What is adolescence?
Adolescence is the period of transition between childhood and adulthood. Children entering adolescence are going through many changes in their bodies and brains. These include physical, intellectual, psychological and social challenges, as well as development of their own moral compass. The changes are rapid and often take place at different rates. It can be an exciting yet challenging time in the life of a teenager. Adolescence is the time when your child becomes more independent and begins to explore their identity.
What are the physical changes of adolescence?
Physical development in adolescence includes changes that occur through a process called puberty. During puberty, your child’s brain releases certain hormones. The hormones cause your child’s body to physically change and their sexual organs to mature.
Your child will likely experience a growth spurt. During this time, they’ll grow rapidly in height and weight. Other physical changes may include body odor, acne and an increase in body hair. Growth spurts usually happen earlier for girls and adolescents assigned female at birth (AFAB) than for boys and adolescents assigned male at birth (AMAB). Most girls and adolescents AFAB have growth spurts between the ages of 10 and 14. Most boys and adolescents AMAB have growth spurts between the ages of 14 and 17.
Girls and adolescents AFAB will begin to develop breasts. This can happen as young as age 10 and should start by age 14. They’ll also experience their first period (menstruation) — usually about two years after breasts and pubic hair are first noticeable.
Boys and adolescents AMAB will see their penis and testicles grow. They’ll begin to experience erections and ejaculations. (Erections can also happen normally from before birth — as seen on ultrasound in utero — to old age.)
These physical changes happen to everyone, but the timing and order can vary from person to person. Some adolescents mature early, while others mature later. Being on either end of this spectrum can cause the added stress of standing out amongst their peers.
If puberty is happening early (before age 8 for girls and adolescents AFAB and before age 9 for boys and adolescents AMAB) or late (after age 14 for girls and adolescents AFAB and after age 15 for boys and adolescents AMAB), see your pediatrician or an adolescent medicine doctor. They can help manage and treat this problem of puberty. Ignoring these problems can have an impact on bone development and growth.
What are the cognitive changes of adolescence?
Brain development in adolescence is on a higher level than that of childhood. Children are only able to think logically about the concrete — the here and now. Adolescents move beyond these limits and can think in terms of what might be true, rather than just what they see as true. They can deal with abstractions, test hypotheses and see infinite possibilities. Yet adolescents still often display egocentric behaviors and attitudes.
During cognitive development in adolescence, large numbers of neurons grow rapidly. Your child’s body experiences an increase in the way these bundles of nerves connect. This allows for more complex, sophisticated thinking.
Which part of the brain develops last in adolescence?
The front part of your child’s brain — the frontal cortex — is one of the last parts of their brain to fully develop. It won’t finish maturing until your child reaches their mid- to late 20s. This area of the brain controls executive functions such as planning, prioritizing and controlling impulses. Because it develops so late, your teenager may have lapses in judgment. You may see an increase in risk-taking behaviors and mood swings.
When a teen isn’t using their frontal cortex and is acting impulsively, this thought process is called hot cognition. Cold cognition means using the logical part of your brain, not being “cold.” Parents can help redirect a young person from “hot” to “cold” cognition by responding with empathy, asking questions rather than lecturing and holding them to high expectations.
Which mental characteristic develops over the course of adolescence?
Mental characteristics that develop during adolescence include improved:
- Abstract thinking.
- Reasoning skills.
- Impulse control.
- Problem-solving abilities.
- Decision-making skills.
What are the emotional changes of adolescence?
During adolescence, your child will begin to observe, measure and manage their emotions. That means they’ll begin to become more aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others. The process of emotional development will give your child the opportunity to build their skills and discover their unique qualities. As they become more independent, some adolescents welcome these new challenges. Others may need more support to build their self-confidence.
How does self-esteem develop in adolescence?
The physical, hormonal and emotional changes your child experiences during adolescence may affect their self-esteem. Teenagers who develop early or late compared to their peers may be self-conscious of their bodies. Fitting in becomes ever more important to their self-esteem. Self-esteem can be complex. Some adolescents may have high self-esteem around their families but low self-esteem around their peers.
Instead of having a “helicopter parent” who swoops in and saves the day, or a “snowplow parent” who moves all challenges out of their child’s way, adolescents benefit most from a parent who’s a “lighthouse.” This kind of parent keeps their child in bounds whenever it’s a matter of safety or ethics, while allowing them to explore their own decision-making abilities. The role of caring adults who serve as a lighthouse can be life-changing for teens.
While a challenging part of adolescence, it’s important that your child learns to accept who they are and gains a sense of capability. They can develop their self-esteem by:
- Making mistakes.
- Learning from their mistakes.
- Holding themselves accountable for their actions.
What are the social changes of adolescence?
Adolescents are also developing socially during this time. The most important task of social development in adolescence is the search for identity. This is often a lifelong voyage that launches during adolescence. Along with the search for identity comes the struggle for independence. Your child may:
- Develop an interest in their sexuality and romantic relationships.
- Turn to you less in the midst of a challenge.
- Show more independence from you.
- Spend less time with you and more time with their friends.
- Feel anxious, sad or depressed, which can lead to trouble at school or risk-taking behaviors.
What is identity development in adolescence?
Identity development occurs when your child discovers a strong sense of self and personality, along with a connection to others. Positive self-identity is important because it shapes your child’s perception of belonging throughout their life.
A positive self-identity is also associated with higher self-esteem. You can help reinforce a positive self-identity in your child by:
- Encouraging their efforts.
- Praising their good choices.
- Inspiring perseverance.
How does social media affect adolescent development?
Social media can negatively impact your child’s health and development. Adolescents report cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate content online. In addition, socializing online isn’t the same as socializing in person. Adolescents miss out on key facial expressions and body language that they only see when they connect with a person face to face. Adolescents may also feel bad about themselves when comparing themselves to others they see online. All of these factors can lead to lower self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
What are the moral changes of adolescence?
During adolescence, your child may start to think about the world in a deeper, more abstract way. This helps shape how your child sees the world and how they want to interact with it. Your child will also begin to develop morals and values that they’ll hold throughout their life.
Your child may begin to see that not every decision is black or white. They’ll develop empathy when they begin to see why people make choices that differ from their own. They’ll also begin to have a deeper understanding of why there are rules in the world. They’ll start to form their own opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong. They may also spend time thinking about their religious beliefs and spirituality. Encourage these conversations with your child whenever you have the opportunity. Practice the art of listening and learning as your child practices thinking through issues and situations.
Can ADHD develop in adolescence?
Healthcare providers typically diagnose attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in childhood. But some people don’t receive a diagnosis until adolescence or even adulthood. Teenagers with undiagnosed ADHD may struggle even more with the symptoms of ADHD as they enter adolescence. Other adolescents have unrecognized learning disorders, or ways of processing that differ from the norm. Falling grades are a red flag for unmasked ADHD, learning disorders or signs of stress, including depression.
How can parents support healthy adolescent development?
Adolescence can be a trying period for both you and your child. But your home doesn’t have to become a battleground if you make special efforts to understand one another. The following guidelines may help parents:
- Give your child your undivided attention when they want to talk. Don’t read, check your email, watch television or busy yourself with other tasks.
- Listen calmly and concentrate on hearing and understanding your child’s point of view. Reflect back what you have heard.
- Speak to your child as courteously and pleasantly as you would to a stranger. Your tone of voice can establish the mood of a conversation.
- Understand your child’s feelings, even if you don’t always approve of their behavior. Try not to make judgments. Keep the door open on any subject. Be an “open/approachable” parent.
- Avoid humiliating your child. Don’t laugh at what may seem to you to be naive or foolish questions and statements.
- Encourage your child to “test” new ideas in conversation. Don’t judge their ideas and opinions. Instead, listen and then offer your own views as plainly and honestly as possible. Love and mutual respect can coexist with differing points of view.
- Help your child build self-confidence. Encourage their participation in activities of their choice (not yours).
- Make an effort to commend your child frequently and appropriately. Too often, we take the good things for granted and focus on the bad. Your child needs to know you appreciate them.
- Catch them doing something right and encourage them to do more of that.
- Encourage your child to participate in family decision-making and to work out family concerns together with you. Understand your child needs to challenge your opinions and your ways of doing things. This is how they achieve the separation from you that’s essential for their own adult identity.
What can adolescents do during this time?
- Avoid looking at your parents as the enemy. Chances are they love you and have your best interests in mind, even if you disagree with their way of showing that.
- Try to understand that your parents are human beings with their own insecurities, needs and feelings.
- Listen to your parents with an open mind. Try to see situations from their point of view.
- Share your feelings with your parents so they can understand you better.
- Live up to your responsibilities at home and in school. That way, your parents will be more inclined to grant you the kind of independence you want and need.
- Bolster your criticisms of family, school and government with suggestions for practical improvements.
- Be as courteous and considerate to your parents as you would be to your friends’ parents.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Adolescence is the exciting yet stressful time when your child transitions into adulthood. Many changes take place during this time, and it’s not always a smooth ride. The changes are rapid and often take place at different rates. From physical development to emotional changes, be ready to support your child as they begin to discover who they are and what their place is in the world.
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