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General Characteristics of the Adolescent

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

We now turn to an examination of some general characteristics of the period of adolescence, again referring to needs in the three areas of social, intellectual, and personality development. We shall later attempt to relate these three types of needs to the forms of play that are often observed during the adolescent years.

In terms of intellectual development, the adolescent is experiencing a transition from the concrete form of reasoning that typifies the middle childhood years to a reasoning that is abstract and hypothetical. The intellectual need of the adolescent is a need for abstract conceptualization. In social terms, the adolescent needs more than simply to belong within the peer group; now there is a need to single out particular individuals with whom one can have an intimate relationship. In their social interactions and in their play, adolescents express a compelling need for communication. Finally, the adolescent is engaged in a struggle to create a stable and permanent sense of self-to achieve a degree of self-awareness and self-acceptance. Again, play will be the context within which this need for identity can often be met.

Formal Operations: A Need for Abstract Conceptualization

The use of a logical system of thinking appears, as we have pointed out, at the beginning of the elementary school years and brings with it a passion for order that is seen in children's games-with-rules. As adolescence approaches, however, there is again a qualitative change in the processes of thought. The adolescent, according to Piaget (1983), is ready for a transition from thinking in concrete to thinking in formal operations.

The child who is using logic is still limited in terms of the types of issues and problems that can be reasoned about. Children can reason about the concrete, but they are not yet able to reason about abstractions. They can apply their logic to questions involving objects, people, places, and events, but cannot reason about ideas, theories, and concepts. It is during adolescence that people are first able to scrutinize their own thought processes and personality characteristics, to question the meaning of political structures and religious ideologies, to analyze the nature of feelings, such as love and hate, and to attempt an understanding of the significance of life itself.

Formal operations allow the user to be more planful in problem solving. Instead of relying on trial-and-error approaches to problems, the formal thinker sets up a variety of hypotheses, or "if-then" statements, ranks them in order of probability, and then tests them out systematically in sequence. This is known as hypothetico-deductive reasoning, and it allows the formal thinker, in contrast to the child who is using concrete operations, to generate a universe of alternatives when dealing with a problem. Thus, formal thought is possibility oriented, while concrete reasoning is focused on the real rather than the possible.

The possibility orientation of formal reasoning also allows the adolescent to go beyond the world as it exists and to speculate about a world that might be or that might have been but never was. Indeed, young adolescents often become so absorbed in the realm of possibility that they forget the realistic limitations on their dreams. The ability to consider numerous life possibilities other than those that actually exist often leads the adolescent to become overly idealistic. Why can't the world be different, they ask; adults reply that someday they will realize that an outcome's being theoretically possible does not mean that it is likely to occur.

Finally, a characteristic of adolescent thinking that is relevant to a discussion of their play activities is adolescent egocentrism. The two major forms of egocentrism during the teenage years have been referred to as the imaginary audience and the personal fable, and both result from the adolescent's failure to distinguish his or her thought processes from those of other people (Elkind, 1981).

The imaginary audience is the belief that what is of interest to oneself is of interest to others as well, and adolescents are often shocked to discover that their passion for a particular cause is not shared by other people; in fact, most people may be totally indifferent to an issue that an adolescent may be ready to die for. The issues that are of greatest concern to most people, of course, are those directly related to themselves: concerns about one's body, one's clothing, one's personality. Adults are likely to realize, however, that their interest in themselves is probably not shared by others; adolescents often feel, on the other hand, that other people are as interested in them as they are in themselves.

Adolescent egocentrism appears also in the form of the personal fable, the belief that one is unique and that no one else could possibly share or understand one's thoughts and feelings. The often tragic element in the personal fable is that a teenager may take frightening risks, secure in the belief that nothing bad could happen to him or her. Bad things happen only to other people.

The types of play engaged in by adolescents in our society reflect the transition to formal operational thinking, with its emphasis on abstraction, explorations of the realm of possibility, and the early confusion in reconciling one's own thoughts and those of other people. Play also enhances adolescents' thinking processes by offering an opportunity for them to indulge their need for abstract conceptualization.

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