What is Adolescence and its Influence on Behavior

Psychologists have come to recognize that adolescence is a unique period of human development.  There has been a vast amount of material written about adolescence, yet the behavior of adolescents has too often been ignored as a subject of scientific inquiry (Twiford & Carson, 1980, p.4).  Some adults are frustrated in their attempt to understand much of the behavior of adolescents.  The criminal justice system has had its hands full with the increase in juvenile crimes.  Young adolescents who are going through some very unique changes in their development are committing these crimes.  The factors involved are critical in the influence and the shape of adolescent life.

A popular view of adolescence portrays it as a period of “storm and stress” (Twiford & Carson, 1980, p.25-26). Experts have described adolescents as inconsistent, unpredictable, erratic, emotional, and self-centered.  Broadway’s “West Side Story” presented various stereotyped views of adolescent behavior within urban ghettos, where gang warfare and delinquency are superimposed against a background of adolescent love and emotion.  G. Stanley Hall applied the phrase “storm and stress” as he saw turmoil during adolescence as a universal and inevitable consequence of normal human development.  For most adolescents, the transition period of adolescence is a happy and trouble-free period of life.  For a few, the teen years are troublesome, sometimes marked by antisocial or illegal behavior (Sanders, 1991, p.2).

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As teenagers begin to define themselves into adulthood, they begin to seek more independence from family and less parental supervision (Onyehalu).  The cases of delinquent or antisocial behaviors among adolescents have not been convincingly established.  However, experts have offered theories involving causal factors range from personality problems to family, social, and economic considerations (Reed).

The partial explanation lies in the fact that many of the unlawful activities the teens take part in generating powerful intrinsic rewards (Twiford & Carson, 1980, p.81).  Examples include the bored teenager who seeks thrills through driving at excessive rates of speed, often resulting in speeding tickets.  Results of stealing include possession of the stolen item as well as peer approval.  For many young people, there is also intrinsic value in drinking, sexual promiscuity and other status offenses.

Scientists representing the fields of psychology, sociology, and biology have attempted to explain the etiology of delinquent and criminal behavior. Psychologists tend to emphasize the life experience and dynamics of individuals in their attempts to cope with their respective environments.  Sociologists adhere to broader explanations, stressing the influence of selective social factors on the behavior of the adolescent.  Biologists, on the other hand, have studied the role of genetics and biochemistry in delinquency and criminal behavior.  They have hypothesized that a certain genetic disorder (XYY) may be responsible for the reported high rate of criminal offenses committed by afflicted individuals.  Another perspective to look at is that at least 10 percent of adolescents suffer from psychological disorders.  One such disorder is schizophrenia (Twiford & Carson, 1980, p.82).

This condition represents a severe type of psychological disorder that falls under the general category of psychosis (Powell, 1971.  In the psychoses, reality contact is significantly impaired, and the adolescent’s behavior is typically disorganized and Youth 3 bizarre. The disorder may affect the adolescent’s emotional life (affective psychosis), thoughts (schizophrenia), or a combination of both.   The adolescent’s ability to meet the ordinary demands of life is significantly impaired, and behavior is grossly disturbed.  They typically show delusions of persecution {i.e., thoughts of being plotted against} and grandeur {i.e., thoughts of being very important, famous, or extremely wealthy}.  Auditory and/or visual hallucinations are common, as is bizarre and hostile behavior.  The causes of psychoses are varied and not completely understood.  Some specific forms result from brain injury due to physical trauma or drug effects.  Other forms are probably due to environmental factors, psychological stress, or biochemical and genetic factors (Sander, 1991, p.4).

It has been hypothesized that some youths inherit a genetic configuration that makes them predisposed to violence and aggression.  In the same way that people inherit genes that control height and eye color, biosocial theorists believe that antisocial behavior characteristics may be inherited (Siegel & Senna, 1991, p.96).  Research on the genetic basis of delinquency received a boost when it was found that Richard Speck, convicted killer of eight Chicago nurses, had an unusual genetic structure.  Speck possessed an extra male chromosome; instead of the normal forty-six XY structure, he had a forty-seven XYY chromosome makeup. Though numerous research studies failed to find conclusive proof that males with an extra Y chromosome were disproportionately violent and criminal, interest brought about by the Speck case boosted research on the genetic influences of delinquency (Siegel & Senna, 1991, p.96).

Another area of great interest in trying to understand youth and delinquency has been the cognitive school.  Psychologists with a cognitive perspective focus on mental processes and the way people perceive and mentally represent the world around them, how they solve problems, and how they perceive their environment.

One of the most important aspects of cognitive psychology in regards to delinquency is the moral and intellectual development theory.  Jean Piaget, the founder of this approach hypothesized that people’s reasoning processes develop in an orderly fashion, beginning at birth and continuing until they are 12 years and older (Siegel & Senna, 1991, p.105).  At first, during the sensorimotor stage, children respond to the environment in a simple manner, seeking interesting objects and developing their reflexes.  By the fourth and final stage, the formal operations stage, they have developed into mature adults who can use logic and abstract thought.  Lawrence Kohlberg applied the concept of moral development to issues in criminology.  He suggested that people travel through stages of moral development, during which their decisions and judgments on issues of right and wrong are made for different reasons.  It is possible that serious offenders have a moral orientation that differs from that of law-abiding citizens (Siegel & Senna, 1991, p.105).  Kohlberg’s theory of moral development suggests that people who obey the law simply to avoid punishment or who have outlooks mainly characterized by self-interest are more likely to commit crimes than those who view the law as something that benefits all of society and who sympathize with the rights of others.

A number of other psychological traits have also been linked to the onset of delinquency.  The two most prominent are personality and intelligence (Siegel & Senna, 1991, p.106).  Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (1974, p. 2) identified a number of personality characteristics that characterize delinquents:


 Self-assertiveness                           Defiance


 Extroversion                                   Suspicion


 Defiance                                          Poor personal skills


 Impulsiveness                                 Mental Instability


 Distrust of authority                        Lack of concern for others

The Glueck research (1974, p.2) is representative of the view that delinquents maintain a distinct personality whose characteristics increase the probability that they will be aggressive and antisocial and that their actions will involve them with agents of social control, ranging from teachers to police.

The development of intelligence and its subsequent relationship to behavior is another topic that concerns psychologists.  Of particular importance to the study of delinquency is the allegation that there is an inverse relationship between IQ and youthful law violence (Healy & Bonner, 1926, p.181).  On the contrary, Edwin Sutherland (1973, chap.15) evaluated IQ studies of criminals and delinquents and noted significant variations in their findings.  The discrepancies were believed to reflect refinements in testing methods and scoring rather than differences in the mental ability of criminals.  After many years of neglect regarding intelligence and delinquency, Travis Hirschi and Michael Hindelang (1977, p.586) revived interest in the association between IQ and delinquency.  After conducting a statistical analysis of a number of data sets, Hirschi and Hindelang concluded both that IQ tests are a valid predictor of intelligence and that “the weight of evidence is that IQ is more important than race and social class” for predicting delinquent involvement.

Theories that focus on individual human development and its relationship to choosing delinquent and other forms of antisocial behavior are still emerging and are likely to receive greater attention in the 1990s and well into the year 2000.

Juvenile crime is increasing rapidly and getting much more violent.  Not a single theory, whether it be a sociological, psychological, environmental, or criminological can solely explain the phenomenon of delinquent behaviors.  I believe that besides psychologically, education, family support, and strong values is the key to depreciate the number of criminal activities being committed by our country’s youth today.

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