General Characteristics of the Adolescent (page 4)
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.
The Redefinition of Friendship: A Need for Communication
Ask a nine-year-old child to tell you the name of her best friend and why the two of them are friends. She is likely to describe her friend in a somewhat concrete way. She will tell you, for example, what her friend looks like, how she dresses, where she lives, and other information about her friend's external characteristics. Ask a teenager the same question, and you are likely to hear a description filled with references to the other person's personality characteristics, such as attitudes, values, worries, interests, and beliefs (Berndt, 1982; Diaz & Berndt, 1982).
Developmental changes occur not only in the types of knowledge people have about their friends, but also in basic definitions of friendship, in the expectations one has of one's friends, and in the perceived obligations of friendship, with the general trend being a shift from external, action-oriented conceptions to those that are internal and communication oriented (Bigelow, 1977; Ryan & Smollar, 1978; Smollar & Youniss, 1982). As an illustration of this pattern, Volpe (1976) reported that a 10-year-old boy, asked how one develops a friendship, answered, "Friends are easy to make. All you have to do is go up to a guy, and ask him if he wants to play ball; then he's a friend. If he don't want to play ball, then he's not a friend, unless you decide to play something else" (in Smollar & Youniss, 1982, p. 283). In contrast, 12- and 13-year-olds usually referred to the importance of personal qualities rather than shared activities, and they stressed the importance of really getting to know somebody intimately, with particular emphasis on their interests, likes, and dislikes.
Adolescents, then, see a relationship as an opportunity to satisfy their need to communicate, and they seek levels of intimacy with their peers that children do not require. Mere playmates—people whose preferred recreational activities are the same as one's own—are no longer sufficient, and shared personality characteristics replace shared activities as the basis for friendship. It should not be surprising, therefore, that a major function of play during adolescence is to satisfy this need for intimacy. We shall see that although much of adolescent play is less structured than that of children and often consists of simply "hanging out," such play is no less important developmentally than the games of childhood.
The Growth of Self-Awareness: A Need for Identity
As children enter their teenage years, a number of circumstances occur that cause them to reevaluate their definitions of self. The first is a series of major physical changes attributable to the onset of puberty. Erikson (1963) maintained that as a result of pubertal changes "all samenesses and continuities relied on earlier are more or less questioned again". In other words, because the transitions of early adolescence are so rapid and so dramatic, children must, in a sense, reacquaint themselves with their own bodies.
A second major change at adolescence is the change in social roles and expectations; the adolescent is no longer expected or allowed to behave like a child and now must make serious plans for the future as an adult. As but one example of these changed social expectations, frivolous or unrealistic career goals are no longer seen as appropriate by adults, and the adolescent is encouraged to think seriously about future work roles.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, adolescents can reason in abstract terms, and are now able to analyze themselves, to stand back and assess themselves as others see them. In fact, Erikson (1963) believes that although the major concern of children is with what they feel they are, the concern shifts during adolescence; teenagers become concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of other people.
Physical changes, changed social roles and expectations, and the intellectual changes related to formal reasoning all combine to challenge the adolescent to integrate past, present, and future in such a way as to establish a stable and consistent sense of self. This is the crisis of identity. A stable identity will not be established quickly, however, and it is during the period of adolescence that there is a slow trial-and-error process of identity resolution. Teenagers test themselves in a variety of ways as they seek deeper levels of self-awareness. They tryout different jobs, different classes at school, different relationships. Quite often it is through relationships that adolescents come to understand themselves. Erikson noted, for example, that when adolescents fall in love, it is not entirely a sexual matter, but may also be an attempt to understand the self by seeing the self reflected in the loving eyes of another person.
When we speak of adolescent play, we should try to think of it in the context of the adolescent's attempts at identity resolution. While Erikson did not directly address the issue of play during the teen-age years, his conceptualization of ego development explains much about the play of adolescence. Adolescent play, as we shall see, is both a reflection of and an effort to satisfy the adolescent's need for identity.
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