Mass Cultural Council logo
Young man working in RAW Art Works studio
Home / Creative Youth Development / Boston Youth Arts Evaluation Project / Brief History of Adolescence & Youth Development

Boston Youth Arts Evaluation Project

Brief History of Adolescence & Youth Development

All of the collaborators of the Boston Youth Arts Evaluation Project have been serving youth since the 1990’s. For over three years (2008-2011), the five organizations of the BYAEP cohort met together, engaging in many illuminating discussions about what works effectively with teens and young adults, and what does not. Our programs have thrived because more than talking we listen to the experts themselves—the youth. Finding out what they want, how they think programs should be designed, and what we can improve upon has been our ongoing focus. As we embarked upon this project, however, we knew that we needed to consult other experts in the field to substantiate and enhance what we knew from our experience. We reviewed developmental theories, sought to gain a better understanding of the brain, and explored the ways in which supporting youth in the arts could aid in their growth process. All of this was directed toward the goals of 1) developing a framework that could best explain the work we do, and 2) creating tools that could assess the indicators and the outcomes in the framework.

The depth of our research rooted us in the collective knowledge necessary to develop the BYAEP Framework. The following section provides a brief review of adolescence as a stage of life and some of the latest findings about the brains of adolescents. Both topics help to elucidate the necessity of addressing the specific needs of youth in our work and the ways in which youth arts development programs are ideally suited to address these needs.

More on this subject can be found in the excellent publication (to which BYAEP contributed) by the National Guild for Community Arts Education entitled “Engaging Adolescents

Early Studies of Adolescence

Although the first use of the word “adolescence” appeared in the 15th century and came from the Latin word “adolescere,” which meant “to grow up or to grow into maturity” (Lerner & Steinberg, 2009, p.1), it wasn’t until 1904 that the first president of the American Psychological Association, G. Stanley Hall, was credited with discovering adolescence (Henig, 2010, p. 4). In his study entitled “Adolescence,” he described this new developmental phase that came about due to social changes at the turn of the 20th century. Because of the influence of Child Labor Laws and universal education, youth had newfound time in their teenage years when the responsibilities of adulthood were not forced upon them as quickly as in the past. Hall did not have a very positive view of this phase, and he believed that society needed to “burn out the vestiges of evil in their nature” (G. Stanley Hall, 2010). Therefore, adolescence was a time of overcoming one’s beast-like impulses as one was engulfed in a period of “storm and stress” (Lerner & Israeloff, 2005, p. 4). He identified three key aspects of this phase: mood disruptions, conflict with parents, and risky behavior.

Other work appearing in the late 1950s through the 1970s in Europe and America helped adolescence emerge as a field of study (important earlier work by Freud, Piaget, Maslow, and Kohlberg also addressed stages of development). In BYAEP, we were interested in how the work of Erik Erikson related to our work and how it articulated what we knew. Erikson (1959, pp. 251-263) described the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan. Erikson looked at life in eight stages. We felt that our age group of 13-23 year-olds actually struggled with the following three stages:

Psychosocial Stage 4 – Industry vs. Inferiority, age 5-11. Main Question: Am I successful or not? Through social interactions, children begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments and abilities. BYAEP focus: Competence.

Psychosocial Stage 5 – Identity vs. Confusion, age 12-19. Main Question: Who am I and where am I going? During adolescence, children are exploring their independence and developing a sense of self. Identity formation can take a long time and can lead to an “Identity Crisis.” BYAEP focus: Identity.

Psychosocial Stage 6 – Intimacy vs. Isolation, age 20-35. Main Questions: Am I loved and wanted? Should I share my life with someone or live alone? This stage covers the period of early adulthood when people are exploring personal relationships. BYAEP focus: Connections.

In the chapter “Developing the BYAEP Framework” you will see how these areas of focus contribute directly to building our framework.

In 1962, Peter Blos published a book titled On Adolescence. Blos, a German-born American child psychoanalyst, was known as Mr. Adolescence as a result of his research into the problems of teens. His theories described the conflicts teens have between wanting to break free of their parents and desiring to remain dependent. He popularized the notion that there were two individuation stages in human development. The first occurs when one is a toddler, and the second takes place when one is an adolescent and is finally able to shed family dependencies. Since maturity depends on achieving a degree of independence, it is during adolescence that the “self” develops. The goal is to be independent and to discover and celebrate one’s unique attributes as one develops one’s distinct potential.

Cultural and Gender Studies Expanding the Western View of Adolescence

It is important to note that in many other societies adolescence is not recognized as a phase of life. Instead, there is a distinction between childhood and adulthood, with significant rituals around this transformation. The duration of these rituals may be only a few days, whereas in the United States the period of adolescence often lasts over a decade. Although we have bat mitzvahs, confirmations, and celebrations around getting a driver’s license or graduating from high school, teens in this country often lack formal road-marks on their way to adulthood. Youth are frequently left to design their own rites-of-passage, gang violence, pregnancy, and graffiti may serve as such passages. Seeing these risk factors among many others fueled the common belief of Western society through the 1970s that teens were “broken” with major deficits and needed to be “fixed” in order to become self-sufficient and independent.

The 1970s also ushered in a greater focus on and understanding of cultural context and gender differences. New approaches shaped broader definitions of what it meant to develop an identity and sense of self in adolescence. Webster’s (1984, p. 627) defines self as “the essential being of one person as distinct from any other.” This definition is in strong contrast to the “self” seen in other countries. In most Asian, African, Latin-American, and southern European countries, the “self” is experienced with a more interdependent rather than independent view. For instance, in Japan the word for “self” is Jibun, which means “one’s share of the shared life space” (Kitayama & Markus, 1991, p. 228). This is quite a different “self” and one that honors interdependence.

The Western world began to look more closely at ways to define “self” in the 1970s. With its roots in psychology’s multicultural and feminist movements, the field of relational-cultural therapy (RCT) was born. In 1976, Jean Baker Miller published Towards a New Psychology of Women, a groundbreaking work in the understanding of human relationships. The relational model she described, in which growth-fostering relationships are seen as central to well-being and disconnections are often seen as the source of psychological problems, offered a paradigm shift in our understanding of human development. This view dramatically helped to open the doors for a reappraisal of the importance of family relationships during adolescence. Emphasis that had been placed on disengagement, where “storm and stress” were seen as normal and inevitable, was re-examined as culturally constructed. What had been seen as a “female trait,” caring about relationships, was newly perceived as a human characteristic critically needed in human development and our society.

Theorists also began to delve further into gender and culture. Stemming from important theoretical works like Carol Gilligan’s (1982) In a Different Voice, popular books like Reviving Ophelia: Saving Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher (1994) came out in the1990s. Pipher’s book looked at how escalating levels of sexism and violence in our culture cause girls to stifle their creative spirits and natural impulses, which ultimately destroys their self-esteem. An important book about boys followed. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by child psychologists Daniel J. Kindlon and Michael Thompson (1999) explored the frequently hidden and often painful lives of male teens who are sad, hurting, scared, silent and at a high risk for suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, loneliness and violence. Whereas girls may shut down in adolescence because of a culture of objectification, boys are steered away from their emotional lives (“big boys don’t cry”) by adults and their peers, and they often experience a culture of cruelty. In this culture, boys seldom receive encouragement to develop qualities such as compassion, sensitivity, warmth, and empathy.

The Youth Development movement built upon and tied together many of the newly embraced concepts described above, with the fields of positive youth development and community youth development emerging in the 1980s and 1990s. “Youth development” is the process through which young people acquire the social, cognitive, and emotional skills and abilities required to navigate life (University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension, 2005). This movement looks at how youth need peers, adults, schools and a community to build their skills and interests into adulthood. Youth development principles focus on the assets of every child and stress how early intervention can lead to success. Richard Lerner and his colleagues (2009, p. 17) wrote, “It is the goal of the positive youth development perspective to promote positive outcomes. This idea is in stark contrast to a perspective that focuses on punishment and the idea that adolescents are broken.” The positive youth development movement places the emphasis on helping youth achieve their potential rather than focusing on the risks of their development. It also encourages all youth to contribute to the well-being of the greater community by developing emotional literacy, emotional expression, and acceptance—skills needed greatly by both sexes and a society at large.

What is Going on in the Brains of Youth and Why the Arts Can Help

It was once widely believed that the brain stops growing shortly after puberty, but we now know that it keeps maturing well into the twenties, as the limbic system (where emotions originate) and the cortex (what manages those emotions) are both still forming. Teens, thus, have a limbic system that is highly active during puberty, with a prefrontal cortex that keeps maturing for another ten years! It is easy to see how emotions might outweigh rationality and teens’ overall ability to manage them.

Dr. Linda Mayes at the Yale University School of Medicine looks at brain development, stress, adolescence, and addiction. Mayes (2008) has found that adolescence is a prime time to experiment with risky behavior. The prefrontal cortex–the front of the brain which contains the executive control function—is the command center where we ask, “Is this right or wrong?” and make decisions by weighing rewards and consequences. Because this part of the brain grows and develops well into adulthood, teens experience a dual challenge because the sub-cortical parts of their brain (the “pleasure zone”) develop very quickly and are hypersensitive to reward. This region of the teen brain becomes highly activated and releases feelings of great pleasure when taking chances, driving fast, taking drugs, etc. The promise of potential reward often overrides the concern about perceived risks involved. Dobbs (2011) explains, “We all like new and exciting things, but we never value them more highly than we do during adolescence. Here we hit a high in what behavioral scientists call sensation seeking: the hunt for the neural buzz, the jolt of the unusual or unexpected. And although sensation seeking can lead to dangerous behaviors, it can also generate positive ones” (p. 3).

Researchers have also found that the normal teen brain that is already developmentally “imbalanced” is further challenged during stress. Many of the youth we serve live in poverty, with challenging family circumstances and sometimes violence. They come of age experiencing adult demands very early in their lives. In our five programs, when we asked youth if they felt their chance of living to age 35 was 50/50 or less, over 30% said, “Yes.” In one program this number was as high as 50%, over three times the national average (Borowsky, Ireland, & Resnick, 2009, p. 81). Part of this may be due to the fact that, in several of our programs in BYAEP, greater than 60% of youth surveyed had experienced one or more friends or family members die due to violence, drug overdose or other unnatural causes.

In moments of stress, the not-yet-fully-developed prefrontal cortex’s function is diminished, survival and pain relief instincts kick in, and youth steer toward towards risk-taking and pleasure-seeking activities. Adolescence offers teens a brain that is wide open to trying new things, but it also poses a huge risk when youth are stressed, as the call of addiction to drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and fattening foods can be loud—offering promise of relief from the negative emotional state.

“Before coming here I was falling. After being involved here I feel like you caught me.” – Andrew, age 16

Mayes did a sixteen-year longitudinal study of prenatal cocaine exposure which looked at stress in toddlers and at possible intervention strategies for mitigating the effects of drugs and poverty. Researchers were trying to answer the question, “If you are an impulsive highly stressed toddler, are you automatically going to be a drug using adolescent? If not, what prevents it?” (Mayes, 2008)

Mayes has been testing how the intervention of one person, a strong positive caring figure in a child’s life, can mitigate the negative influences that he or she was born with. This is the person Mayes describes as one “who has you in mind when you come home from school” (2008). Rather than the earlier-held goal of disconnection from family to achieve independence, this view posits that adolescents need parents, other adults, and programs such as the five involved in BYAEP to “hold them in mind” in order to mitigate the compelling draw to drugs, depression, eating disorders, etc.

In 1999, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities sponsored “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” which introduced seven pieces of research documenting the impact of arts learning on young people and the nature of that experience. This collection includes the results of decade-long research conducted by Stanford University professor Shirley Brice Heath, and identifies qualities in the creative experience—exploration of individual identity, risk-taking, and responsibility for consequences—that account for its impact on young people. In the arts, youth have a greater range, degree and frequency of risk-taking than in community service or athletic programs. Teens experiment with new materials and try new methods and forms of interaction and presentation safely and with the support of others. This experience of exploring, discovering, and presenting with others in the arts helps youth to build a richer identity with increased skills of commitment and responsibility and connections with both peers and adults. Adolescence is a time when youth are most open to new possibilities and new chances for change, an optimal time for the arts to intervene because positive risk-taking can be at an all-time high. Participation in the arts offers teenagers excitement, risk, and a multitude of ways to safely leave their comfort zone and feed possibilities for their future.

In summary, adolescence is a time of both significant risk and great opportunity. Psychologist Dr. Reed Larson addressed the topic well in his 2010 talk, “Positive Development in a Disorderly World,” when he asserted that the “developmental challenges of adolescence—of coming of age in a disorderly word—are enormous. These challenges need more recognition and research. Despite the limitations of the human mind, adolescents have enormous strength and potential for learning and development. We as a field have an important role in better understanding these potentials, how they develop, and how to support their development” (Larson, p. 23). Larson and others have begun to discover the highly beneficial role of youth programs in adolescent development. Quality youth arts programs are able to attend to the deep complexity of teens’ lives while offering them the ability to work with peers and adults to navigate challenges, use strategic thinking, show leadership, develop resiliency, and learn to better understand and self-regulate their emotional selves.

“Before coming here, I would waste my time doing things that weren’t important or productive and would always be the person watching others doing what I wished I was capable of doing. After being here, I know I am capable of doing anything I put my mind to. I’ve become a leader and am no longer the one looking at people doing something. I am the one making a difference and being involved. I am a better, stronger, and a more determined individual.”
– Danielle, age 17

BYAEP Table of Contents

Back to Top