Adolescence is a time of great transition, from brain and body changes to how a young person relates to the world. Positive adult-child relationships and mental health support are key.
Adolescence has been likened to a cocoon.
Why doesn’t a caterpillar become a butterfly overnight? Something essential happens during its chrysalis stage in the cocoon. So, too, is the stage of adolescence. It’s a crucial time for developing cognitive, social, and emotional skills essential for well-being in adulthood.
It can also be a time of confusion, anxiety, and anticipation. Understanding what to expect at different stages can help parents, guardians, and caregivers support their teens and promote healthy development.
Adolescence is a period of significant development that starts with puberty and ends sometime around a person’s mid-20s. There are three stages:
- Early adolescence: ages 10 to 13
- Middle adolescence: ages 14 to 17
- Late adolescence: ages 18-21 and beyond
Adolescent psychology is the study and delivery of psychological services to adolescents. It focuses on an adolescent’s basic psychological needs in terms of their family and other social contexts.
Some of the issues adolescent psychology addresses include:
- developmental and behavioral issues
- stress and coping related to developmental change
- psychological and cognitive problems
- emotional and social issues
- trauma and loss
- health problems
There are four main psychological changes or tasks that young people must carry out during adolescence:
1. Stand out: Develop an identity and pursue autonomy
During adolescence, it’s typical for young people to:
- begin to separate from their parents
- create their own identity
- establish their sexual identity
- come to terms with their body and sexual feelings
- feel an increased need for privacy
As children begin to separate and make their own identity, it may lead to conflict in some families as parents try to maintain control.
2. Fit in: Find a comfortable peer group and gain acceptance from peers
At this stage of development, friends become increasingly important. An adolescent’s peer group:
- takes priority over family relationships
- becomes stronger and more complex
- may become a safe haven for sharing new ideas
- consists of non-romantic friendships
- expands to include romantic relationships in mid-adolescence
Great physical, social, and emotional change is also taking place during this time. Teens become more aware of their body and experience more peer pressure.
They may be self-conscious and sensitive about their rapidly changing body and compare themselves to their peers. Body image and eating problems sometimes begin at this time.
3. Measure up: Develop competence and find ways to achieve
As teens move into middle adolescence, they’re also developing their own unique personality and opinions. While peer relationships are key, teens are also more focused on themselves, developing their own interests and a clearer sense of who they are.
- ready for more independence and responsibility
- creating stronger work habits
- developing a better sense of right and wrong
- more concerned about future school and work plans
As they find ways to achieve, they may go back and forth between high expectations and a lack of confidence.
4. Take hold: Make commitments to particular goals, activities, and beliefs
By late adolescence, teens have a stronger sense of their individuality and values. They are:
- better able to gauge risks and rewards
- more focused on the future
- able to base decisions on their hopes and ideals
- more emotionally and physically separated from parents
- in more of an “adult” relationship with parents
The most dramatic and important changes to the human brain occur during adolescence.
While an adult’s brain is fully developed, typically around their mid-20s, an adolescent’s brain is still growing. The frontal cortex is the last area of the brain to mature. This area is responsible for:
- critical thinking skills
- complex decision making
- taking into account multiple options
- impulse control
- considering consequences
Since teens don’t yet have access to the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex, they rely on their brain’s fully formed amygdala to solve problems and make decisions. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions and plays a role in fear and aggression.
As a result, teens may engage in impulsive, irrational, or harmful behaviors, especially as they look for independence and peer approval.
They may be less likely to think before they act or stop to consider the consequences. For example, they may think, “I’m not driving tonight, so it’s OK if I get drunk.”
Teens at risk
With all of the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional changes of adolescence, teens are especially vulnerable to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
The World Health Organization estimates that
Pressures or conflicts in family, school, and peer groups can put adolescents at increased risk for depression and potential suicide. Signs to look for include:
- isolating from peers
- appearing uninterested in school or social activities
- doing poorly at school, work, or sports
If you know a teen who is thinking about suicide, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
Here’s how parents, guardians, and teachers can help:
- Ensure your teen has access to mental health treatment: A mental health professional experienced in working with children, adolescents, and families can be a great guide and support during this stage. It’s important to find a comfortable match between teen, family, and professional.
- Start conversations early: Normalize topics like healthy relationships, sexuality, consent, and safety. Encourage your teen to come to you, or another trusted adult, with questions or concerns.
- Listen: Keep the lines of communication open, and show interest in their ideas. This demonstrates respect for their independent identity and helps limit conflict.
- Ask open-ended questions: This helps them develop abstract thinking on complex issues. For example, “What did you think about ___?” or “How would you have approached ___ differently?”
- Set limits and be consistent: This provides a safe boundary for teens to grow and function as they explore their identity and challenge authority figures.
- Respect their privacy: Honor their essential need for independence and individuality.
- Encourage healthy habits: Sleep is especially important for teens’ development, and helps improve focus and energy. Experts recommend 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
Adolescence is a time of great change. A certain amount of conflict, confusion, and anxiety is to be expected.
But if you find your teen is isolating, or uninterested in school, sports, or social activities, there may be a deeper issue going on. A mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, therapist, or school counselor, can help get to the root of the issue and support your teen’s development and well-being.