Social factors and individual thoughts and behaviors


The term “Psychosocial” refers to the interrelationship between social factors and individual thoughts and behaviors.  It is very normal for healthy adolescents to experience self-doubt, academic difficulties and family squabbles.  There is a percentage of teens; however, who deeper, more serious problems.  Psychologists distinguish between 3 broad types of problems for teens.

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  1. Substance abuse. This is the misuse of alcohol or other drugs to a degree that causes problems in an individual’s life.


  1. Externalizing disorders. This is when a young person’s problems are turned outward and manifested in behavioral problems such as truancy, delinquency and antisocial aggression.


  1. Internalizing disorders.  Problems that are manifested by turning inward as in depression and anxiety.


When it comes to Substance abuse society send young people mixed messages.  TV commercials say “Just say no!” but the shows and videos that young people watch subtly support it.


Studies show that alcohol is by far the “drug of choice” among teens who use substances, followed by marijuana and tobacco.  By the time they are seniors in high school, 66% of teenagers have tried alcohol, 44% have smoked marijuana and 34% have smoked cigarettes.  About 10% of high school seniors smoke daily, 7% use marijuana daily and 2% drink alcohol daily.


Several surveys have estimated ethnic differences in rates of adolescent substance use.  White adolescents are generally more likely to use drugs and alcohol than African American and Hispanic youngsters, although differences in substance use between the ethnicities have been getting smaller.


Because the teenage brain is still developing, experimenting with drugs is harmful.   Certain drugs make people feel good because they affect the same receptors in the brain that are sensitive to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for experiencing pleasure.  Repeated exposure to drugs affect the brain and make the brain NEED the drug in order to experience pleasure.


Externalizing Problems

The first thing we talk about with externalizing problems is a disorder called conduct disorder.  Conduct disorder is a repetitive and persistent of behavior that results in problems at school, work and/or relationships.  Symptoms of this disorder include violating the rights of others, having problems with authority, cruelty to animals and sometimes breaking the law.


A related, but less serious disorder is called ODD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder.  This refers to behaviors that are spiteful, angry, and argumentative.


Another way of externalizing problems is through aggression.  This is defined as acts done to be purposefully harmful.


As for internalizing problems, this is often seen by symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.  Depression is characterized by low self-esteem, decreased motivation, sadness and difficulty in finding pleasure in things one used to enjoy.  This affects about 8% of teenagers.  Teenagers can be sad and unmotivated from time to time.  This is not depression.  Depression is when that sadness persists and gets in the way of daily life.


According to statistics, more than 10% of female high school students and 5% of male high school students attempt suicide.  Thinking about suicide is called suicide ideation.  Suicide ideation increased during early adolescence, peaks at age 15 and then decreases.


Teens also can experience non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) such as burning or cutting.  Some studies report that as much as 25% of teens have engaged in NSSI behaviors at least once.


Stress and Coping

Many teens report difficulties with coping with stressful situations at home or school.  For some teenagers, stress can lead to anxiety, depression, headaches and even a compromised immune system.



Session 2 Class Lecture Biological Transitions

Biological Transitions

We must first talk about puberty when discussing Biological Transitions. Technically, puberty is the period of time when an individual becomes capable of sexual reproduction. It is also the time period when physical changes occur in the growing boy/girl. Lots of changes happen in puberty! Mostly girls/boys experience rapid increases in height and weight and the development of sex characteristics.

The endocrine system produces, circulates and regulates levels of hormones. HORMONES are secreted into the bloodstream and travel through the body carrying messages. During adolescence, a “feedback loop” occurs. This is a cycle that fosters the growth and development in adolescence.


The actual “onset” of puberty is triggered by several factors, including a “biological alarm” that is coded in an individual’s genes. This along with environmental signals tell the body it is time to reproduce, and puberty begins. This is why the start of puberty is different for everyone.


During adolescence, there is a “growth spurt.” This happens very rapidly. Much of the height gained during this time is in the torso area rather than the leg length. Head, hands and feet also grow very fast. Different parts of the body do not always grow at the same rate, which is why teens sometimes can look awkward. Ever have an “awkward stage?” If you know a teen going through this, tell them not to worry. Things balance out!


In this stage of life, diet and exercise becomes increasingly important. Rapid increases of body fat happen naturally, and in our society, girls especially, (but increasingly boys too) can become dissatisfied with their appearance and weight. This satisfaction varies across cultures. This time is very important to instill in youth that a healthy and balanced lifestyle with nutritional meals and adequate exercise is critical. Fad diets and restriction of calories can be very harmful.


During this time, both girls and boys experience sexual maturation. For boys, the first to develop is the testes and scrotum and there is a first appearance of pubic hair. Facial and body hair and deepening of the voice are gradual and usually come a little later during adolescence. For girls, breast buds appear. In addition, development and growth occurs in the form of menstruation. The term for the beginning of menstruation is Menarche.


Naturally there are variations in the time and the tempo of puberty. It can actually begin as early as age 7 in girls and 9.5 in boys or as late as 13 in girls and 13.5 kin boys. Individuals mature at different rates and times, and this is due to genetic factors (maturation is inherited) and social factors. Some research suggests that maturation is linked to family functioning. Puberty is said to begin earlier in families where a father figure is absent and/or where the family unit has had a lot of conflict. Early puberty for girls is also linked to physical and sexual abuse. One reason is that tension might induce stress. Stress affects the hormonal secretions that can get the process started.


We also know that puberty occurs much earlier in industrialized countries.


Besides the physical changes, there is a social and psychological impact that puberty has on girls and boys. Puberty has a direct effect on behavior. Changes can cause self-image issues. Also, changes in the body can make teens feel more grown up and feeling like they want more independence from their parents. Children experiencing puberty can also be moody! Rapid changes can cause irritability, shifts in mood and impulsivity.


Teens often get into a pattern called a “delayed phase preference.” This is a pattern of sleep characterized by later sleep/wake times. Teens can stay up later without feeling sleepy. Many teens say that they can go to bed late at night, still wake early for school and just catch up on sleep over the weekend. Research does not support this idea! Having a different sleep/wake pattern on the weekend can contribute to sleep problems! Also, the consumption of caffeine and tobacco has a major impact on sleep patterns in teens.


Obesity and Eating Disorders

Obesity – More than 1/6 of adolescents in the US are obese. 15% are at great risk for obesity. This number has risen over the last 30 years. Compared to his peers in the 1960s, the average boy is 15 pounds heavier today. The average girl is 10 pounds heavier. Obesity is now considered the single biggest public health problem afflicting teens. It is estimated that this public health epidemic will cost more than 250 billion dollars in loss of productivity and medical costs when those teens are adults.

  • It does not help that meals at school are still unhealthy. One study of 500,000 California adolescents found that students attending schools that were near fast food restaurants were significantly more over weight. Also, junk food advertisers focus their efforts on the teen population.


Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder
With Anorexia, individuals starve themselves in an effort to keep weight down. With bulimia, folks force themselves to vomit or purge the calories they have consumed during what is called a “binge.” A newly identified eating disorder called “binge eating disorder” is when an individual experiences binge eating and does not compensate through vomiting or other forms of calorie -purging.


Eating disorders received increased attention in the 1980s. Anorexia has been observed all over the world. Bulimia is mostly prevalent in Western cultures.
Eating disorders are often linked to other psychological disorders.

Navigating the world of rapid growth, social, environmental, physical and biological changes is a lot for ateen. It’s important for adults to be sensitive to these changes.



Session 3 Class Lecture Cognitive Transitions

Cognitive Transitions

Cognitive transition refers to changes in THINKING.

Adolescent thinking is much different than the thinking patterns of younger children.  Teens think:

  • about what is possible instead of just what is real
  • more abstractly
  • about the process of thinking
  • multi-dimensionally rather than about one single issue


Adolescents can consider choices, reason, and gain deeper understandings of issues.


One way is through DEDUCTIVE reasoning.  Deductive reasoning is a type of logical reasoning in which one draws logically necessary conclusions from a general set of givens.



All hockey players wear mouth guards.

Kim is a hockey player.

Does Kim wear a mouth guard?


Deductive reasoning tells us that, yes, Kim must wear a mouth guard in this scenario.

Consider this:

All hockey players wear mouth guards.

Kim is wearing a mouth guard.

Is Kim a hockey player?


A pre-teen or young child might say yes, that Kim must be a hockey player.  A teen will be able to understand that we really don’t know if Kim is a hockey player.  The sentence doesn’t say that ONLY hockey players wear mouth guards.  A teen’s brain might realize that mouth guards could be worn in other circumstances.


Teens also engage in hypothetical thinking or “IF-THEN” thinking.  This involves planning ahead.   A concept like “If I do my homework now, I’ll have time to play my video game later.” is the kind of thinking that teens begin to engage in.


Teens also begin to experience something called “imaginary audience.”  This involves such a heightened sense of self-consciousness that the teen imagines that his/her behavior is the focus of everyone’s attention.  For example, a teen going to a concert where 10,000 people will attend, may worry about what to wear, thinking that “everyone will notice his/her clothes.”  In truth, the 10,000 people there are not very concerned about what one adolescent is wearing.  They are more concerned about themselves and the concert!


Have you ever experienced “imaginary audience thinking?”  Was it worse as a teen or as an adult?


Swiss Psychologist, Jean Piaget. 1961 developed a view of thinking.

Children actively try to make sense of their environment rather than passively soak up info.

Children progress through 4 distinct cognitive stages:


  1. Sensorimotor stage: birth – 2 years. They acquire knowledge through their senses. They touch everything, try to taste stuff etc. They reach, grasp, pull and pour stuff. They have to do this to gain a basic understanding of the effects their actions have on the environment. Turning lights on and off and  building blocks and knocking them down are very popular during this stage. This is necessary behavior.


This is the out of sight, out of mind stage. So if a ball rolls under the couch, to the baby, it doesn’t exist anymore.

Toward the end of this stage, babies begin to realize that things still exist even if you can’t see them.


The term Object permanance means an understanding that an object exists even if it can’t be seen.


  1. Preoperational stage is ages 2-7.

Children engage in symbolic thought – ability to use words, images, and symbols. Lots of language development goes on here.  Children use lots of imagination when playing.


  1. Concrete operational stage is : 7-18. During this stage, individuals are capable of having true logical thought.


  1. Formal operational stage: adolescence through adulthood. Individuals can think logically when dealing with abstract problems.



When it comes to adolescence, transitioning from childhood to adulthood begins around 11 or 12.

Females are typically about 2 years ahead of males when it comes to physical maturation.

Genetics and environment play a role in puberty.  When your parents reached puberty plays a role in when you will, and also nutrition and health play a role.




Memory and Attention

Memory and attention is part of cognitive functioning.  Selective attention is the process of focusing on one thing while ignoring another.  Divided attention is the process of trying to pay attention to two or more things at the same time.  Working memory is the aspect of memory in which information is held for a short time while a problem is being solved.  Long term memory is the ability to recall something from a long time ago.  Autobiographical memory is the recall of personally meaningful events.



The Adolescent Brain

The brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons (grey matter) which are cells that carry information by transmitting electrical charges through neurotransmitters.  Initially, the brain produces many more connections than it will use.  Because of this, a process called synaptic pruning takes place.  Pruning is when unnecessary connections are eliminated, improving the efficiency of information processing.  Myelination is the process through which brain circuits are insulated with myelin (fatty tissue called white matter.)  This process improves the efficiency of information processing.


Two neurotransmitters called dopamine (which plays an important role in how we experience rewards) and serotonin (plays a role in our moods) are linked to hormonal changes in puberty.  This makes the adolescent brain send the message to be more moody, emotional, more responsive to stress, and more likely to engage in reward-seeking behavior and take risks.    This also increases vulnerability to substance abuse. And other mental health problems




IQ (Intelligence Quotient)

Psychologists have devised ways to access intelligence.   Today, IQ tests are mostly used (Intelligence Quotient.) An individual’s IQ is computed by dividing his/her mental age by his/her chronological age and then multiplying the result by 100.

100 = average

Below 100 = poorer test performance than the average person

Above 100 = a better performance than average.


These types of IQ assessments test verbal skills, vocabulary, comprehension, arithmetic, memory, perceptual reasoning and picture completion.


Sternberg’s “Triarchic” Theory

This is a three-part theory of intelligence.  Sternberg argued that a person’s intelligence is based on:

  1. Componential Intelligence = ability to acquire, store and process info
  2. Experiential intelligence = ability to use insight and creativity
  3. Contextual intelligence = ability to think practically (street smarts)

Everyone has all three, however some folks are more “street smart” than “book smart.”  Some people who are great test takers may not have high abilities in practical issues and vice versa.

This theory supports the claim that there is more to being “book smart.”



Another perspective is called the Vygotsky Perspective.


Leo Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who emphasized a broader idea of intelligence.  He believed that the nature of the environment that the individual is in plays a part in his/her intelligence.  Cognitive skills are also developed due to everyday problems people are expected to solve.  Vygotsky felt that when it comes to intelligence, educators should challenge students just enough.  Too simple tasks and too difficult tasks will not permit children to solve problems on their own.  Tasks that are slightly more difficult than what a child is used to will foster learning.


Vygotsky coined the phrase “Zone of Proximal Development.”  This means the level of challenge that is still within reach, but that forces an individual to develop advanced skills.  It is the job of educators to structure learning situations that are within reach of students.


The term scaffolding refers to structuring learning situations so that they are just within reach of the student.  In scaffolding, teachers help children build upon what they already know to advance their learning.


Theory of Mind

Theory of mind develops in adolescence.  This is the ability to understand that others have beliefs, intentions and knowledge that may be different than one’s own.   As adolescents grow, they become more likely to understand that someone’s opinion is different than theirs. They gain perspective.  This change in thinking changes relationships in a positive way between parents, friends and community.  Teens become better able to see others’ points of view.


Also, teens get better at understanding social conventions.  Social conventions are norms that govern everyday behavior in social situations.  (When you leave a room and someone is behind you who is also leaving, do you slam the door in his/her face, or do you hold the door open?  Holding the door open is the acceptable “social convention” in that situation.)


Adolescents and risk taking

Teens are often involved in risky situations.  Substance abuse, reckless driving, and unprotected sex are a few.  More than 40% of teens report texting and driving.  1/5 has driven in a car with an intoxicated driver. 1/10 has driven intoxicated.  (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014 statistics)


Behavior Decision Theory is an approach to understanding adolescent risk taking, in which behaviors are seen as the outcome of systematic decision-making processes.  According to this theory, all behaviors including risky ones are analyzed in a 5 step process:

  1. Identify alternative choices
  2. Identify consequences that might follow each choice
  3. Evaluate costs vs benefits of each consequence
  4. Assess the likelihood of each possible consequence
  5. Combine all info and make a decision.

In addition, it is thought that teens often subscribe to the false thinking that they can’t be harmed.


Teens seek sensation-seeking experiences.  They become susceptible to peer pressure .  The mere fact that friends are watching them, increases their risk-taking behaviors.



One study that looked at car accidents found that having multiple passengers in the car increases the risk of crashes dramatically among 16 and 17 year old drivers, significantly among 18 and 19 year old drivers and not at all among adults.    Adolescent passengers can be distracting to new drivers. And teens take more risks when their peers  are around.



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