Understanding Adolescent Development

The Time of Change

Anyone involved in the life of a child knows that there’s only one constant: change. Children come to us as infants, move through toddlerhood, the preschool years, middle childhood and pre-adolescence. All of the transition from one of these developmental stages to the next involves major changes, but there’s one thing that’s common to all of them: despite how big the changes are, they’re still children. It’s unmistakable—for the most part, up to around the age of twelve, kids still play with dolls, play Pokemon, still cuddle with their parents and still cry when they get a skinned knee—in short, they still made up mostly of ‘little kid’ and they still rely on their parents for just about everything from food, to clothes to emotional support.

All this begins to change, however, with adolescence: suddenly the little humans are displaying adult-like qualities across a wide range of emotional and behavioral areas. When these changes happen, it can be a shock for the adults involved. It’s important for parents, teachers, school administrator and anyone who works with adolescents to understand that the radical changes that kids go through are natural, necessary, and real. They are what every single one of us goes through on our journey from childhood to adulthood.

The Stages of Adolescence

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry is an excellent resource for teachers and parents who wish to understand what’s happening during adolescence. In addition to the physical changes which are happening, it’s vital to understand that inside a teenager’s brain, the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions, is developing ahead of the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for rational decision making. This is true throughout the two stage of adolescence identified by child development experts – early adolescence (middle and early high school) late adolescence (late high school and beyond) – and can account for much of the behavior which teachers and parents find challenging.

During early adolescence, the changes listed in the following areas are typical:

Ethical and Moral Decision Making

Early teens:

  • Develop the ability to think abstractly
  • Are likely to challenge rules and test limits
  • Might show interest in and/or begin to experiment with sex and illegal substances
  • Will show signs of developing a moral and ethical conscience
  • Will begin to select personal role models
Independence and Emotions

Early teens:

  • May be moody
  • Are heavily influenced by their peers with regard to behavior and dress
  • May feel awkward in their bodies, and out of place in their social lives
  • Begin to see the imperfections in their parents
  • Will likely begin to express themselves more clearly and vehemently
  • Are likely to complain that their parent’s infringe on their independence
Sexuality

Early teens:

  • May behave shy and awkward around the objects of their newly developing affections
  • Begin to worry about their relative level of “attractiveness”
  • May become interested in and/or experiment with sex
  • May jump in and out of “boyfriend/girlfriend” relationships with alarming frequency, and they may have a new “crush” every other day

It’s also important to note that females will develop more quickly than males.

During late adolescence, the changes listed in the following areas are typical:

Ethical and Moral Decision Making

Late teens:

  • Show a greater interest in morality and ethics
  • Develop personal insight into complex moral and ethical issues and situations
  • Tend to return to some of their baseline cultural and social education
  • Develop the ability to set and achieve personal goals
  • Tend to develop a sense of personal responsibility and dignity
Independence and Emotions

Late teens:

  • Begin to show signs of self-determination
  • May begin to show more empathy and care for others
  • May become more independent
  • Will show a more refined, complete and consistent personal identity
  • Will begin to develop patience
  • Begin to learn how to compromise
  • Tend to “come back” to parents—or at least be in less overt conflict with them
  • Begin to think about the consequences of their actions
  • Tend to develop solid peer relationships, and learn what role their friend play in their lives
Sexuality

Late teens:

  • Will develop a sexual identity
  • Are likely to experience feelings of intense love and passion
  • Will develop the ability to experience mature love and allow others to love them in a mature way—as opposed to early teen “crushing”
  • May become involved in serious relationships

What Adolescents Need Most

One of the most confounding things about adolescents is that though they might look, act, talk, and behave like adults, they are not yet adults. It’s true that in history adolescents often became parents, took on roles of responsibility, or became the leaders of nations or even empires, but that does not meant that they were ready, nor does it mean they did it alone.

Adolescents need their parents just as much as they did when they were toddlers. It may be challenging for adults to find the right way to communicate with adolescents, but the best place to start is always with love, patience, kindness, and understanding. Their bodies and minds change rapidly, every day, and they can’t help it. It’s the job of the adults in their lives to provide consistency and support in the midst of all the change.