Scholars—and adults in general—have pondered for centuries the mysterious processes that influence the ways in which children gradually become adults. The word adolescence, which came into English in the 15th century, has a Latin origin, and Aristotle was an early observer who recognized adolescence as a distinct phase of life. The study of adolescence matured as a scientific endeavor during the latter half of the 20th century, and it has emerged as a distinctly interdisciplinary field of inquiry. Scholars of human development, pediatrics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, psychiatry, molecular biology, endocrinology, neuroscience, and many other fields have focused on adolescence and produced a wide range of findings. At the same time, policy makers, educators, community health specialists, and others concerned with the life challenges facing adolescents have looked for ways to use scientific findings to better serve young people and their families.1
The development of professional organizations and journals devoted to adolescence, as well as increasing appreciation in academia and the world of policy for the importance of this phase of life, have helped this field catch up with the pace of research on other stages of human development,
particularly infancy and early childhood. Over the past 30 years, the study of adolescence has exploded with breakthroughs that have pushed thinking about interactions among the complex systems that affect adolescents—from the endocrine system to the social peer group—forward at a dizzying pace. Researchers and practitioners are now exploring important connections among these complex systems, examining the impacts of different social environments on the development of biological systems and psychological processes. Similarly, many scientists are studying the relationships between certain biological factors and the motivations, impulses, and social behaviors of young people. The diversity of specialized fields and theoretical frameworks that have emerged in these studies has generated interest in the development of an integrated overview to provide more cohesion within the field and also to improve understanding of the implications of findings. But, despite past calls for interdisciplinary research (e.g. Millstein et al., 1999), the creation of a comprehensive synthesis of research that draws on very different intellectual traditions has remained persistently elusive.
The development of a comprehensive review of research on adolescence depends in large part on the perceived need for such a synthesis and the extent to which different research fields as well as policy and practice would benefit from such an effort. To address these issues, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, through the Board on Children, Youth, and Families, held a two-day workshop in September 2005.
The workshop was designed as an opportunity for an interdisciplinary group to explore the different strands of research that contribute to understanding adolescence. In the brief time available, the group was not asked to address the entire range of issues related to adolescent health and development, but rather to provide an initial explanation of issues that a longer term study might address. The workshop planners began with the proposition that understanding the complex phenomenon of adolescence demands widely different theoretical and methodological perspectives.
In planning the workshop, the program committee developed a framework to identify the multiple settings and research disciplines that encompass the fields of adolescent science. Recognizing that one workshop could not address all fields within this framework, the committee sought to focus on a selected set of research domains that could provide the basis for examining interactions and processes within a transdisciplinary paradigm that cuts across individual fields of research. The planners had particular interest in highlighting scientific breakthroughs, as well as interventions that
apply research findings to benefit youth, their families, and the professionals who work with them.
To that end, the workshop planning committee sought to address the following objectives:
To highlight emerging fields of research that are of particular relevance to understanding fundamental processes of adolescent and young adult health and development, including advances in biological, behavioral, and social sciences;
To consider frontier areas of research that are important to address but need further development;
To examine the strengths and limitations of different theoretical and developmental frameworks for the organization and classification of scientific knowledge about this field and adolescent and young adult age groups;
To identify opportunities for synthesizing research on adolescents and young adults that can contribute to the promotion of their health and positive developments, delivery of health care services to them, and the prevention of behaviors that jeopardize their current and future health, safety, and well-being; and
To examine the need for and feasibility of launching an in-depth contextual study that synthesizes adolescent and young adult research and connects its findings to advance health promotion and prevention services, programs, and policies for these age groups.
The workshop discussions presented a variety of perspectives—including detailed looks at a few key research areas—with the goal of fleshing out possible means of integrating research with policy and service needs. The presenters were chosen with the goal of reflecting the diversity of research topics and methodologies, but with the clear recognition that many other important issues and research areas could not even be touched on during the brief workshop session. Some of the presenters prepared papers for the workshop, which provide more detail about cutting-edge research as well as implications for treatment and intervention. Along with these papers, Power Point presentations also are available on the web site of the Board on Children, Youth, and Families at the National Academies (http://www.bocyf.org/090805.html).
This report summarizes the major themes discussed at the workshop.2 It begins with an overview of what adolescence is and current views of the processes that shape development in the second decade of life. It explores the transdisciplinary research issues already presented in this field, as well as issues raised in discussions of goals for the field’s future. A closing section describes the presenters’ thoughts on the feasibility of launching an in-depth contextual study that could more firmly establish connections among the many fields of study concerned with adolescence.