Developmental Tasks of Normal Adolescence

Some years ago, Professor Robert Havighurst of the University of Chicago proposed that stages in human development can best be thought of in terms of the developmental tasks that are part of the normal transition. He identified eleven developmental tasks associated with the adolescent transition. Each of the Havighurst tasks can also be seen as elements of the overall sense of self that adolescents carry with them as they move toward and into young adulthood.
  1. The adolescent must adjust to a new physical sense of self. At no other time since birth does an individual undergo such rapid and profound physical changes as during early adolescence. Puberty is marked by sudden rapid growth in height and weight. Also, the young person experiences the emergence and accentuation of those physical traits that make him or her a boy or girl. The young person looks less like a child and more like a physically and sexually mature adult. The effect of this rapid change is that the young adolescent often becomes focused on his or her body.
  2. The adolescent must adjust to new intellectual abilities. In addition to a sudden spurt in physical growth, adolescents experience a sudden increase in their ability to think about their world. As a normal part of maturity, they are able to think about more things. However, they are also able to conceive of their world with a new level of awareness. Before adolescence, children's thinking is dominated by a need to have a concrete example for any problem that they solve. Their thinking is constrained to what is real and physical. During adolescence, young people begin to recognize and understand abstractions. The growth in ability to deal with abstractions accelerates during the middle stages of adolescence.
  3. The adolescent must adjust to increased cognitive demands at school. Adults see high school in part as a place where adolescents prepare for adult roles and responsibilities and in part as preparatory for further education. School curricula are frequently dominated by inclusion of more abstract, demanding material, regardless of whether the adolescents have achieved formal thought. Since not all adolescents make the intellectual transition at the same rate, demands for abstract thinking prior to achievement of that ability may be frustrating.
  4. The adolescent must develop expanded verbal skills. As adolescents mature intellectually, as they face increased school demands, and as they prepare for adult roles, they must develop new verbal skills to accommodate more complex concepts and tasks. Their limited language of childhood is no longer adequate. Adolescents may appear less competent because of their inability to express themselves meaningfully.
  5. The adolescent must develop a personal sense of identity. Prior to adolescence, one's identity is an extension of one's parents. During adolescence, a young person begins to recognize her or his uniqueness and separation from parents. As such, one must restructure the answer to the question "What does it mean to be me?" or "Who am I?"
  6. The adolescent must establish adult vocational goals. As part of the process of establishing a personal identity, the adolescent must also begin the process of focusing on the question "What do you plan to be when you grow up?" Adolescents must identify, at least at a preliminary level what are their adult vocational goals and how they intend to achieve those goals.
  7. The adolescent must establish emotional and psychological independence from his or her parents. Childhood is marked by strong dependence on one's parents. Adolescents may yearn to keep that safe, secure, supportive, dependent relationship. Yet, to be an adult implies a sense of independence, of autonomy, of being one's own person. Adolescents may vacillate between their desire for dependence and their need to be independent. In an attempt to assert their need for independence and individuality, adolescents may respond with what appears to be hostility and lack of cooperation.
  8. The adolescent must develop stable and productive peer relationships. Although peer interaction is not unique to adolescence, peer interaction seems to hit a peak of importance during early and middle adolescence. The degree to which an adolescent is able to make friends and have an accepting peer group is a major indicator of how well the adolescent will successfully adjust in other areas of social and psychological development.
  9. The adolescent must learn to manage her or his sexuality. With their increased physical and sexual maturity, adolescents need to incorporate into their personal identity, a set of attitudes about what it means to be male or female. Their self-image must accommodate their personal sense of masculinity and femininity. Additionally, they must incorporate values about their sexual behavior.
  10. The adolescent must adopt a personal value system. During adolescence, as teens develop increasingly complex knowledge systems, they also adopt an integrated set of values and morals. During the early stages of moral development, parents provide their child with a structured set of rules of what is right and wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable. Eventually the adolescent must assess the parents' values as they come into conflict with values expressed by peers and other segments of society. To reconcile differences, the adolescent restructures those beliefs into a personal ideology.
  11. The adolescent must develop increased impulse control and behavioral maturity. In their shift to adulthood, most young people engage in one or more behaviors that place them at physical, social, or educational risk. Risky behaviors are sufficiently pervasive among adolescents that risk taking may be a normal developmental process of adolescence. Risk taking is particularly evident during early and middle adolescence. Gradually adolescents develop a set of behavioral self-controls through which they assess which behaviors are acceptable and adult-like.
Adolescents do not progress through these multiple developmental tasks separately. At any given time, adolescents may be dealing with several. Further, the centrality of specific developmental tasks varies with early, middle, and late periods of the transition. During the early adolescent years young people make their first attempts to leave the dependent, secure role of a child and to establish themselves as unique individuals, independent of their parents. Early adolescence is marked by rapid physical growth and maturation. The focus of adolescents' self-concepts are thus often on their physical self and their evaluation of their physical acceptability. Early adolescence is also a period of intense conformity to peers. "Getting along," not being different, and being accepted seem somehow pressing to the early adolescent. The worst possibility, from the view of the early adolescent, is to be seen by peers as "different."

Middle adolescence is marked by the emergence of new thinking skills. The intellectual world of the young person is suddenly greatly expanded. Although peers still play an important role in the life of middle adolescents, they are increasingly self-directed. Their concerns about peers are more directed toward their opposite sexed peers. It is also during this period that the move to establish psychological independence from one's parents accelerates. Much of their psychological energies are directed toward preparing for adult roles and making preliminary decisions about vocational goals. Despite some delinquent behavior, middle adolescence is a period during which young people are oriented toward what is right and proper. They are developing a sense of behavioral maturity and learning to control their impulsiveness.

Late adolescence is marked be the final preparations for adult roles. The developmental demands of late adolescence often extend into the period that we think of as young adulthood. Late adolescents attempt to crystallize their vocational goals and to establish sense of personal identity. Their needs for peer approval are diminished and they are largely psychologically independent from their parents. The shift to adulthood is nearly complete.

Adapted from: Ingersoll, Gary M. (to be published). Normal adolescence. Bloomington, IN: Center for Adolescent Studies