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Adolescents: A Historical Overview of Developmental Theories

Abstract and Keywords

This article begins with an overview of biological development based upon empirical research. The main focus of the article is the presentation of the major theoretical frameworks that have been employed to explain the processes involved in the psychological, cognitive, moral, social, and sexual development of the adolescent and empirical research findings where appropriate.

Keywords: adolescent development, adolescence, psychological development in adolescence, cognitive development in adolescence, moral development in adolescence, social development in adolescence, sexual development in adolescence, biological development in adolescence


The concept of adolescence—a period in the life cycle between childhood and adulthood—was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century by Hall (1904). Although Hall considered adolescence to extend from 12 years to between 22 and 25 years, most researchers and theorists consider the age span to be from 12 to 18 years. Adolescence has also been divided into phases or age groupings, most typically preadolescence, early adolescence, middle adolescence or adolescence proper, and late adolescence (Blos, 1941, 1979; Dunphy, 1963; Sullivan, 1953).

Although menarche (the onset of menstruation) serves as a fairly clear biological marker for the entry of girls into adolescence, no similar clear-cut criterion exists for boys. Adolescence appears to be a phenomenon primarily of postindustrial societies. However, puberty, “the biological and physiological changes associated with sexual maturation” (Muuss, 1962, p. 5), is formally or informally recognized across all cultures, and the developmental sequence is similar, although the time frame may vary (Brooks-Gunn & Reiter, 1990).

The criteria that can indicate the end of adolescence are even less clear. The lack of uniformity in the laws discriminating between the status of minors and the status of adults for activities that range from marriage to alcohol consumption is a pointed example.

Adolescent Development

Biological Development

The development of primary and secondary sexual characteristics during adolescence is the result of endocrine changes, which produce changes in hormone levels. Although the growth rate during infancy proceeds at a more accelerated rate, the magnitude and rate of change experienced during puberty is more significant because the adolescent is more cognizant of the changes he or she is experiencing (Tanner, 1972). The sequence of development is considered universal; however, individual timetables for the various stages differ, and the areas of development may not be synchronous (Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Peterson & Taylor, 1980).

Since the beginning of the 20th century (especially since the 1950s), physical maturation has continued to occur earlier with each successive generation. This “secular trend” is particularly evident in the earlier onset of menarche and in the increases in the rate of growth and full adult stature over the past century. In the United States, the average age of menarche at the beginning of the 20th century was slightly over 14 years; by mid-century, it was less than 13 years (Tanner, 1962). The average age after the turn of the 21st century was 12.4 years (Stang & Story, 2005). Factors hypothesized to explain these phenomena include improvements in health and nutrition as well as the “hybrid vigor” hypothesis, which attributes the changes to the intermarriage of various groups because of greater social mobility (Muuss, 1970). However the age at which menarche occurs is highly variable; occurring as early as 9 years of age or as late as 17 years of age with factors that delay the onset of menstruation being restricted caloric intake and body weight or competing athletically (Stang & Story, 2005). Reports have found that 6.7% of White girls and 27.2% of African American girls were showing some signs of puberty by age 7 (American Psychological Association, 2002).

Among the most dramatic of the physical changes during adolescence is the height spurt. Girls generally experience their increase in height between 9.5 and 14.5 years of age, with the major increase in height occurring approximately 6–12 months prior to menarche, or when they are around 12 years old, about two years before boys (Stang & Story, 2005). Boys experience their growth spurt between 12.5 and 15 years; on average the major increase occurs at 14.4 years of age. However, the length of the growth spurt has great variation so that for girls it usually lasts 24–26 months, ending by 16.5 years of age, while for boys it can continue at a slower rate ceasing between 18 and 21 years of age (Stang & Story, 2005).

Changes also occur in weight; girls develop increased subcutaneous fatty tissue and boys usually become heavier than girls. Although the hips and shoulders become wider in both boys and girls, the boys’ shoulders become wider than their hips, and girls’ hips wider than their shoulders. Changes in skin texture and oiliness take place, along with gradual changes in the timbre and pitch of the voices of both boys and girls (Faust, 1977; Peterson & Taylor, 1980; Tanner, 1972).

Early physical maturation generally has a positive effect on boys; boys who mature early are rated as more relaxed and poised, higher in self-esteem, less dependent, and more attractive to and popular with their peers than those who mature later (Clausen, 1975; Jones, 1965; Mussen & Jones, 1957; Peskin, 1967; Petersen, 1987; Simmons & Blyth, 1987). Girls seem to have the opposite experience; early maturation appears to result in negative evaluations, including feelings of isolation, submissive behavior, and less popularity with and leadership of their peers (Clausen, 1975; Jones & Mussen, 1958; Peskin, 1973; Simmons & Blyth, 1987; Weatherley, 1964). Perceived weight problems also lead to an increased risk in behaviors such as heavy dieting, caloric deprivation, use of diet pills or laxatives, severe body image distortions, and other eating disorders (Stang & Story, 2005). In any case, research indicates that the individual's idiosyncratic range of physical development and its mesh or lack of sync with cultural norms has an impact on his or her overall development.

Although research in the biological aspects of adolescent development is straightforward, the literature on other aspects of adolescent development is characterized by controversy and conflicting viewpoints. Theorists and researchers agree that adolescence is a period in the life cycle when notable development occurs in many areas. They differ, however, about the following aspects of adolescence:

  1. 1. Whether the development is continuous or discontinuous with the preceding and following stages in the life cycle,

  2. 2. Whether the period of adolescence is one of turmoil and stress or relatively uneventful,

  3. 3. Whether it is critical for adolescents to experience or resolve specific developmental tasks or issues during this time,

  4. 4. Whether internal or environmental factors have a more significant influence on the experiences and outcome of adolescent development, and

  5. 5. Whether there are specific adolescent responses (such as coping or defense mechanisms) to internal and external changes.

For example, Hall (1904), often referred to as the father of the psychology of adolescence, viewed adolescence as a discontinuous experience—a period that is qualitatively and quantitatively different from childhood and from adulthood. The discontinuity, along with the great physical changes that adolescents experience, caused Hall to label the period as one of “sturm und drang” (literally, “storm and stress”). Hall's biogenetic approach posited that adolescence was a “recapitulation” of one of mankind's stages of evolution—a turbulent time for the species and, therefore, for the individual.

Psychological Development

Psychosexual Theories

Psychoanalytic theorists have posited a different recapitulation theory. Specifically, they see the developmental processes of adolescence as a recapitulation of earlier infantile stages of development through the reexperiencing of either oedipal or preoedipal conflicts (Blos, 1941, 1979; Freud, 1948; Freud, 1924/1973).

The physiological changes that bring about sexual-reproductive maturation are considered to usher in the genital stage, which disturbs the psychological equilibrium achieved during the latency period (Freud, 1924/1973). The sheer “quantity of the instinctual impulses” (Freud, 1948, p. 164) is thought of as rekindling a conflict over dominance between the ego and the id, the latter of which has predominated and matured during the latency period. The ego is conceptualized as torn between the impulses and demands of the id and the restrictions of the superego (Freud, 1948). Consequently, adolescence is viewed as a period of stress and turmoil and as discontinuous with other phases in the life cycle.

According to the psychosexual theorists, two tasks must be accomplished during this stage if psychological maturity is to be attained: (a) detachment from the opposite sex parent as an incestuous love object and (b) establishment of a nonantagonistic, nondominated relationship with the same sex parent. This process of detachment may result in negativism and hostility toward parents and other authority figures for a time. Freud (1924/1973) believed that this process is seldom completed ideally.

Blos (1941, 1979) modified traditional psychoanalytic theory, stressing the importance of the “cultural milieu and social stratum” (Blos, 1941, p. 7) in personality formation and positing a reciprocal influence between the individual and his or her environment. Although he insisted that adolescent development must be considered in the context of a particular culture and the family's “unique version of the culture” (Blos, 1941, p. 260), like his psychoanalytic predecessors, he saw adolescence as a transitional period that involves a recapitulation of earlier familial patterns of interaction. However, he considered this process to be qualitatively different from earlier developmental experiences because of the significant maturation of the ego (ego supremacy and ego differentiation) during the latency period (Blos, 1941). This ego development allows the adolescent in most cases to resolve the oedipal conflicts and the component infantile dependencies (Blos, 1979).

According to Blos (1979), the second individuation process that occurs during adolescence requires a “normative regression in the service of development” (p. 153); that is, only in adolescence is regression an essential and normal process. Though normal, this regression still produces turmoil, volatile behavior, and anxiety that, if it becomes unmanageable, may result in the use of a variety of defense mechanisms such as withdrawal and secrecy, fantasy, temporary compulsive habit formation, compensation, intellectualization, rationalization, projection, and changes in the ego ideal (Blos, 1941).

Chodorow (1974, 1978) has reinterpreted the individuation process, challenging the male sex bias of earlier formulations. According to Chodorow, because the male's first love object—the mother—is of the opposite sex, separation and individuation are critical to male gender identity and development but not to the progress of female identity development.

Psychosocial Theories

Psychosocial theories of adolescence, although based on Freud's psychosexual conceptualization of development, emphasize the impact of the sociocultural context on individual development. Erikson (1963, 1968) viewed development as proceeding through a sequence of stages, each of which is characterized by a specific crisis. Not only are the crises of each stage produced by internal mechanisms, they are the result of the interaction between the individual and his or her social environment, which makes cultural demands in the form of social expectations, norms, and values.

Erikson thought of identity formation as a process that continues throughout one's life; but he believed that identity “has its normative crisis in adolescence” (1968, p. 23). Like the psychosexual theorists, Erikson described adolescence as a time of turmoil and stress. However, he (1968) considered it to be the result of an “identity crisis” that typifies this stage, rather than of a conflict between the ego and the id. Furthermore, he viewed adolescence as a necessary and productive period during which the adolescent experiments with and works to consolidate his or her personal, occupational, and ideological identity. This identity is formed through the individual's psychological integration as well as through the social environment, which serves critical functions during this process. In the search for self-definition, conflict arises between the adolescent and his or her parents as a necessary movement toward establishing the adolescent's own view of self, of the world, and of his or her place in that world.

Erikson's conceptualization has been criticized for its sex bias in that he generalized changes in the life cycle from a male model of development (Chodorow, 1974, 1978; Gilligan, 1979). Gilligan (1979) noted that individuation and separation from the mother are accepted as critical for the development of gender identity among males, but she proposed the opposite dynamic for females: “Femininity is defined through attachment” (p. 434) to the mother. According to Gilligan (1979), “male gender identity will be threatened by intimacy while female gender identity will be threatened by individuation” (p. 434). Erikson viewed separation as a healthy sign of progressive development and attachment as a problem. However, Chodorow (1974, 1978) and Gilligan (1979) proposed that, in the course of female development, intimacy may more appropriately precede separation or at least be fused with identity formation.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theorists describe adolescence as a period of development that, for the majority of individuals, proceeds from childhood with great continuity in behavior, interpersonal relationships, and self-evaluation (Bandura & Walters, 1963). The behavioral and social learning principles that apply in infancy and childhood remain the same, with the possible expansion of sources of reinforcement in the environment, a greater number and variety of models, and an expanded capacity for self-regulated behavior.

The process of socialization includes the development of behavioral repertoires through differential reinforcement, stimulus and response generalization, higher order conditioning, modeling, and rule learning (Bandura, 1969; Gagne, 1970). Differential reinforcement refers to the process whereby behavior that is reinforced increases in frequency and behavior that is punished or placed on extinction decreases. For example, adolescents shape each other's social behaviors by positively responding to specific mannerisms, dress, and the latest slang terms and by ostracizing or ridiculing behaviors that do not meet the norms of their peers. Response generalization involves the production of behaviors (responses) that have properties similar to the response that has been reinforced. Via stimulus generalization, the adolescent is likely to respond with the same repertoire of responses to other peers he or she perceives as being similar to those from whom he or she received reinforcement. In higher order conditioning, certain individuals, environments, objects, words, symbols, and the like become positive or negative stimuli for the individual and result in specific responses because they are associated with positive or negative events.

Modeling is a mode of imitative or vicarious learning that involves the observation, coding, and retention of a set of behaviors for their performance at a subsequent time. It is particularly efficient for learning complex behaviors, such as interpersonal skills. Furthermore, modeled behaviors are more readily learned in situations for which the individual has no prior repertoire of responses. Moreover, the adolescent also combines behaviors of various models into novel responses or abstracts a rule that allows him or her to act as the model would act in a novel situation for which specific responses have not been observed (Mehrabian, 1970). Hence, as one moves from childhood into adolescence and is exposed to a greater number and variety of models, one's potential behavioral repertoire increases substantially.

Finally, as an individual progresses through childhood into adolescence and adulthood, one notes an increase in self-regulatory behavior, most notably self-evaluation and self-reinforcement (Bandura, 1969, 1995). Self-reinforcement is generally established through modeling as the observer evaluates and reinforces his or her performance via the same criteria as the model. Over time, the responses become independent of the original learning experience and are generalized to other situations. Although self-evaluation and reinforcement can be independent of social norms, they often correspond (Bandura, 1977).

Bandura and Walters (1963) and Bandura (1964) noted that empirical research had not borne out the claim that adolescence constitutes a sudden and drastic change from childhood, particularly in parent–child relations. They indicated that the pattern instead appears to be one of gradual socialization toward independence by means of a gradual change in reinforcement conditions.

Cognitive Development

According to Piagetian theory, cognitive development consists of the progression through stages of quantitatively and qualitatively more complex thought processes and structures. Piaget and Inhelder (1958) emphasized the discontinuity between the concrete operational thinking of the child and the qualitatively different formal operations of the adolescent. Piaget (1972) viewed the progression from concrete to formal operations as the product of individual “spontaneous and endogenous factors” (p. 7) and experiences in the environment that stimulate intellectual growth.

Formal operational thought is characterized by hypothetico-deductive reasoning: As the adolescent's thinking is no longer tied to concrete objects, he or she is able to construct possibilities, to manipulate and reflect upon mental constructs, and to assess probabilities. According to Piaget and Inhelder (1958), this new capacity enables the adolescent to “analyze his [or her] own thinking and construct theories” (p. 340). The adolescent's thought is no longer tied to trial and error, but can generate hypotheses regarding all the possible relations among the various factors in solving a problem. Moreover, the adolescent systematically tests alternative hypotheses, varying one factor at a time while holding all other factors constant (Piaget & Inhelder, 1958).

Cognitive development also is conceptualized as a process of decentering. Decentering involves the reduction of egocentric thought that thereby allows for the generation and testing of hypotheses. Formal operations progress through transitional stages (generally from ages 11 to 14) in which the operations of formal thought are confounded by the adolescent's egocentrism. Elkind (1967, 1974, 1978) believes this results in the phenomenon he calls “the imaginary audience.” That is, the adolescent feels as though his or her actions and appearance are constantly being scrutinized by others. Elkind (1978) believed that this egocentrism may explain the feelings of self-consciousness that are prevalent during adolescence and “a good deal of adolescent boorishness, loudness, and faddish dress” (p. 387).

Also demonstrative of cognitive egocentrism is the complementary development of the “personal fable” (Elkind, 1967, 1974, 1978; Inhelder & Piaget, 1978). The personal fable involves viewing one's thoughts and feelings as unique experiences, often ones that should be saved for posterity (via diaries or poetry). Feelings of invulnerability accompany this perception and have been linked to such adolescent problems as the failure to use contraceptives and risk-taking behavior (Elkind, 1967). This cognitive egocentrism also results in projecting one's preoccupation with and plans for the future onto the society as a whole and viewing oneself in a Messianic role (Inhelder & Piaget, 1978). Primarily because of reality testing and the sharing of perceptions and experiences with peers, the egocentrism of early adolescence gives away to full formal operations by age 15 or 16 (Elkind, 1978; Inhelder & Piaget, 1978).

Moral Development

Moral development is incorporated in psychoanalytic theory via the development of a conscience in childhood and such conceptualizations as the “reexternalization” of the superego in adolescence (Settlage, 1972). The latter consists of a conscious appraisal, challenging, and discarding of values and an incorporation into the superego of reappraised ideals and values (which are no longer mirrors of parental values) (Hoffman, 1980). Erikson (1970) described the adolescent in the process of identity development as moving from the specific moral learnings of childhood to the pursuit of a moral ideology that facilitates identity formation.

Piaget (1965) formulated a simple two-stage dichotomous model, moving from moral realism to subjectivism. In the stage of moral realism, the child judges the moral value (rightness or wrongness) of an act by the magnitude of the damage or injury or simple conformity with stated rules, irrespective of intention. In the second or autonomous stage of subjectivism, intention becomes the foremost consideration in judging the moral value of an act. The subjective nature of rules and the concept of rules by mutual consent are recognized.

It is only with the attainment of formal operations in adolescence that the individual has the capacity for developing postconventional morality, recognizing individual and cultural differences as well as universal principles. Although Kohlberg and Gilligan (1975) propose that many adolescents regress to an instrumental level of moral development, Turiel (1974) describes the extreme relativism of the adolescent as a transitional phase. With attainment of formal operations and the recognition of differences in perspectives, the adolescent questions the rigid law-and-order morality of the conventional stage and rejects the imposition of moral codes and values on the individual. The adolescent's extreme relativism results from the rejection of conventional criteria for moral judgment, which leaves the individual for a time with the sense that no basis exists for objectively verifying values.

Hoffman (1980) proposed that the development of empathy and its transformation during cognitive development is the fundamental basis of moral development. As a result of his or her cognitive development, the adolescent begins to conceptualize others not only as distinct, but to project the self into another's experiences beyond the immediate concrete situation and, therefore, to respond with empathic distress and “a more reciprocal feeling of concern for the victim” (Hoffman, 1980, p. 311). Moreover, this empathic distress can also be transformed into feelings of guilt if the victim's distress leads to self-blame with respect to one's action or inaction. Finally, one's empathic distress, sense of guilt, and impetus to relieve the distress perceived in another are viewed as the significant motivational components for moral action.

In social learning theory, moral values, judgments, and behaviors are viewed as being dependent on a variety of environmental factors, such as the long- and short-term consequences, the setting, the type of act, and the characteristics of the victim. Moral development involves a process of learning through direct instruction (rule learning), reinforcement contingencies, modeling, and evaluative feedback. By exposure to diverse situations and models, one learns which factors are important to consider in various situations when moral judgments are required (Bandura, 1977, 1995; Rosenthal & Zimmerman, 1978).

Social Development

The adolescent's social development is closely related to his or her psychological development, particularly identity formation and the need for intimacy. Sullivan (1953) viewed interpersonal relations as central to one's individual identity. He posited three stages of adolescent development, which are distinguished by different needs and expressions of interpersonal intimacy: preadolescence, early adolescence, and late adolescence. Preadolescence is characterized by the need for intimacy expressed through strong relationships, usually with persons of the same sex. These relationships differ from those of childhood in their exclusivity and extent of personal intimacy, evidenced by disclosure of one's secret thoughts, feelings, and aspirations.

The stage of early adolescence is ushered in by the physiological changes of puberty with the concomitant appearance of the lust dynamism (Sullivan, 1953). Lust – a psychological rather than a moralistic construct – refers to genital drives that impel the individual toward sexual satisfaction. This new integrating dynamism results in the shift to intimate relations with persons of the opposite sex for most adolescents, patterned, to some degree, after preadolescent same-sex relationships.

According to Sullivan (1953), a person enters late adolescence when he or she “discovers what he [she] likes in the way of genital behavior and how to fit it into the rest of life” (p. 297). By late adolescence, Sullivan claimed, the majority of adolescents have established their preferred mode of sexual relationships and continue to develop and expand their interpersonal skills. Intimacy is the core of what Sullivan (1953) described as the mature person; it involves “a very lively sensitivity to the needs of the other and to the interpersonal security or absence of anxiety in the other” (p. 310).

More recently, Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1982) has been employed to elucidate the nature and development of interpersonal relationships in adolescence. Expanding her body of work on attachment in infancy, Ainsworth (1989) posits a significant, complex, and qualitative change in the behavioral systems related to attachment: “key changes in the nature of attachment may be occasioned by hormone, neurophysiological and cognitive changes, and not merely by socioemotional experience” (p. 710). Attachment to parent(s) is seen as the basis for peer attachments and supported by a body of empirical literature, although some adolescents are spurred to establish peer attachments to compensate for lack of attachment to parental figures (See Rice, 1990 and Schneider & Younger, 1996 for reviews of this literature; Freeman & Brown, 2001; Furman, Simon, Shaffer, & Bouchey, 2002). The relationship skills, competencies, and expectations learned in the relationship with parental attachment figures become the basis for relationship building with peers; however, parent and peer attachments may not be parallel and may vary along a number of dimensions and functions (Black & McCartney, 1997; Markiewicz, Lawford, Doyle, & Haggart, 2006). Moreover, the increase in peer attachments does not totally replace primary attachment to parental figures or specific attachment functions (Black & McCartney, 1997; Freeman & Brown, 2001; Markiewicz et al., 2006).

Bandura (1964) and others (e.g., Harter, 1990; Steinberg, 1990) have indicated that increased peer interaction does not usually result in a simultaneous shifting away from parent relationships and values. Examining relationships across several decades, researchers found that adolescents and parents viewed each other positively and that only a limited percentage experienced disruption in their relationship (Bandura, 1964; Bandura & Walters, 1963; Harter, 1990; Hess & Goldblatt, 1957; Meissner, 1965; Offer, 1967; Offer & Sabshin, 1984; Offer, Sabshin, & Marcus, 1965; Steinberg, 1990).

As early as 1980, Coleman's review of the literature (1980) pointed out that the need for friendships changes and that the greatest need (especially for girls) occurs during middle adolescence. It is during middle adolescence that the dread of rejection and the lack of social confidence take their toll. Moreover, girls experience more feelings of anxiety about friendships than do boys, probably because the socialization of girls places greater emphasis on the fulfillment of emotional needs through relationships. In contrast, boys tend to be socialized to seek relationships that are focused on actions. Consistent gender differences have been noted in the literature, with females demonstrating greater intimacy, self-disclosure and communication in their relationships than males (Belle, 1989; Berndt & Perry, 1990; Brendgen, Markiewicz, Doyle, & Burkowski, 2001; Buhrmester, 1990; Fischer, 1981; Furman & Buhrmester, 1992; Macoby & Jacklin, 1974; Nickerson & Nagle, 2005).

Sexual Development

Sexual development is the result of the interaction of intrapsychic, sociocultural, and biological factors. The physiological changes initiated in puberty influence the individual in a social context (Miller & Simon, 1980) and via the personal evaluation of their meaning and significance.

Gender identity and gender role expectations form the foundation of the young adolescent's sexual identity “since the sexual and social scenarios of the society are organized around norms for gender-appropriate behavior” (Miller & Simon, 1980, p. 383). Particularly in early adolescence, motivations for sociosexual behavior may be nonerotic, impelled instead by what are considered gender-appropriate behaviors in the specific social context (Miller & Simon, 1980).

With the onset of puberty, the adolescent must add a sexual dimension to his or her gender identity. According to Miller and Simon (1980), the progress of psychosexual development and concomitant sexual behavior depend on two factors and their interaction: (1) “the intrapsychic history and life of the individual” and (2) “the interpersonal requirements of social life” (p. 388) – the social context. The intrapsychic life of the individual refers to idiosyncratic values that result in the eroticizing of events, attributes, relationships, and so forth. Interpersonal “scripts” are less idiosyncratic because they reflect the present social expectations and constraints, which vary with time and the individual's reference group (Gagnon, 1974; Gordon & Gilgun, 1987; Miller & Simon, 1980). Hence, majority and minority adolescent cohorts may have significantly different interpersonal scripts.

When there is congruence between intrapsychic and interpersonal factors, sexual identity formation proceeds smoothly. When these two factors are discordant, the adolescent must choose to risk either alienation from others or a sense of self-betrayal. Particularly vulnerable in this regard are individuals whose intrapsychic content is homoerotic, but who feel constrained by sociocultural norms and demands (Miller & Simon, 1980).


It is particularly important to be aware that developmental processes, though universal, have cultural variations in their manifestation, normative appraisal, and time frame. Adolescent development occurs within a cultural milieu, and, therefore, the cultural context must be taken into account if the developmental process and the group and individual issues that are generated during this process are to be understood. For ethnic minority youth, this is further complicated by the bicultural socialization process (de Anda, 1984), which results in development occurring in a dual cultural context, that of White mainstream American culture and their culture of origin. Further complicating this process are structural factors, such as individual and group social status and income, especially poverty, that create barriers to the “normal” course of adolescent development.

The application of theories or principles that address the impact of various sociocultural factors on an individual's behavior, values, and beliefs holds the most promise and is most consonant with the practice of social work, which ascribes to a person-in-the-environment perspective, viewing the individual within his or her psychosociocultural context.


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