolescence (18–21
years). In South Africa, there are nearly 10,5 million people between the
ages of 10 and 19, comprising more than 20 per cent of the population
(Statistics South Africa, 2011). Adolescents are the largest age group not
only in South Africa, but also in the world ( Richter, 2006).
From a developmental perspective, adolescence is both an exciting
and a challenging time. Physically, adolescents’ bodies are maturing.
Cognitively, they start to think about the world in new ways. Socially,
changing relationships with families and peers play a central role in shap-
ing their experiences. In Western societies, developmental tasks of the
adolescent period include the following:
• Making a successful transition to high school
• Learning academic skills that are needed for higher education or work
• Achieving psychological autonomy
• Forming close friendships with those of the same and opposite sex
• Developing a sense of identity (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 2002).
However, expectations of adolescents are shaped by culture, and by his-
torical and political events. e experience of adolescence, how long it
lasts, and its impacts on later development and well-being are inuenced
by how a particular society thinks about young people, by what demands
and pressure it places on them, and by what rights and opportunities it
provides them with as they make their journey into adulthood.
The ‘terrible teens’?: Views of adolescence
e early view of adolescence was that it is a time of emotional tur-
moil or ‘storm and stress:’ conict with parents, moodiness, and reckless,
antisocial behaviour (Hall, 1904). Anna Freud believed that this turmoil
is universal and biologically based. She said, ‘To be normal during the
adolescent period is by itself abnormal’ (Freud, 1958, p. 267).
the period of human
development in which a
person becomes sexually
mature and capable of
producing a child
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e ‘storm and stress’ idea continues to inuence developmental
research on adolescence. Nowadays, however, many researchers believe
that this idea is incorrect, or at least exaggerated. Certain types of prob-
lems – such as conict with parents, mood disorders, and risk behav-
iour– do occur more often in adolescence than earlier (Arnett, 1999). For
examples, see the discussion in the box headed ‘Adolescent risk behaviour’.
Nevertheless, most adolescents – like Leanne and Brian in the case
study that opened this chapter – cope with the challenges of the ado-
lescent period without developing serious social, emotional, or behav-
ioural diculties (Steinberg & Morris, 2001). us, the storm-and-stress
view has given way to a more balanced view of adolescence as ‘a period
of development characterized by biological, cognitive, emotional, and
social reorganization with the aim of adapting to cultural expectations of
becoming an adult’ (Susman & Rogol, 2004, p. 16).
Adolescent risk behaviour
Risk behaviour can be dened as any behaviour that places a person at
risk for negative physical, psychological or social consequences. These con-
sequences can play out in the short term or the long term. Rates of risk
behaviour tend to peak in the late teens and early twenties (Arnett, 1999).
According to the World Health Organization (2011), nearly two-thirds of
premature deaths are associated with conditions or behaviours that began
in adolescence.
A survey of South African adolescents in grades 8–11 (Reddy et al.,
2010) showed that there is a high prevalence of risk behaviour in various
• Substance use: 30 per cent had smoked cigarettes, 13 per cent had
smoked dagga, and 29 per cent had engaged in binge drinking in the
past month.
• Sexual behaviour: 13 per cent reported having had sex by the age of
13, and 69 per cent of sexually active learners did not use condoms
• Violence: 36 per cent reported having been bullied in the past month,
and 15 per cent reported carrying weapons.
• Trafc safety: 38 per cent reported that in the past month they had
been driven by someone who had been drinking alcohol.
• Eating behaviours: 20 per cent were overweight, and 8 per cent were
• Physical activity: 34 per cent had no physical education in schools, and
29 per cent watched TV or played computer games for more than
3hours per day.
• Suicide-related behaviours: 21 per cent had attempted suicide.
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Physical development
Adolescence is marked by dramatic physical growth and physiologi-
cal changes. e biological changes associated with puberty have been
a longstanding topic for research. More recently, the development of
brain-imaging techniques has led to increased interest in, and under-
standing of, the developing adolescent brain. e biological changes
associated with adolescence are universal. However, the timing and psy-
chological implications of these changes vary across cultures and histori-
cal periods.
Puberty involves a series of biological events that lead to an adult-sized
body and sexual maturity (becoming capable of producing a child).
Puberty is set in motion by hormonal processes – particularly the
so-called sex hormones, androgens and oestrogens. Puberty takes place,
on average, two years earlier in girls than in boys.
The adolescent growth spurt
e rst outward sign of puberty is the adolescent growth spurt: rapid
physical growth. Height and weight increase more quickly at this time
Adolescent growth
the rapid increase in
physical growth that
occurs during adolescence
Risk behaviours tend to cluster together: individuals who engage in one
risk behaviour are more likely to engage in others. Most adolescents report
low levels of risk behaviour. However, about 17 per cent of South African
adolescents report high levels of risk behaviour (Reddy et al., 2010). Cogni-
tive, emotional, biological, and social factors all play a role in whether or not
a particular individual will participate in risk behaviour. For example, the fol-
lowing all increase the chances that an adolescent will engage in risk-taking:
• Ineffective decision-making strategies
• High emotionality and impulsivity
• Insecure attachments to parents
• Limited parental monitoring
• Association with antisocial peers (Boyer, 2006).
The international evidence suggests that information alone or ‘scare tactics’
are ineffective in preventing or reducing adolescent risk behaviour. How-
ever, life-skills programmes that develop adolescents’ personal and social
skills may work. Ideal programmes of this type involve not only adolescents,
but also their families, schools, communities, and policy-makers (Flisher &
Gevers, 2010).
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chapter seven | adolescence
than at any other time since infancy. e adolescent growth spurt usually
begins around the age of 10 or 11 in girls, and 12 or 13 in boys.
Chapter four explained that physical growth in infancy follows a
cephalocaudal (head-to-foot) trend. In adolescence, this pattern of
growth is reversed. At rst, the hands, legs, and feet grow very quickly,
and the trunk or body catches up only later (Sheehy, Gasser, Molinari&
Largo, 1999). is is why young adolescents often appear gangly, awk-
ward, and out of proportion, with long legs and big feet and hands. Sex
dierences also appear in the overall shape of the body. Boys’ shoul-
ders become wider, whereas girls’ hips broaden relative to the shoulders
Changes in primary sexual characteristics
e primary sexual characteristics are those that involve the reproductive
organs (ovaries, uterus, and vagina in females; penis, scrotum, and testes
in males). As a result of the changes that occur in these characteristics
during puberty, individuals become sexually mature and capable of pro-
ducing a child. Around the age of 12 or 13, girls experience menarche
(the rst menstrual period) and boys start to produce viable sperm and
experience their rst ejaculation, or semenarche.
Development of secondary sexual characteristics
Secondary sexual characteristics are characteristics that are visible on
the outside of the body and serve as additional signs of sexual matu-
rity. Secondary sexual characteristics are not directly related to reproduc-
tion, which is why they are called secondary. ey include things such as
breasts in girls, pubic and underarm hair, and deepening voices, particu-
larly in boys.
The timing of puberty
Like other aspects of development, the timing of puberty varies, depend-
ing on complex interactions between genetic factors and environmental
factors. Many girls are reaching puberty earlier nowadays than in the
past. In the 1950s, the average age of menarche for urban black girls in
South African was between 14 and 15 years; today, it is between 12and
13 years (Jones, Griths, Norris, Pettifor & Cameron, 2009). is
change is probably due to improved nutrition and health care; menarche
occurs earlier in heavier, well-nourished girls than in girls who are not
well-nourished. Girls who experience stressful family lives are more likely
to experience early menarche than those whose family lives are not stress-
ful, perhaps because stress aects hormonal functioning (Chisholm,
Quinlivan, Petersen & Coall, 2005). Poverty, malnutrition, and intense
physical exercise can all delay sexual maturation.
a girl’s rst menstrual
a boy’s rst ejaculation or
discharge of semen
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Maturing either earlier or later than peers can aect a person socially
and psychologically. e international research suggests that adolescents
who mature very early are at increased risk of depression and behaviour
problems (Negri & Susman, 2011). In South Africa, boys and girls who
are in a more advanced stage of puberty at age 13 are more likely to be
smoking, experimenting with drugs, and having sex than are their less
developed peers (Richter, 2006). Early-maturing adolescents may feel
‘out of place’ when they are with their age mates, and may form friend-
ships and romantic relationships with older peers. Having older compan-
ions, in turn, provides adolescents with more opportunities to engage
in risk behaviours such as sexual activity and substance use ( Mendle,
Turkheimer & Emery, 2007).
e disadvantages associated with early maturation appear to be
greater for girls than for boys (Negri & Susman, 2011). An early
study found there are positive aspects to early maturation for boys.
Early maturing boys tend to be viewed as self-condent, attractive, and
popular. Late-maturing boys, in contrast, are more likely to be seen as
anxious and attention seeking (Jones & Bayley, 1950). Late- maturing
girls do not seem to be as disadvantaged as late-maturing boys. In fact,
late-maturing girls tend to do better academically than their peers
(Mendle et al., 2007).
is gender dierence may be linked to how well the adolescent’s
body ts cultural ideals of physical attractiveness. Most of the research
on the timing of puberty has been conducted in the USA or Western
Europe. ese cultures value a tall, muscular body shape for men, and
a thin body shape for women. Early maturation brings boys closer to
the male ideal, and may therefore improve their status. In contrast,
early maturation moves girls further away from the thin ideal. is may
explain why early-maturing girls are more likely than their peers to be
dissatised with their bodies and to diet excessively (Mendle etal., 2007).
People who live in poorer environments (for example rural Zulus) tend
to prefer a heavier body shape for women than is considered attractive
in Western cultures (Tovée, Swami, Furnham & Malgalparsad, 2006).
However, a desire for thinness does seem to be increasingly widespread
among adolescents in urban areas in South Africa (Caradas, Lambert &
Charlton, 2001).
Think back to your early adolescence. As you reached puberty, how did your
feelings about yourself and your relationships with others change?
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Brain development
Neuroscientists once thought that brain development was essentially com-
pleted within the rst few years of life. New ndings, however, indicate
that the brain continues to develop through adolescence and at least into a
person’s twenties. In chapter four, you learned how the early blooming and
pruning of synapses and myelination of neurons helps the infant brain to
function more quickly and eciently. Brain-imaging research shows that
pruning of unused synapses in the cerebral cortex continues in adolescence.
At the same time, increasing myelination leads to stronger connections
among various parts of the brain. ese changes improve the organisation
of the brain and strengthen cognitive skills such as reading and memory.
Aperson’s capacity to learn is greater in adolescence than at any other
period in the lifespan (National Institute of Mental Health, 2011).
Brain scans also suggest that dierent parts of the brain mature at
dierent rates. e parts of the brain involved in emotional responses
are fully developed in adolescence, and even more active than they are
in adulthood. However, the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain
involved in planning and decision-making – is not yet mature. Some sci-
entists believe that these changes contribute to making adolescents more
vulnerable to risk behaviours and psychological disorders. Adolescents
react more intensely than adults to stressful and pleasurable experiences,
but have not yet developed the ability to control their strong emotional
impulses (National Institute of Mental Health, 2011).
e changes that take place in adolescents’ brains may also contribute
to adolescents’ tendency to go to sleep much later at night, and to wake
later in the mornings. Adolescents need almost as much sleep as younger
children – about 9 to 10 hours per night. Because most high schools have
early starting times, adolescents may not get enough sleep. Inadequate
sleep in adolescence has been associated with depression, behavioural
problems, and poorer achievement in school. In South Africa, adolescents
with sleep problems are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and use
drugs (Fakier & Wild, 2011). Adequate sleep is therefore important for
optimal physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning in adolescence.
• What are the main physical changes that characterise puberty?
• How does the timing of puberty inuence boys’ and girls’ psychological
• How does the brain change during adolescence?
• How might brain changes inuence adolescents’ behaviour?
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Cognitive development
Recall that earlier chapters have mentioned the work of the renowned
psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget provided a useful theory for understand-
ing adolescent cognitive development. eories of cognitive development
moves beyond the physical maturation of the brain seek to understand
people’s mental processes – how do people perceive, remember, think,
speak, and solve problems? eories of cognitive development are also
concerned with how people, especially adolescents, develop the ability to
think about thinking – what is known in psychology as metacognition.
Can you easily draw a diagram that shows how you come to make a decision?
Has this ability improved over the years since you were a child, a teenager?
Being able to ‘think about thinking’ is an important part of cognitive develop-
ment. In a study conducted by Swartz (2009), young people aged 15 to 19, all
living in an impoverished community, were asked to sketch out how they make
decisions. Only a quarter of township-schooled youth were able to produce
mind maps in which evidence of metacognitive ability was present.
Piaget’s formal operations
Piaget helps psychologists to understand the cognitive development of
adolescents by focusing attention on what can or cannot be grasped
during the teenage years. Most importantly, he claims that adolescents
construct their own cognitive worlds. ey are aected by the physical
development of their brain, but they do not thoughtlessly absorb the
information they receive from the environment. Adolescent cognitive
development develops from sensing and observing during infancy; to
representing the world with words, images, and drawing (age 2 to 7); to a
period of being able to think concretely about phenomena (age 7 to 11);
culminating in adolescents’ ability to apply what they know, think logi-
cally, and interpret abstract concepts. As chapter two explained, Piaget
called this fourth stage in child development the formal operations stage,
which, according to him, occurs between ages 11 and 15.
During this stage of development, adolescents make sense of their expe-
riences and attempt to organise their worlds. ey distinguish between
important and less important ideas and ideals. ey connect ideas, and allow
their thinking to be changed by the introduction of new ideas. Recall from
chapter two that Piaget (1954) called these two actions assimilation (incor-
porating new information into existing knowledge) and accommodation
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(adjusting thinking as a result of new knowledge). Recall also that Piaget
speaks of ‘equilibration’ to explain how adolescents (or children) shift from
one stage of thinking to the next. is movement occurs as they experience
conict or ‘disequilibrium’ and seek to nd a balance or new equilibrium.
In summary, Piaget’s fourth stage of cognitive development states that
• Are able to think in abstract ways (able to do algebraic problems, for
• Are more idealistic and think about possibilities for themselves and
the world
• Are able to reason logically and verbally (called hypothetical– deductive
reasoning by Piaget).
ere is some disagreement about whether all these goals are reached by
the age of 15. Many psychologists argue that there is an early stage and
a late stage of formal operations. Piaget (1972) himself later revised his
theory to claim that the stage of formal operational thought is not com-
pletely achieved until as late as 20.
Read the box below to appreciate how poverty aects adolescents’
cognitive development. is has considerable resonance in the South
African context.
South Africa: Poverty and cognitive development
In the South African context, poverty affects cognitive development in vari-
ous ways. Adolescents under continuous stress, who lack parental supervi-
sion and who are subject to low-quality education often lag behind those
whose experience is the opposite. Adolescents’ cognitive development, while
related to brain maturation, also requires external stimulation in order to be
fully and optimally achieved. There is growing evidence to support the fact
that violent behaviour amongst youth in school may be due to impaired cog-
nitive development; when this impairment is left undiagnosed and untreated,
it leads to young people becoming bored and disruptive, and to them ulti-
mately resorting to violence out of frustration (Lynam & Henry, 2001).
Information processing
It is common for adolescents to form images of ideal circumstances or
roles. is is part of the process of replacing concrete experiences with a
new-found ability to think abstractly and come to conclusions based on
logical reasons. For example, adolescents might imagine what an ideal
family may be like, or an ideal world. eir ability to solve problems also
increases, since they develop the ability to choose between alternatives,
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construct scenarios, and test hypotheses. It is therefore not uncommon
for an adolescent to become infatuated with a cause or to develop strong
opinions on issues such as climate change, democracy, or war.
Factors affecting information processing
A number of factors are important in understanding how adolescents
process information:
• What information are they receiving from the environment?
• How are they interpreting the data?
• What do they remember?
• What is forgotten?
• How is the information processed with regard to their own ideals,
experience and values?
• What language do they use to express their thinking?
In addition, as adolescents are able to think more abstractly, their use of
language changes. ey become able to interpret meanings and under-
stand various elements of language such as metaphors and irony. eir
general writing and conversational skills also improve.
Read the box below, which outlines some of the implications of South
Africa’s multiple languages for tests of cognitive development in adolescents.
Use of multiple languages of learning in South Africa
In the South African context, the use of multiple languages of learning
potentially causes problems for learners. The learners become uent in
their mother tongue and are able to display advanced cognitive develop-
ment when speaking their home language, but many are called on to display
their prociency in a second language, since school exit exams (matric) are
not written in indigenous languages. When adolescents in the South African
context undertake tests to measure their levels of cognitive development,
it is essential that these tests are language appropriate – since language and
cognition are so closely related.
Environmental inuences on learning
e ecosystemic theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner draws attention to the fact
that adolescent development does not occur in isolation from multiple
contexts in which a young person nds him- or herself. Bronfenbrenner
proposed that human development be considered through a ‘hierarchy of
systems at four levels moving from the most proximal to the most remote
(Bronfenbrenner 1992, p. 226). ese four contexts are:
• e microsystem (immediate context of work home and school)
• e mesosystem (interrelationships between microsystems)
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chapter seven | adolescence
• e exosystem (institutions and practices aecting youth)
• e macrosystem (social and cultural contexts).
Later Bronfenbrenner added a fth context, that of the chronosystem
(change over time). At the centre of this ecology is the developing indi-
vidual young person – with all his or her ‘cognitive competence, socio-
emotional attributes, and context-relevant belief systems’ ( Bronfenbrenner
1992, p. 228). Chapter 11 will draw on Bronfenbrenner’s work (you may
wish to look at Figure 11.1 at this point, as it shows in a diagram the
microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem and the
e environments of home and school, culture, and political contexts
of young people’s lives therefore materially aect how they develop physi-
cally, cognitively, and emotionally.
Social learning
Albert Bandura, a leading social-learning theorist, outlined a simple but
important theory of how adolescents learn. Bandura focuses on the recip-
rocal (rather than unidirectional) inuences of behaviour, cognition, and
environment. In Banduras view, people learn by observing others; think-
ing, reasoning, imagining, planning, and valuing are social rather than indi-
vidual in nature (Bandura, 1977, 1986). For Bandura, behaviour aects
cognition, and vice versa, while a person’s behaviour can aect the environ-
ment, and the environment can change a person’s thought processes.
As adolescents enter high school, they are faced with a number of changes
that aect their cognitive development – for better or worse. As Brian and
Leanne illustrate in the case study at the beginning of this chapter, school is
a good place to discuss life and the future. However, it is a complicated pro-
cess. Besides the psychosocial adjustment with which adolescent learners
are confronted as they make new friends, they also have to put into practice
their ideals and strive to both nd out who they are and what they will
one day do. At the same time, the pace at which learning happens is both
increased and becomes more diverse as an adolescent enters high school.
Pace of learning and teaching styles
Adolescents naturally reason at varying speeds during this time of devel-
opment, which can lead to diering rates of success in school. What is
in no doubt is that adolescents reason at faster rates than younger chil-
dren, and in many cases than older adults. One implication of this is
that adolescents need to receive just enough stimulation in the school
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context to prevent boredom, but not so much that they nd themselves
unable to cope and become frustrated. In addition, teaching styles should
ideally (but often do not) cater to this range of formality and abstrac-
tion, because, as you have already learned, there is variation in the rate at
which adolescents acquire the ability for thinking abstractly and logically.
Recall that Piaget’s stage of formal operations states that people acquire
the ability to think logically and interpret abstract concepts, and that this
can occur from as early as 11 years of age to as late as 20 years – all of
which is normal cognitive development.
Experiential learning
David Elkind (1981) has also shown that adolescents learn much better
through experience, although there are a number of dierent learning
styles. An overly rigid curriculum has the potential to dampen adoles-
cents’ creativity and to not hold their interest. is argument also applies
to dierent learning styles and levels of development between boys and
girls. Educators need to adapt learning to these variations as well.
Read the box below to learn about the importance of adult involve-
ment in adolescents’ learning.
Adult involvement in adolescents’ learning is crucial to the cognitive devel-
opment of adolescents. In South Africa, as in many places in the world, the
time of high-school attendance introduces multiple teachers who teach spe-
cialised subjects, while at the same time parents, for various reasons, become
less involved in their children’s learning. One important reason for reduced
parental involvement is that many parents feel less comfortable covering the
content of subjects such as Maths and Science, especially if they have a low
level of educational attainment and are aware of the rapid pace at which
knowledge has changed ‘since I was at school’.
The one thing that has not changed, however, is young people’s need
to be helped to reect on what they are hearing and observing, and to
make sense of it, question it, interpret it, and apply it. These are all functions
that caring, interested, and involved adults can perform. This adult involve-
ment in adolescent learning ultimately ensures good cognitive outcomes.
This chapter will pick up this topic up again when it considers adolescents’
moral development.
Caring schools
When adolescents have multiple teachers in high school, this may lead to
a lack of attachment to teachers and to a non-caring school environment.
Educational philosopher Nel Noddings (1984, 2002) argues that a caring
schooling environment is essential for learning to take place. Noddings’s
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chapter seven | adolescence
vision for schooling is one in which school can, through provision of a
formative education, encourage young people to be reective and to be
connected to others, and one which can exemplify democratic processes
of living. At the core of such a formative education are teachers’ caring
and attentive relationships with adolescent learners.
For many adolescents in the South African schooling system, classes
are too large, teachers are undertrained, and resources are too few to real-
ise such an ideal. Schooling has a large role to play in adolescents’ cogni-
tive development, but schooling can also impair, rather than enhance this
development, if conditions such as those in the current South African
context prevail.
Formative education
one that attempts to
shape, form or mould
a person according to
(hopefully) positive and
healthy outcomes
• How is adolescent thinking different from childhood thinking?
• What are the challenges to information processing during adolescence?
• How does the environment affect adolescent thinking?
• What theories, besides that of Piaget, help us to understand adolescent
thinking, and what are their main contributions? (Consider, for example,
the theories of Bandura, Bronfenbrenner, Elkind, and Noddings.)
Psychosocial development
Family relationships remain important in adolescence. At the same time,
peer relationships become more mature and inuential. At least in Western
societies, adolescents face the task of becoming more indepen dent from
parents, and discovering who they really are.
The family
Most of the research on family relationships in adolescence has focused
on parenting and the parent–child relationship. However, researchers are
also starting to learn more about adolescents’ relationships with their sib-
lings and grandparents.
Relationships with parents
e popular media often portray relationships between parents and
adolescents as extremely stressful and conict ridden. However, psy-
chological research conducted over several decades tells a dierent
story. e evidence indicates that serious diculties in parent–child
relationships are the exception, not the norm. Only about 5%–15%
of families experience extreme problems in parent–adolescent rela-
tionships, and these problems typically began in childhood (Smetana,
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Campione-Barr & Metzger, 2006). In fact, about three-quarters of
adolescents report having happy and pleasant relationships with their
parents (Steinberg, 2001). Nevertheless, parent–child relationships do
change during adolescence.
Parent–adolescent closeness
As children grow into adolescence, they tend to spend less time with their
parents. e closeness of parent–child relationships also tends to decline
(Smetana et al., 2006). Adolescents tend to be closer to their mothers
than to their fathers (Steinberg & Morris, 2001).
Despite decreases in their closeness, most parent–adolescent rela-
tionships remain warm and supportive (Collins & Laursen, 2004).
Adolescents who are securely attached to their parents tend to be better
adjusted psychologically and more socially competent than their inse-
curely attached peers. ey are less likely to engage in risk behaviours,
and have better coping skills. Securely attached adolescents also nd it
easier to make the transition to high school (Moretti & Peled, 2004). In
chapter four, you learned how a secure attachment between infants and
their caregivers provides infants with a secure base from which they can
explore the environment. Similarly, it seems that the support of parents
provides adolescents with the condence that they need to explore new
experiences and relationships outside the family.
Parent–adolescent conict
Declines in parent–child closeness in the adolescent years are often
accompanied by more frequent conicts with parents, at least tempo-
rarily in early and mid-adolescence (Steinberg & Morris, 2001). ese
conicts are usually not severe; most often they are squabbles over things
like disobedience, homework, or household chores. However, these argu-
ments about seemingly trivial things may actually be expressions of larger
conicts over independence and responsibility. In most cases, conict
decreases again during late adolescence as adolescents and their parents
gradually adjust their relationship in such a way that the adolescent is
granted a more equal role in the family.
Interestingly, it seems that parent–adolescent conict is often more
stressful for the parents than the children. Adolescents tend to see their
squabbles with parents as being unimportant. Parents, in contrast, tend
to be upset by repeated, day-to-day bickering over mundane issues. is
is particularly the case for mothers, who do most of the negotiating
with teenagers. Many parents report a dip in self-esteem, life satisfac-
tion, and psychological well-being during this time (Steinberg, 2001).
High levels of parent–adolescent conict are also detrimental to adoles-
cent development. However, mild-to-moderate conict is associated with
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chapter seven | adolescence
better adolescent adjustment than either no conict or frequent conict
( Smetana et al., 2006).
Parent–adolescent relationships across cultures
An increase in parent–child conict has been seen in a diverse range
of cultures, from Asia to the USA (Smetana, 2006). However, parent–
adolescent conict is more common in some cultures than in others.
For example, there seems to be little parent–adolescent conict in India.
Indian adolescents spend much more time with their families than
American adolescents do. ey also enjoy this family time more than
their American counterparts do (Larson & Wilson, 2004). How do
researchers explain this dierence?
In Western societies such as the USA, a major task of adolescence is
to achieve psychological autonomy, or the ability to function indepen-
dently as a separate, self-governing individual. In this context, declining
closeness and increasing conict between adolescents and their parents
can play a positive role in the transition to adulthood: they lead to ado-
lescents becoming more independent and autonomous. Indian culture,
however, places the family at the centre of people’s lives, and values inter-
dependence rather than independence. In this context, the developmen-
tal task of adolescence is not to become autonomous, but rather to reduce
separation. us, Indian adolescents focus on strengthening emotional
the ability to function
independently as a
separate, self-governing
Figure 7.1 Parent–adolescent conict often increases during adolescence, but it is
generally about minor issues
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bonds to their relatives, and on learning to put the needs of the family
before their own individual needs (Larson & Wilson, 2004).
Even in Western cultures, researchers now appreciate that it is best for
adolescents if they maintain a close attachment with their parents, even
while they are gaining autonomy and becoming more independent. How
is this balance achieved? e next section discusses which parenting styles
seem best for achieving this balance.
Parenting styles and dimensions
Recall that chapter six mentioned three contrasting parenting styles:
authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. ese styles were originally
identied by Diana Baumrind (1967).
Like younger children, adolescents benet from having at least one
parent who is authoritative: warm, rm, and accepting of their needs for
psychological autonomy. Adolescents with authoritative parents tend to
do better in school, report less depression and anxiety and higher self-
esteem, and are less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour and drug
use. ese benets have been found across dierent cultural, ethnic, and
socioeconomic groups (Steinberg, 2001).
In recent years, there has been a shift towards breaking down parent-
ing styles into specic dimensions of parenting behaviour. Brian Barber
and his colleagues have identied three central dimensions of parenting
that appear to be particularly important in adolescence:
• Support versus rejection
• Firm behavioural control versus lax control
• Psychological autonomy versus psychological control.
Studies with adolescents in South Africa and a number of other countries
have shown that parental support (warmth, acceptance, and aection)
is associated with more social initiative and less depression. Firm behav-
ioural control (supervision, monitoring, and limit-setting) is associated
with less antisocial behaviour. In contrast, psychological control (intrusive
parenting that does not permit the child to develop as a psychologically
autonomous individual) is associated with more depression and antiso-
cial behaviour (Barber, Stolz, Olsen, Collins & Burchinal, 2005). us,
although patterns of interactions may change, parent–child relationships
remain important for children’s well-being during the adolescent years.
Relationships with siblings
Although most of the research on adolescents’ family relationships has
focused on their parents, there has been a recent increase in interest in
adolescents’ relationships with their brothers and sisters. How do the
relationships between brothers and sisters change once siblings no longer
live together in the same house and lead their own separate lives? Sibling
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chapter seven | adolescence
conict often increases when the rst-born sibling enters early adoles-
cence. From middle adolescence, however, both closeness and conict
between siblings decline. As brothers and sisters spend more time away
from home and from each other, sibling relationships become less intense
and more equal (Steinberg & Morris, 2001).
Although siblings have less inuence on one another as they get older,
they remain important. Better relationships with brothers and sisters are
associated with fewer emotional and behavioural problems during ado-
lescence. However, adolescents whose older siblings are involved in prob-
lem behaviours, early sexual activity, and drug use are at increased risk of
also becoming involved in such behaviours (Smetana et al., 2006).
Relationships with grandparents
Grandparents have long been an important source of nancial, practical,
and emotional support in South African families. e Aids pandemic has
made their role even more important. According to the 2001 population
census (Statistics South Africa, 2005), 18 per cent of black South African
adolescents aged 14–19 were living in a household where a grandparent
or great-grandparent was the household head. Even when grandparents
don’t live with their grandchildren, they often play an important role in
their lives.
e international research suggests that contact with grandparents
tends to decline as children move into adolescence (Bridges, Roe, Dunn
& O’Connor, 2007). Nevertheless, there is evidence that positive involve-
ment from grandparents has the potential to benet adolescents’ psycho-
logical, physical, and academic well-being and development – particularly
when their families are under stress (Attar-Schwartz, Tan, Buchanan,
Flouri & Griggs, 2009; Yorgason, Padilla-Walker & Jackson, 2011).
Peer relationships
During adolescence, young people acquire skills needed to carry out
adult roles, gain autonomy from parents, and recalibrate their relation-
ships with members of the same sex and opposite sex (Elliott & Feldman,
1990). Consequently, peer relationships become prominent during this
time. In landmark research in tracking US adolescents for a week using
the experience sampling method, Csikszentmihalyi and Larson (1984,
p.222) found that adolescents spend 52 per cent of their time with peers,
while spending only 21 per cent with adults and siblings, and 27 per cent
of their time alone. ese researchers conclude that friendships provides
optimal conditions for growth amongst adolescents. However, others
have questioned the inuence of peers, friends, romantic partners, and
cliques and crowds (or groups) in a teenager’s life. Each will be discussed
in turn.
Experience sampling
a research technique that
asks participants to stop
at certain times and make
notes of their experience
or behaviour
small groups of peers
comprising 2 to 12
members, usually the same
sex and age
larger groups dened
by reputation and
stereotypes, and having
social status in, for
example, a school or
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Adolescents choose friendships and reference crowds ‘best suited to their
needs for emotional support and exploration or rearmation of their values
or aspirations [and so] peer groups promise to be a highly adaptive context
in which to negotiate adolescence’ (Brown, 1990, p. 180). e opposite
applies too – ‘for those who either falter in these tasks or choose a dysfunc-
tional crowd, peer groups can have maladaptive consequences’ (p.185).
Furthermore, given that adolescents make decisions focused largely on the
here and now, because of their cognitive developmental stage, rather than
thinking of the future, peer inuence is especially important, especially
with regard to young people’s health and risk-taking behaviours.
Peer pressure and conformity
e key questions that interest those who parent and work with youthare:
• Do adolescents behave in particular ways because their peers are
doing so?
• Are adolescents able to resist pressure to conform through other inu-
ences such as family, teachers, and youth leaders.
Of course, conformity can be both positive and negative. Young people
can be pressurised into taking drugs as much as they can be pressurised
into joining a youth project that looks after vulnerable children.
Research shows that peers have inuence on some spheres, whereas
families hold sway in others. Berndt (1979) shows that peers inuence
antisocial behaviour – most between ages 12 and 15 – while families have
the highest inuence towards prosocial activities at this time. e same
applies to the age of young people. In early adolescence, families have
more inuence, then peers become more inuential, until in late adoles-
cence, youth act and reason with greater independence of both inuences.
An important example of peer inuence being put to positive eect
and institutionalised is in the many peer-education programmes cur-
rently in operation in South Africa and throughout the world. ese
programmes are especially successful in helping adolescents develop
and adhere to healthy behaviour with regard to sexual and reproductive
health (Visser, 2007).
Cliques and crowds
In the same way as peers can be both negative inuences and positive
inuences, the crowds and cliques in which young people locate them-
selves have similar eects. Groups satisfy adolescents’ need for identity
formation, for belonging, self-esteem, and information. However, these
groups have norms and roles that adolescents have to navigate. e
groups to which adolescents belong change from childhood to adoles-
cence and over the course of adolescence. So, childhood groups are largely
Chapter_7_CAD.indd 220 8/10/12 11:43 PM
chapter seven | adolescence
unisexual, then become mixed sex, and nally disintegrate into couples
with looser aliations to each other than before (Dunphy, 1963).
Groups generally predict behaviour. So, for example, in a study in the
USA, athletic males (‘jocks’) were found to be more sexually active than
those in other groups, while other groups – such as ‘burnouts’ and ‘non-
conformists’ – were more likely to be taking drugs (Prinstein, Fetter &
La Greca, 1996). ose who belong to cliques and crowds overall exhibit
higher self-esteem than those who are rejected or excluded. However,
youth who purposely avoid groups have been to shown to have the same
self-esteem as those who are part of them.
In a South African study (Swartz, 2009), young people identied four
kinds of youth in a local school, namely:
• ‘Mommie’s babies’: Mommie’s babies spent all their time at home or
• ‘Skollies’: Skollies were criminals and gangsters.
• ‘Kasi boys and girls’: Kasi boys and girls partied hard and experi-
mented with petty thieving and alcohol.
• ‘Right ones’: Right ones did not separate themselves from their peers,
but they partied and drank alcohol only to the extent that it did not
aect their school work and, therefore, chances of success.
Harry Sullivan (1953) is internationally renowned for his work on the
nature and importance of friendship for adolescents. While all people
require tenderness, playful companionship, social acceptance, intimacy,
and sexual relations for their long term well-being, it is adolescent friend-
ships that begin to meet these needs and teach young people the skills
necessary to sustain these in long-term committed relationships and
partnerships. According to Sullivan, the need for intimacy – dened as
self-disclosure and the ability to share private thoughts – intensies dur-
ing early adolescence, motivating young people to seek out close friends.
Furthermore, adolescents who report good friendships frequently go on
to report prosocial behaviours and positive self-worth in adult life (Carlo
et al., 1999). Close friendships also teach youth how to self-disclose
appropriately, how to provide appropriate emotional support to others,
and how to manage disagreements without damaging relationships.
In Swartz’s study of young peoples moral inuences, friends were
frequently cited as positive moral inuences – friends were both ‘good
to me’ and ‘good for me’ (Swartz, 2009). Youth reported that friends
helped them see where they were ‘going wrong’, advised them on how
to change, and, in the case of romantic partners, helped them to be less
selsh and generally ‘a better person’. ese caring relationships provided
youth with strong emotional ties and motivated young people to make
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pa rt t wo | sta ge s of development
sacricial choices, such as voluntarily parting with money earned or won,
keeping a job, and working hard at school in order to maximise the pos-
sibility of getting a job in the future.
Research has shown, however, that close friendships between adoles-
cents with a large age gap frequently results in the younger peer becom-
ing involved in age-inappropriate behaviour and sometimes in antisocial
behaviour (Magnusson, 1988). is is in contrast to research with chil-
dren that shows that mixed-age friendships at these younger ages have
generally positive outcomes.
Looking back at your past friendships, what advice would you have valued as a
younger adolescent in managing these friendships?
Romantic relationships and sexual activity
In the South African context, various studies (reported in Swartz, 2009)
have shown that approximately one-third of young people have had sex
by the time they reach the age of 15. Of these, 15 per cent are involved in
an ongoing sexual relationship. is is roughly similar to other countries,
although there are some groups of South African youth who are more at
risk of early sexual activity than others. ose living in overcrowded com-
munities and in communities where poverty aects both education and
survival options are especially at risk in this respect.
In the context of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV and
Aids), teenage pregnancy, and high rates of rape and coerced sex, it is
desirable for adolescents to delay their rst sexual encounter and the
age at which they begin dating. Much research shows that young people
who become involved in a dating relationship at a young age are more
likely to become pregnant, or impregnate a partner, than those who are
helped to delay individual (rather than group or crowd) dating. It has also
been shown that dating amongst younger adolescents is egocentric and
focused on recreation and status, whereas older youth date for intimacy
and companionship.
However, little research reports on the role that romantic relation-
ships can play in developing adolescents’ identity and intimacy skills
(Erikson, 1968). Studies have found that romantic relationships focus
‘adolescents’ attention … on behaviors that foster and promote intimacy
[such as] helping, caring … sharing … sympathy and empathy’ (Fabes
etal., 1999, p. 9).
e box headed ‘Teenage pregnancy and parenthood’ provides fur-
ther information about adolescent sexual activity.
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chapter seven | adolescence
Teenage pregnancy and parenthood
The extent of teenage pregnancy (measured among young women aged
15 to 19) in South Africa ranges from 78 births per 1 000 in 1996, to an
estimated 65 in 2001, and 73 in 2005 (Moultrie & McGrath, 2007). There
are different rates of teenage fertility among each of the population groups
in South Africa. In 1998 the South African Demographic and Health Survey
(Department of Health, 2002) revealed that fertility rates for black teen-
agers and coloured teenagers were four times as high as those for white
teenagers and Indian teenagers. In addition, rates of teen fertility (along with
HIV infection) in informal settlements are signicantly higher than in other
communities (Shisana et al., 2005; Simbayi, Chauveau & Shisana, 2004).
Based on the 2001 census, Moultrie and Dorrington (2004) estimate
that teenage fertility has decreased somewhat. This is an impor tant counter-
argument to those who claim that child-support grants from government
act as a perverse inventive to teenagers who get themselves pregnant in
order to access the child-support grant. If this were in fact true, the rates
of teenage pregnancy would be increasing rather than decreasing. However,
what is clear is that young women who become pregnant at an earlier age
are at risk of adverse life outcomes. They are less likely to complete school-
ing, and therefore less likely to get good jobs or any employment at all. There
is also a physical cost exerted on their bodies through early pregnancy.
A recent South African study (Swartz & Bhana, 2009) placed attention
on adolescent boys who become fathers. The study showed that these
young men have similar poor outcomes to young mothers, as well as delin-
quency. In addition, young fathers frequently have to overcome a number
of challenges in being a present father to a child they have fathered whilst
young. Some of these challenges include:
• Parental rejection (by the parents of the mother of their child)
• The cultural measure of money being equated with responsibility, resulting
in fear and shame at being unable to provide – hence choosing to disappear
• The way in which parents sometimes commandeer young fathers’
parental responsibilities
• The widespread failure of services and sex education for these
In the South African context, there is currently an epidemic of absent fathers.
Posel and Devey (2006, p. 47) estimate that among black households 63 per
cent of fathers are ‘disappeared’ (12,8 per cent dead, 50,2 per cent absent).
This is in contrast to 13,3 per cent disappeared white fathers (2,4 per cent
dead and 10,9 per cent absent). It is not known what proportion of these
disappeared fathers became fathers whilst still adolescents.
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pa rt t wo | sta ge s of development
Moral development
Young people’s moral values, moral development, and moral education
have long been the subject of numerous academic disciplines. However,
it is psychology that makes the largest contribution to the academic study
of morality and moral education. Psychologists are concerned with the
various cognitive processes of moral development, as well as with emo-
tional and social behaviour of adolescents. Specic contributions from
psychology to the study of young people’s moral functioning include:
• e role of empathy (Eisenberg, 2000; Homan, 2000)
• Intuition (Narváez, Getz, oma & Rest, 1999)
• e role of emotional intelligence in regulating moral emotions such
as anger and shame (Goleman, 1995; Salovey & Sluyter, 1997).
Psychological studies have also considered:
• e importance of moral motivation (Eccles & Wigeld, 2002)
• Moral integrity (Blasi, 1980)
• e role of personality in moral formation (Damon, 1983; Glover,
• e process of translating belief into action (Blasi, 1980; Walker, 2004).
Piaget and Kohlberg
Perhaps the most well-known of all psychological contributions to the
study of young people’s morality is the developmental work of Piaget
and Kohlberg (1981, 1984). In particular, Kohlberg, whose work was
discussed at some length in chapters ve and six, made the connection
between increased levels of cognitive and psychosocial development and
the ability to reason at increasing levels of moral complexity. Recall from
chapters ve and six that Kohlberg elucidated three developmental levels
of moral reasoning, as follows:
• Preconventional level (stages one and two): Moral reasoning based
on the avoidance of punishment, consequences, self-interest, and per-
sonal benet marks people at this level.
• Conventional level (stages three and four): People reasoning at this
level are marked by concern for interpersonal relationships, relational
• What positive and negative roles can friendship play in adolescents’
• What positive and negative roles can romantic relationships play in
adolescents’ development?
• Discuss the ways in which relationships and friendships improve or
diminish self-esteem in adolescents?
Chapter_7_CAD.indd 224 8/10/12 11:43 PM
chapter seven | adolescence
inuences, and social obligations. Adolescents begin to reason at stage
four and show understanding of duties of justice and care.
• Postconventional level (stages ve and six): Finally, people reasoning at
this level are characterised by principled and impartial judgements made
on the basis of a universally applicable social contract. At this level, moral-
ity becomes based on internal moral standards, rather than on external
codes. Although the people reasoning at this level explore alternative
options, they reach decisions autonomously. Adolescents may reach this
stage of moral reasoning from an age as young as 12– especially being
able to distinguish between community rights and individual rights. Few
adolescents, however, are able to reach stage six, where moral reasoning is
based on universal human rights. In fact, according to Kohlberg, it takes
a lifetime to get to postconventionalmoral reasoning, with most adults
reasoning at the conventional level.
For the past 30 years, Kohlberg’s work has dominated the eld of moral
development and materially inuenced moral education. Chapters ve
and six discussed this inuence in some detail. is section will comple-
ment the discussion in chapters ve and six.
At least four broad approaches to moral education can be identi-
ed, as follows (some of these broad approaches incorporate Kohlberg’s
approach, while others react to it):
• A primarily cognitive emphasis on moral development and judgement
• An aective or emotional emphasis (see, for example, Homan (2000)
on empathy; Eisenberg (2000) on guilt and shame; Rozin, Haidt and
McCauley (2000) on disgust, anger, and hatred)
• ose having an activist emphasis on learning through doing (Coles,
1993; Damon & Gregory, 1997; Scales, 1999; Youniss & Yates, 1999)
• An emphasis on integrated character (Lickona, 1991).
e focus on cognitive development has eclipsed the other three
approaches to moral education. Cognitive developmentalists maintain
that autonomous choice, evolving judgement, and critical reection are
most important when educating young people in the moral domain. For
cognitive developmentalists, the aim of moral education is to stimulate
cognitive development and thereby help youth to develop moral judge-
ment. Many of the techniques cognitive developmentalists use include
the discussion of moral dilemmas, which proponents of this approach
have shown is an eective way to improve moral reasoning. At least three
educational strategies that have emerged from the academy have strong
cognitive and developmental bases:
• ‘Values clarication’ (Raths, Harmin & Simon, 1966)
• ‘Philosophy for children’ (Lipman, 1991; Vardy & Grosch, 1994)
• ‘Social perspective-taking’ (Selman, 1971, 1980).
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Selman’s social perspective-taking
Harvard educationalist and psychologist Robert Selman, a colleague of
Kohlberg, proposed a theory of social perspective-taking. He describes
perspective taking as the ability to assume another person’s perspective and
understand that person’s thoughts and feelings. In his theory, he describes
the following sequential developmental stages of social perspective-taking
from childhood though adulthood (Selman, 1971, 1980):
• Stage 0, age 3–6: In early childhood, an egocentric viewpoint is
• Stage 1, age 6–8: A social informational perspective follows.
• Stage 2, age 8–10: en there is a more self-reective stance.
• Stage 3, age 10–12: In early adolescence, youth are able to adopt a
mutual perspective by stepping outside of the self–other interaction.
• Stage 4, age 12–15: Social and conventional system perspective- taking
follows, during which the young person realises that complete under-
standing is not always possible and so social conventions must be used.
Following later empirical work, Selman concluded that the majority of
youth on the brink of adolescence were at stage 2, while by age 16 most
adolescents had reached stage 3 (but not yet stage 4). A number of factors
account for the range of social perspective-taking abilities amongst youth.
Among these are educational quality, home environment, and stimu-
lation– similar factors to those that aect how children are placed on
Kohlberg’s scale. Apart from some of the wideness of age ranges in each
stage, Selman’s theory contributes to understanding how young people
come to make moral decisions, especially those of an interpersonal nature.
Adolescents’ increasing ability to take others’ perspectives has impli-
cations for their self-understanding. is, in turn, impacts on their rela-
tionships with peers and family. Studies, for example Adams (1983), have
shown that young people who are empathetic are more popular and that
the quality of their friendships is improved.
Critiques of developmental approaches to moral development
Critiques of developmental approaches to moral education centre on two
• e elevation of the self to a sovereign position above that of the
society in which an individual nds him- or herself (Hunter, 2000)
• An undue emphasis on individualism (Smith & Standish, 1997).
But the central criticism of developmental approaches centres on Kohlberg’s
work, which has been challenged on numerous fronts, for example:
• e use of ctitious dilemmas
• e gap between moral reasoning and moral behaviour
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chapter seven | adolescence
• e (disingenuous) way in which white middle-class men seem to
always score higher on Kohlberg’s scales than women or those from
other cultures
• e conclusion that autonomous and individualistic moral judge-
ment (characteristic of the postconventional level) is more advanced
than a system of moral reection based on a collectivist or communi-
tarian orientation (characteristic of the conventional level)
• How young people’s moral reasoning has little relationship with their
functioning as moral people.
As a result of the challenges listed above, people have questioned the use-
fulness of Kohlberg’s levels of moral reasoning. Some of these critiques
have been covered in Chapter ve on middle childhood, but will be dis-
cussed in more detail below.
The use of moral dilemmas
e use of ctitious moral dilemmas by cognitive developmentalists has
been criticised because they are ctitious (and so do not help young peo-
ple in real-life contexts) and because they are already agged as moral
dilemmas. Fictitious dilemmas do not measure participants’ moral sensi-
tivity, since they have already been judged to be moral dilemmas (Walker,
2002). Cognitive moral reasoning is signicantly dierent when based
on real, rather than hypothetical, dilemmas (Myyry & Helkama, 2002).
Moral dilemmas also reinforce the perception that moral issues are some-
thing which is on the periphery of human life, rather than central to it
(Smith & Standish, 1997). Walker (2002) adds that cognitive stimula-
tion – the aim of moral dilemma discussion – is a simplistic approach to
moral education. Research has also shown that talking about moral issues
in the abstract is a poor predictor of what youth do in practice (Kuther &
Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2000).
Feminist and cultural objections to Kohlberg
Carol Gilligan has shown that young women judge ‘conicting responsibil-
ities rather than … competing rights’ (Gilligan, 1982, p. 19) and consider
collective rather than individualistic orientations as more important in their
moral reasoning processes. Similar conclusions have been drawn for youth
outside global Northern cultures, who privilege a collective conscience over
individual conscience (Ferns & om, 2001; Snarey & Keljo, 1996). Not
surprisingly therefore, women and collectivist cultures have been found to
score lower on Kohlberg’s scales. e study of Ferns and om (2001), for
example, demonstrates how black South African youth consistently score
below white youth on Kohlberg’s scale of moral reasoning.
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However, in a more nuanced study (Smith & Parekh, 1996) black South
African youth between the ages of 10 and 12 scored higher on Kohlberg’s
schema than did their white counterparts, although older black youth scored
lower. Snarey and Keljo comment that this result seems to align with that of
Gilligan’s study of young women, in that an initial ‘strong voice of courage
and honesty … [is replaced] by a strained voice of niceness and conformity’
(Snarey & Keljo, 1996, p. 1089). Like those of young women, the scores of
marginalised and oppressed groups appear to deteriorate over time.
Snarey and Keljo conclude that any form of oppression (sex, class, or
‘race’) contributes to stagnation in moral development. Possible reasons
proposed for this dierence include the following:
• Poor education resulting in diminished levels of high-order abstract
thinking (Ferns & om, 2001; Snarey & Keljo, 1996)
• e way in which discrimination and oppression lowers esteem and
silences strong voices (Maqsud, 1998; Snarey & Keljo, 1996)
• e nding that authoritarian parenting – usually found in contexts
of poverty (Elliott & Feldman, 1990) rather than being related to
‘race’ or culture – seldom encourages autonomous thinking (Ferns &
om, 2001).
Of course, an alternative explanation is that Kohlberg’s research instru-
ment is biased by language or towards masculine responses. However
much this bias may have been unintentional, Kohlberg’s work appears
to have fuelled mistaken notions of inherent moral superiority. Ferns
and oms (2001), for example, do not use Kohlberg’s Moral Judgment
Interview or Rest’s Dening Issues Test (based on Kohlberg’s schema)
since it emerged (upon piloting) that the level of verbal prociency
required was unsuitable in a cross-cultural environment.
Critical absences in moral development
e rst of these critical absences concerns the relationship between
moral knowledge and moral practice, alluded to earlier as a key critique
of Kohlberg’s work. Robert Coles sums up a prevailing view:
e moral life is at once thought and action … [I] struggle…[between]
strong respect for the work of Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol
Gilligan, and yet a perplexity that sometimes slides into pique as I
compare their ideas about ‘moral development’ with the thoroughly
complicated matter of moral … behaviour (Coles, 1986, p. 286).
is ‘belief–behaviour’ gap is one about which psychologists are increas-
ingly writing (Bergman, 2002; Blasi, 1980; Lickona, 1976; Swartz, 2009;
Walker, 2004). Augusto Blasi (1980) addresses this gap by focusing on
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the development of a moral identity – the integration of self with a sense
of responsibility and integrity. For Damon (1984), the task is to investi-
gate the ‘persons understanding of self in relation to these moral beliefs’
(p. 110). While both Blasi and Damon contribute to understanding the
dynamics involved in this gap, neither pays attention to the role of con-
text – the role of lived experience that occupies the space between moral
belief and moral behaviour. Read the box headed ‘Moral capital and
moral ecology’, which considers these issues further.
Moral capital and moral ecology
In a study done in Cape Town (Swartz, 2009), township youth aged between
14 and 20 were asked how they understood the concept of morality (‘right’
and ‘wrong’) and how their beliefs and contexts affected their action. Over-
all, the study provides an account of the moral lives of vulnerable young
people from within a context of partial parenting, partial schooling, perva-
sive poverty, and inequality, in post-apartheid South Africa. The study intro-
duced two important concepts into the discussion of youth morality, namely
‘moral ecology’ and ‘moral capital’.
Moral ecology
Understanding youth moral development as an ecology draws on Urie
Bronfenbrenner’s ‘ecological systems theory’. It helps to systematise the
study of the environment’s effects on people’s lives by describing these inu-
ences as interconnecting systems. Considering contexts helps a researcher
to see how the usual institutions that might inoculate youth against multiple
negative inuences exert less inuence in poor environments than might
be the case in a middle-class context. It shows how township youth have to
choose to opt out of the current youth culture in favour of moral goodness,
and how these youth construct a moral world in resistance to the exist-
ing culture. In Swartz’s study, for example, it became clear that the socio-
emotional effects of poverty inuence young people’s ability to reect, and
that employment is a moral necessity in the lives of poor youth.
Furthermore, the notion of a moral ecology helps moral educators con-
sider moral life as more complex than only moral action. A denition of
what it means to be good must surely include moral knowledge, moral
identity, and moral desire, in addition to moral action. This has implications
for where to concentrate the focus in moral education practice, when some
elements are stronger than others in young people’s lived experience.
Thimna’s story
Thimna’s story illustrates how an ecological lens helps to interpret young
people’s moral lives. Thimna is a tiny 19-year-old woman who struggled
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to concentrate at school, and showed clear signs of fetal alcohol spec-
trum disorder (FASD). She constantly dropped out of school due to her
inability to focus on her studies. Thimna spoke of having grown up in a
‘shebeen house’ with her alcoholic mother selling alcohol, and that she
(Thimna) had begun drinking at 14. Soon she was involved in a gang, and
then incarcerated for stealing a cellphone in order to pay for her alcohol.
She dropped out of school permanently after becoming pregnant, and
currently struggles, due to her alcoholism, to hold down a job as a street
sweeper. Thimna’s moral ecology included physical manifestations of FASD,
parental neglect, poor education and substance use – all of which are
Applying moral ecology
What Thimna’s story also shows is that neither is the moral life of young
people living in a context of poverty linear and ordered, nor is their moral
development directly related to physical maturation, as is often depicted in
existing moral-development literature focused on youth living in the global
North (Damon, 1984; Kohlberg, 1984). In more stable environments, moral
growth is largely depicted as a series of deliberate choices within a series of
narrow options. In the lives of township youth, while options are far wider,
the act of choosing is more limited and immediate.
Using an ecological lens also shows how young people’s moral reason-
ing ability, the role of personal responsibility for moral (or immoral) action,
and the context of poverty are interwoven in complex ways. This inter-
play is crucial to understanding the chasm that exists between young peo-
ple’s stated moral beliefs and their subsequent behaviour. Swartz’s study
found that young people living in poverty lack not so much the ability to
engage in high-order levels of cognitive reection, but the opportunity and
resources to do so. If, as various literatures suggest (Evans & English, 2002;
Yehuda, Halligan & Grossman, 2001), poverty results in physical illness such
as depression, despair, fatigue (from stress hormone overload), anxiety, apa-
thy, a struggle to delay gratication, emotional blunting, the consequences of
FASD, and avolition, then it is understandable that youth who live in poverty
lack the resources to act on what they know and desire to be right, and
toward which they aspire.
‘Moral capital’
In the same study, young people regularly spoke of ‘being good’ as a form
of capital – a resource that helps you get ahead. In other words the act of
‘being good’ resulted in them regularly attending school, completing their
education, and accessing the job market. Having a job, in turn, enabled them
to ‘do good’ things, like provide for family members. Being good therefore
produces money– or economic capital.
an inability to pursue goals
or act on decisions; a lack
of drive or motivation
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chapter seven | adolescence
In addition, these youth identied the necessary elements that would
contribute to them becoming good people, which may also be described
as assets or capital. Throughout Swartz’s study, township youth made the
connection between education and achieving future dreams and goals (‘Ifyou
don’t have any education, no future for you’), and they recognised school as
Figure 7.2 A schematic representation of the various components of ‘moral
about others
Being known
in the community
before acting
right from wrong
about self
of poverty
Source: Swartz (2009, p.149)
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pa rt t wo | sta ge s of development
morally empowering, diversionary, a deterrent to crime, and the key to future
success: ‘School is very good, it takes you out of trouble, so if you don’t want
to be in trouble this keeps you out of trouble’ (Ingwazi). Young people repeat-
edly made the connection between having a job and being a moral person
(‘becoming good people when they have got their own jobs’). In other words
these youth saw morality as generating capital and capital generating morality.
Being good provides young people with the opportunity to embark on the
cycle of ‘be a good person, complete school, get a job, be a good person.’ In this
sense, morality is seen as an instrumental good – it produces economic value.
From the research data, four overarching features of moral capital were
• Relational connection
• Reective practice
• Personal agency
• The importance of an enabling environment.
Look at Figure 7.2, which provides a summary of these four main elements
of moral capital, with constituent components in each category.
The concept of moral capital provides a useful counterpoint to talk of
moral panics and moral decits. Moral capital shifts the focus from what is
absent in the moral lives of youth to what is present. Educators and policy
makers might now be encouraged to develop moral capital rather than
complain about the absence of morality in young people. If the aim of moral
education is to nurture or increase moral capital, then moral behaviour can
be analysed with regard to the extent of moral capital already available to
an individual or to a group. This could result in a more nuanced conversation
between the ‘blame the victim’ and ‘blame the system’ schools of thought,
since social and institutional factors will become part of the discussion,
rather than solely focusing on the personal in questions of morality.
• What are the main criticisms of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development,
especially in the South African context?
• How does social perspective-taking contribute to adolescents’ moral
decision making?
• What are the advantages of considering moral development as an
‘ ecology’?
• What are the components of ‘moral capital’ that might be developed in
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chapter seven | adolescence
Development of the self
e development of abstract reasoning skills and changing social rela-
tions inuence how adolescents think about the self. An important task
for adolescents is to decide who they are, and to develop their own values.
The self-concept
Your self-concept refers to your perception of yourself, your under-
standing of what you are like. How do people’s self-concepts change in
In chapter six, you learnt that social comparison starts to play an
important role in children’s self-concepts during middle childhood. is
tendency to compare the self with others continues in adolescence. In
fact, younger adolescents are often very self-conscious and preoccupied
with how others see them. But as young people move into late adoles-
cence, they increasingly start to see themselves in terms of their own
personal beliefs and values, rather than in terms of how they compare to
others (Harter, 1998; Steinberg & Morris, 2001).
ere is another important way in which the adolescent’s self-concept
diers from that of the child. e development of formal operational
thought means that adolescents are more likely than children to use
abstract labels such as ‘intelligent’ or ‘extraverted’ to describe themselves.
In mid-adolescence, their self-descriptions vary across situations and
across time. At this age, adolescents see themselves dierently, depending
on whether they are with their peers, parents or teachers (for example shy
with peers, outgoing at home). By late adolescence, young people become
better able to integrate their dierent or contradictory tendencies into a
more general, coherent theory of the self. For example, a person who is
sometimes cheerful and sometimes depressed might integrate these seem-
ingly contradictory characteristics by using a higher-order abstract con-
cept such as ‘moody’ or ‘emotional’ (Harter, 1998).
Once adolescents begin to reect on their own characteristics, they must
deal with the question ‘How much do I like myself?’ One study investi-
gated self-esteem from age 9 to age 90, using data collected from more
than 300 000 individuals over the Internet (Robins, Trzesniewski, Tracy,
Gosling & Potter, 2002). e ndings showed that there was a drop
inself-esteem in early adolescence, although self-esteem started to rise
again in late adolescence. Girls’ self-esteem dropped about twice as much
in adolescence as boys’ self-esteem.
e drop in self-esteem in early adolescence is probably due to a com-
bination of factors. e transition to high school can be stressful, because
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it places new academic and social demands on children at the same time
as it puts them at the bottom of the school social hierarchy. Having left
grade seven as the big sh in a small pond, they must now start grade
eight as the smallest sh in a big pond. In addition, girls in particular
may become unhappy with their changing bodies. e increased cogni-
tive capacities of adolescents also mean that they are more knowledgeable
than children about their strengths and weaknesses.
Not all adolescents experience this dip in self-esteem, however.
Adolescents who have the approval and support of parents and peers,
and who do well in areas that are important to them, are likely to see
themselves as worthy and capable (Steinberg & Morris, 2001).
Identity formation
According to Erikson (1971), one of the main developmental tasks of
adolescence is to develop a coherent sense of identity. e term ‘identity
refers to a person’s clear and consistent sense of who he or she is, what he
or she believes and values, what he or she is going to do with his or her
life, and where he or she ts into society. e quotations from Leanne
and Brian in the case study at the beginning of this chapter illustrate how
adolescents become increasingly concerned with questions of who they
will be and what they will do ‘one day’. Identity formation involves three
major issues: the choice of a career, the adoption of values to believe in
and live by, and the development of a satisfying sexual identity.
Erikson proposed that adolescents experience the psychosocial crisis
of identity versus role confusion as they struggle to determine who they
are and where they are going in life. Young people who resolve this
crisis in a positive way are able to formulate personal values, goals, and
standards. ey know who they ‘really’ are, and they have psychological
strengths such as high self-esteem and an ability to form close relation-
ships with others. In contrast, young people who resolve this crisis in a
negative way remain confused over who they are and lack self-esteem.
eir values are unclear and are easily inuenced by others, and they have
diculty forming commitments and loyalties (Kroger, 2007). Erikson
thought that such identity confusion is most likely to occur if earlier
psychosocial crises were resolved in a negative way, or if society tries to
force adolescents into roles that do not match their abilities or interests.
Individual differences and developmental trends in identity formation
James Marcia (1966) expanded on Eriksons theory and developed an
interview that allows investigators to classify adolescents into one of four
identity statuses based on what they say about making occupational, reli-
gious, and political choices. e key questions are whether or not the indi-
vidual has experienced a process of exploration (or has seriously grappled
a person’s clear and
consistent sense of who
he or she is, what he or
she believes and values,
what he or she is going to
do with his or her life, and
where he or she ts into
Chapter_7_CAD.indd 234 8/10/12 11:43 PM
chapter seven | adolescence
with identity issues and explored alternatives) andwhether or not he or
she has achieved a commitment (that is, resolved the issues raised and made
a personal investment in a set of goals, beliefs or values). Depending on
whether or not there is a process of exploration and commitment, the
individual is classied into one of the following four identity statuses:
• Identity diusion: e identity diusion status is characterised by a
lack of both exploration and commitment. Adolescents in the diu-
sion status have not yet thought about their identity, or have given
up the search. ey have not established goals or values, and may
take an ‘I don’t care’ attitude. For example, consider an adolescent
named Susan. When Susan is asked what she wants to do when she
leaves school, she answers, ‘I don’t know. I havent really given it much
thought. I’m sure something will turn up.’
• Foreclosure: Individuals in the identity foreclosure status have
committed themselves to goals and values, but without exploring
an alternative. ey seem to know who they are, but have uncriti-
cally accepted identities chosen for them by signicant others, such
as parents or teachers. For example, consider an adolescent named
Nabeelah. Nabeelah plans to study medicine because her parents have
always wanted her to become a doctor.
Identity diffusion
an identity status
characterising individuals
who have not given much
thought to who they are,
and have not committed
themselves to particular
goals or values
an identity status
characterising individuals
who have committed
themselves to an identity,
but without much
thought– they are
becoming what others
want them to become
Figure 7.3 Questions around ‘Who am I?’ tend to become more frequent in
adolescence, as young people face the task of developing a coherent sense of
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pa rt t wo | sta ge s of development
• Moratorium: Individuals in the identity moratorium status are in the
process of searching for meaningful adult roles and values, but have not
yet made a commitment. For example, consider an adolescent named
Loyiso. Loyiso had planned to study engineering. However, he has dis-
covered that he is also very interested in graphic design, and is now unsure
about which career path to follow. He has started reading and talking to
people in order to nd out as much as he can about each career option.
• Identity achievement: An individual who has explored alternatives
and made a commitment to personal goals and values is in the iden-
tity achievement status. For example, consider an adolescent named
Philip. Philip has been enjoying his course in media and writing, and
has managed to get a part-time job as a sub-editor at the Cape Times.
He has given a lot of thought to journalism as a career, and is con-
vinced that it is right for him.
Identity development follows many dierent paths. Many individuals
remain in one status throughout adolescence, whereas others make one or
more transitions from one status to another. Identity diusion is considered
to be the least developmentally mature status, and identity achievement the
most mature. Most young adolescents progress from less mature statuses to
more mature ones as they move into their late teens or early twenties. How-
ever, some move in the reverse direction (for example from achievement to
moratorium) as they start to question decisions they had previously made
(Meeus, Van de Schoot, Keijsers, Schwartz & Branje, 2010).
ere is also evidence that identity development does not happen
neatly, but in bits and pieces. Adolescents often achieve a sense of iden-
tity in one area (for example their career goals) while remaining confused
about another area (such as their religious beliefs) (Archer, 1982). So cer-
tain aspects of identity may take shape earlier or remain more stable than
others do. And decisions are not made once and for all, but have to be
made time and time again. Nowadays, many researchers believe that the
development of identity is a lifelong task. It begins with the development
of a sense of self in infancy, and continues into old age. Questions around
‘Who am I?’ do tend to be particularly frequent in adolescence and early
adulthood, but they are not exclusive to this age.
Inuences on identity formation
Research has shown that the process of identity formation is inuenced
by at least the following six factors:
• Cognitive skills: e development of new cognitive skills associated
with formal operational thinking allows adolescents to think in more
abstract and exible ways, and to imagine possible futures for them-
selves. us, adolescents who are more capable of complex, abstract
an identity status
characterising individuals
who are actively exploring
identity issues or
experiencing an identity
crisis, but who have not
yet committed themselves
to an identity
Identity achievement
an identity status
characterising individuals
who have seriously
considered identity issues,
resolved them, and made a
commitment to particular
goals and values
Chapter_7_CAD.indd 236 8/10/12 11:43 PM
chapter seven | adolescence
thinking, who actively seek information, and who have good problem-
solving skills are more likely to raise and resolve identity issues than
those who are less cognitively advanced (Kroger, 2007). From what
psychologists already know about the development of the brain during
adolescence (especially with regard to reecting, deciding, and plan-
ning), it is easy to see the diculties that young people might encoun-
ter in investigating possible futures including career choices, goals, and
plans. Furthermore, if there is little stimulation and help with regard
to developing cognitive skills such as planning, learning, and choosing,
this can have a negative eect on an adolescent’s overall life outcomes.
• Personality: Adolescents who are high in the personality traits of
‘openness to experience’ and ‘conscientiousness’ and low in the per-
sonality trait ‘neuroticism’ are more likely to explore alternatives and
achieve an identity (Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006). ese adoles-
cents are curious, responsible, and emotionally stable.
• Relationships with parents: Identity formation is also inuenced by
relationships with parents. Adolescents tend to have diculty forging
their own identities when their parents are neglecting, rejecting, and emo-
tionally distant from them, or overprotective and overcontrolling. Adoles-
cents who have made the most progress towards achieving an individual
identity tend to come from homes where high levels of warmth and sup-
port are combined with low levels of psychological control (Meeus, 2011).
In these families, there is a solid base of aection, closeness, and mutual
respect between children and parents (connectedness), but children are
also given the freedom to disagree with their parents and be individuals in
their own right (individuality) (Grotevant & Cooper, 1998).
• Support from peers: Social support from peers, including close
friends and romantic partners, also has a positive impact on identity
development during adolescence (Meeus & Dekovic, 1995).
• Opportunities to explore: Identity formation is also inuenced by
the extent to which adolescents are provided with opportunities to
explore the world outside the home. Such opportunities can be pro-
vided by a variety of experiences, including those involved in work
internships, volunteer projects, youth organisations, and attendance
of university (Kroger, 2007).
• e cultural and economic context: e extent to which adolescents
are provided with opportunities to explore is likely to depend on the
broader cultural and economic context. Western industrialised socie-
ties that value individualism, personal choice, and responsibility allow
adolescents a period of time in which to explore dierent roles before
nally choosing an identity. Questioning and personal choice play a
smaller role in traditional societies, or societies where educational and
work opportunities are limited by racial, gender, political or economic
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pa rt t wo | sta ge s of development
In the case study at the beginning of this chapter, you were introduced to
two participants in a study of adolescents growing up in Cape Town’s Fish
Hoek valley (Bray et al., 2010). Another participant in this study was Charney, a
17-year-old girl living with her parents in the working-class area of Ocean View.
Charney stood out as being unusually successful at school and popular with her
peers. She enjoyed spending time with her family, and described her mother as
her best friend: a trusted companion with whom she could talk about anything.
Yet her mother was also quite strict: she set clear boundaries for Charney’s
behaviour, and challenged her to use her talents and be the best she could be.
Charney was primarily responsible for the cooking and cleaning at home,
but her parents were exible with regard to domestic tasks, and willing to lis-
ten and negotiate. Their relationship with Charney was one of mutual respect,
openness, and honesty.
Charney’s mother also actively tried to build Charney’s condence and instil
certain values in her, including that she did not need other people, such as
friends or boyfriends, to dene who she is. Charney spoke about some early
experiences of giving in to peer pressure, but said that she now takes a strong
stand against being persuaded to do things she does not wish to do. She was
one of only two girls at her high school to pass matric with exemption in 2005
(Bray et al., 2010).
1 Based on what you have learned in this chapter, how would you describe
the parenting behaviour of Charney’s parents? How does this compare to
the parenting that you received? How do you think your relationships with
your parents in adolescence have inuenced your academic achievement,
behaviour, and social and emotional development?
• How does the self-concept change in adolescence?
• Why might a drop in self-esteem occur in early adolescence?
• What are the four identity statuses identied by James Marcia?
• What factors inuence the process of identity formation?
barriers. In the South African context, where possible futures are
limited by environmental constraints such as poverty and a lack of
employment, this life stage is made more dicult for teenagers. In
these cases, foreclosure may be more adaptive than identity achieve-
ment (Coté & Levine, 1988).
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chapter seven | adolescence
2 Now that you have been introduced to the concepts of moral ecology and
moral capital, what advice would you give to educators or policy makers
who want to improve the moral behaviour of young people?
Adolescence is marked by dramatic physical growth and physiologi-
cal changes, combined with important cognitive and social transitions.
Genes, childhood experiences, and the environment in which a per-
son reaches adolescence all inuence behaviour. While family relation-
ships remain important, friends and other peers become increasingly
Development is also aected by the broader context in which ado-
lescents live. In South Africa, poverty may reduce young peoples oppor-
tunities to develop cognitive skills, to behave morally, and to explore
possible futures.
Some adolescents nd the challenges of this period stressful, and a
small number have serious problems. Others, like Charney in the case
study at the end of the chapter, cope well. Contrary to the popular ‘storm
and stress’ view, most adolescents are reasonably happy and well behaved;
nd much to enjoy in their friendships, leisure activities, and family lives;
and are hopeful about the future (Arnett, 1999; Graham, 2004).
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Brendan McMahon gives a brief overview on the basics of psychoanalytical theories of child development.
This study has two aims, to examine aspects of Kohlberg's claims of universality within a unique research context and to explore differences in moral development between black and white South Africans. 81 participants from four different age groups were administered Form A of Kohlberg's moral judgement interviews. Analysis supported the age-relatedness of Kohlberg's stages of moral development and provided some support for the notion that the stages should be evident in various cultures. A significant difference in moral development between black and white groups in the 19- to 28-yr. age group was found. Further, black and white groups had different concerns when justifying moral choices. The results were discussed in the context of the South African system, which until recently has been one of institutionalised racial division.
No aspect of adolescent development has received more attention from the public and from researchers than the topic of this chapter. Much of the research indicates that despite altered patterns of interaction, parent-child relationships remain important social and emotional resources well beyond the childhood years (for recent reviews, see Grotevant, 1998; Steinberg, 2001; Steinberg & Silk, 2002). The aim of this chapter is to specify the processes of relationships that sustain the centrality of familial relationships amid the extensive changes of adolescence. Like Grotevant (1998), this chapter espouses the view that the content and quality of relationships, rather than the actions of either parent or adolescent alone, determine the nature and extent of parental influences on development in and beyond adolescence.
To investigate the cultural universality of the developmental stages of moral judgment in Kohlberg's theory, moral development of white (Afrikaans- and English-speaking) and black (Sotho-, Xhosa- and Zulu-speaking) South African adolescents was studied cross-culturally. While the white adolescents showed a moral developmental pattern in line with Kohlberg's theory, the black adolescents showed a different pattern. The influence of Western and traditional norms and values, parenting styles and the possible effect of historical factors, such as the previous apartheid government system and the current democratic system on the moral development of the white and the black adolescents in South Africa are discussed. Greater consideration should, therefore, be given to the effect of the cultural, social and historical context on moral development.