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Understanding Adolescent Development: Key Characteristics and Growth Phases

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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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 the transitions from one developmental stage to the next involves major change, 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 with adolescence: suddenly the little humans display 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. Whether you’re a parent, teacher, school administrator, or anyone who works with teens and is trying to grow in understanding adolescence, it’s important to realize that the radical changes kids go through are natural, necessary, and real. They’re what every single one of us goes through on our journey of adolescent development from childhood to adulthood.

Understanding Adolescent Development

What is Adolescence? 

You may not know the dictionary definition of adolescence, but if you think back, you can probably remember what it feels like. 

Technically speaking, adolescence is a transitional stage of development between childhood and adulthood, typically occurring from around ages 10 to 19. Sometimes adolescence is called “the teen years”. 

Development during this time is marked by significant physical, cognitive, and socio-emotional changes. Physically, puberty usually begins during this time, leading to rapid growth spurts and the development of secondary sexual characteristics, like underarm hair or increased muscle mass. Cognitively, adolescents experience advancements in abstract thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills as their brains continue to mature. 

Socially and emotionally, they navigate identity formation, seeking autonomy from parents while establishing relationships with peers. This period often involves exploration, experimentation, and risk-taking behaviors as adolescents strive to understand themselves and their place in the world. Adolescence varies culturally and individually, and it’s influenced by factors like socioeconomic status, family dynamics, and cultural norms, but it universally represents a critical phase of growth and development.

10 Characteristics of Adolescence

Let’s look at  what actually happens during adolescence:

  1. Identity Formation: Adolescents explore and develop their sense of self, including their values, beliefs, and goals.
  2. Physical Growth and Changes: Adolescence is marked by rapid physical growth, including puberty-related changes such as growth spurts, development of secondary sexual characteristics, and hormonal fluctuations.
  3. Emotional Intensity: Adolescents often experience heightened emotions, including mood swings, increased sensitivity, and a greater capacity for both joy and sadness.
  4. Risk-Taking Behavior: Adolescents tend to engage in more risk-taking behavior as they seek new experiences and independence. This can include experimentation with substances, reckless driving, or risky sexual behavior.
  5. Peer Influence: Peers play a significant role in an adolescent’s life, influencing their choices, behaviors, and social interactions. Peer relationships become increasingly important during this stage.
  6. Cognitive Development: Adolescents experience significant cognitive development, including improvements in abstract thinking, problem-solving skills, and the ability to think critically about complex issues.
  7. Search for Autonomy: Adolescents seek autonomy and independence from their parents or caregivers, often leading to conflicts as they assert their own identities and desires.
  8. Identity Exploration: Adolescents explore different roles, interests, and beliefs as they try to understand who they are and who they want to become. This can involve trying out different activities, hobbies, and social groups.
  9. Moral Development: Adolescents begin to develop a more complex understanding of morality and ethics, questioning societal norms and authority figures while forming their own moral code.
  10. Transition to Adulthood: Adolescence marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, during which individuals begin to take on more responsibilities and make decisions that will shape their future paths in terms of education, career, and relationships.
The Stages of Adolescence

The Stages of Adolescence

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

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 and 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.

Frequently Asked Questions About Adolescent Development

How do relationships change during adolescence?

Adolescents navigate various types of relationships, including friendships, romantic relationships, and family dynamics. They may seek greater independence from parents, form deeper bonds with peers, experience crushes and first loves, and explore their sexual orientation and identity.

What challenges do adolescents face during this period?

Adolescents face numerous challenges during this period, including peer pressure, academic stress, identity exploration, body image concerns, substance experimentation, conflicts with parents, and navigating social media and technology.

How can parents support their adolescent’s development?

Parents can support their adolescent’s development by fostering open communication, providing guidance and boundaries, and validating their feelings and experiences. Parents can also promote independence and autonomy and model healthy behaviors and coping strategies.

What role do schools and communities play in adolescent development?

Schools and communities play a vital role in adolescent development by providing opportunities for learning, socialization, extracurricular activities, mentorship, and access to support services such as counseling or health resources.

How does culture and society influence adolescent development?

Culture and society shape adolescents’ beliefs, values, norms, and expectations in many ways. They influence the way teens view and approach gender roles, family dynamics, education, career aspirations, and social relationships. Cultural factors can greatly impact adolescents’ sense of identity, belonging, and self-expression.

What are some common misconceptions about adolescence?

Some common misconceptions about adolescence include viewing it solely as a period of rebellion and turmoil, overlooking the diversity of adolescent experiences, underestimating teenagers’ capabilities and resilience, and stigmatizing mental health issues as typical adolescent behavior. Understanding adolescence and engaging with teens in a compassionate way requires setting these stereotypes and misconceptions aside.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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