Rebellious Adolescence: A Misleading Stereotype

In both males and females, hormonal changes of adolescence can lead to sudden mood changes. Rapidly changing bodies and new problems such as acne can also cause anxiety. According to a common stereotype, adolescence is full of discord, trouble with parents, and rebellion. Carl Jung referred to adolescence as "the unbearable stage."

One thing is for sure: the rebellious minority gets attention, whether it is ducktailed greasers playing chicken with hot-rod cars in the 1950s, hippies of the 1960s, punks in the 1980s, gangsta rappers in the 1990s...and what would it be for the 2000s, YouTube addicts? That seems somehow less sinister, but normally whatever stereotype emerges is sure to surprise and horrify parents, and it is also certain to get lots of media attention, even if it involves only a fraction of adolescents in a few urban areas in a few countries. That's the way it normally works; adolescent fashion extremes fascinate and threaten the adult public. As a result of disproportionate news coverage, one can get the impression new and bizarre lifestyles are widespread when they are actually comparatively rare.

Who gets the media attention, among adolescents?

Joseph Adelson, editor of the Handbook of Adolescent Psychology (1980) saw the pattern clearly a long time ago. He tried to set the record straight during an interview by a journalist for Michigan Today, a magazine that discussed research of University of Michigan professors.

Interviewer: You've been studying adolescence for some time now. Have you reached any conclusions?

What did Joseph Adelson discover about adolescents?

Adelson: Only that the prevailing view of the adolescent is wrong, has always been wrong and in all likelihood will continue to be wrong.

Interviewer: That's a sweeping statement. How did you reach that conclusion?

Adelson: Some years ago I took part in a large national study, done right here at the Institute for Social Research, on the psychology of adolescence. Three thousand youngsters were carefully sampled; it was the first study of its kind, and still one of only a handful available.

...What all of us believed about the adolescent period simply was not true. Taken as a whole, they were not rebellious, nor were they impulsive, nor were they discernibly disturbed. They were not at odds with their parents, or with society or with man's wretched destiny on this earth. They were not Holden Caulfields, nor were they James Deans—the prototypic adolescent figures of the time.

Thereupon I sought to make these findings known, published a paper reporting them and, in my blessed innocence, sat back and waited for the data to carry the day, for truth to supplant error. That did not happen then, nor has it yet. ...The idea of adolescent upheaval and alienation and defiance is a wild exaggeration. But the truth has not had much effect. ("Adolescence," 1985)

There are differences between generations, but Adelson calls them "cosmetic." Some might quarrel with his implication that cosmetic differences are trivial, when he includes in that category "such things as clothing, hairstyling, preferences in music, modes of substance abuse...." However, other researchers have come to the same conclusion. Mass media play up these differences, but the underlying majority of adolescents are not out on the fringes, they are leading relatively normal lives.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey