What is the most difficult period of adolescence, and what is behind the distress?
The eighteenth year is the time of greatest conflict between parent and child, typically. But the thirteenth and fourteenth years commonly are the most difficult twenty-four months in life for the youngster. It is during this time that self-doubt and feelings of inferiority reach an all-time high, amidst the greatest social pressures yet experienced. An adolescent's sense of worth as a human being hangs precariously on peer-group acceptance, which can be tough to garner. Thus, relatively minor evidences of rejection or ridicule are of major significance to those who already see themselves as fools and failures. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of having no one to sit with on the school-sponsored bus trip or of not being invited to an important event or of being laughed at by the "in" group or of waking up in the morning to find seven shiny new pimples on your forehead or of being slapped by the girl you thought had liked you as much as you liked her. Some boys and girls consistently face this kind of social catastrophe throughout their teen years.
Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, eminent authority on child development at Cornell University, told a Senate committee that the junior high years are probably the most critical to the development of a child's mental health. It is during this time of self-doubt that the personality is often assaulted and damaged beyond repair. Consequently, said Bronfenbrenner, it is not unusual for healthy, happy children to enter junior high school but then emerge two years later as broken, discouraged teenagers.1
Urie Bronfenbrenner, “The Social Ecology of Human Development” in Brain and Intelligence: The Ecology of Child Development, ed. Fredrick Richardson (Hyattsville, Md.: National Educational Press, 1973).