What is adolescence?

Adolescence is the period of developmental transition between childhood and adulthood, involving multiple physical, intellectual, personality, and social developmental changes. The onset of puberty signals the beginning of adolescence, and puberty now occurs earlier, on average, than in the past. The end of this developmental period is tied more so to social and emotional factors and can be somewhat ambiguous.

How is your child developing physically?

  • The adolescent growth spurt—an early sign of maturation
  • Primary sex characteristics—changes in the organs directly related to reproduction
  • Secondary sex characteristics—physiological signs of sexual maturity that do not directly involve reproductive organs

In what other ways are adolescents developing?

Adolescents are developing intellectually:

  • Adolescent thinking is on a higher level than that of children. Children are only able to think logically about the concrete, the here and now. Adolescents move beyond these limits. Adolescents can think in terms of what might be true, rather than just in terms of what they see is true. They are able to deal with abstractions, test hypotheses, and see infinite possibilities.
  • Yet, adolescents are often characterized by egocentric behaviors and attitudes.

Adolescents are also developing socially and emotionally:

  • Perhaps the most important task of adolescence is the search for identity!
  • This is often a lifelong voyage, launched in adolescence. With this search comes the struggle for independence.

How can parents support healthy adolescent development?

Are there "secrets" of good communication? While adolescence can be a trying period for both youth and their parents, the home should not become a battleground if both parents and young people make special efforts to understand one another. The following guidelines may help:

What parents can do

  • Give your undivided attention when your children want to talk. Don't read, watch television, or busy yourself with other tasks.
  • Listen calmly and concentrate on hearing and understanding your children's point of view.
  • Speak to your children as courteously and pleasantly as you would to a stranger. Your tone of voice can set the tone of a conversation.
  • Understand your children'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 belittling and humiliating your children and laughing at what may seem to you to be naive or foolish questions and statements.
  • Encourage your children to "test" new ideas in conversation by not judging their ideas and opinions, but instead by listening and then offering your own views as plainly and honestly as possible. Love and mutual respect can coexist with differing points of view.
  • Help your children build self-confidence by encouraging their participation in activities of their choice (not yours).
  • Make an effort to commend your children frequently and appropriately. Too often, we take the good things for granted and focus on the bad, but everyone needs to be appreciated.
  • Encourage your children to participate in family decision making and to work out family concerns together with you. Understand that your children need to challenge your opinions and your ways of doing things to achieve the separation from you that's essential for their own adult identity.

What adolescents can do

  • Avoid looking at your parents as the enemy. Chances are that they love you and have your best interests in mind, even if you don't necessarily agree 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, and try to see situations from their point of view.
  • Share your feelings with your parents so that they can understand you better.
  • Live up to your responsibilities at home and in school so that 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 own parents as you would be to the parents of your friends.

*Source: Adapted from National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH.*