Defining Adolescence: Five Questions for the First Day of Class

How Do We Define Adolescence?: Five Questions about the Definition of Adolescence to Facilitate Classroom Conversation

On the first day of class, I realized that the Obama Administration’s health insurance reform has affected my introductory exercise. Typically, on the first day, I ask students to write down responses to five questions:

  1. When does adolescence begin and end?
  2. Do most adolescents rebel? Support your position.
  3. What is the most important influence on teens during adolescence?
  4. What is the biggest problem during adolescence?
  5. Do teens participate in more risky behavior than people at other stages of the lifespan?

We then discuss each question one by one—setting a tone that participation is part of the class. In response to the first question, I get a variety of ages from which students perceive the beginning of adolescence (e.g., 9, 10, etc.) and occasionally something non-numeric like puberty. I then reveal that most individuals would point to puberty as a sign of the beginning of adolescence, but that system is faulty because of the wide variance in the beginning of puberty, and the relationship of signs of puberty to body fat accumulation (and obesity). So, the answer becomes, “we don’t know.”

For the end of adolescence, students often say an age in the late teens or early twenties, and a jokester will sometimes say “Never– for some guys I know.” I usually point out that for many 18, the legal recognition of adulthood, becomes an indicator of adulthood. At the same time, in California, a proposition passed several years ago where juveniles, as young as 14 who were mostly violent offenders, could be tried as adults and sentenced to adult prisons, so the magic legal age of 18 is in flux for some things. For a long time, I generally concluded that I believed that the end of adolescence is when one has to be responsible for his or her own health insurance (Or, choose to go without insurance). In the recent past, insurance companies generally kicked youth off their parents’ health insurance somewhere in the early twenties. Now, the health insurance reform allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26. So, I’m now left without a clear demarcation of when adolescence ends. At the same time, I wonder if the extension of coverage will further shape the stage of emerging adulthood, given the strengthening of parent-emerging adult ties around insurance issues.

By Robert Weisskirch

Image by Eisenhans/AdobeStock