The Basics of Adolescent Development

Teenage sisters enjoying a refreshment on a pier
Adolescent Development. Hero Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Teens change dramatically between the ages of 13 and 19. During these years, your child will develop his own identity and become prepared to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. The teen years can be tumultuous at times, but mood swings and behavior changes are often part of the process.

Adolescent development is divided into three main stages: early adolescence, middle adolescence, and late adolescence. Early adolescence encompasses children ages 11 to 13. Middle adolescence includes teens 14 to 18 and late adolescence refers to young adults between the ages 19 and 21.

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development refers to the way your teen thinks about things. Younger teens tend to have difficulty thinking about the future or thinking about the possible consequences of their behavior, but this tends to improve over time. As teens mature, they develop the ability to think abstractly. Instead of only thinking in terms of tangible objects, they begin to understand concepts such as faith and trust.

It’s common for younger teens to think they’re immune from anything bad happening to them. It’s common for them to think, “That won’t ever happen to me.” As a result, they may be more likely to engage in risky behavior.

Teens often think they’re unique and think no one understands them. As they grow and mature, they begin to develop a better understanding of the world and how other people perceive them.

Physical Development

Teens usually begin puberty in early adolescence. They grow taller, gain weight, and become physically mature. Girls become fully physically developed during middle adolescence and boys reach physical maturity during late adolescence.

Their rapidly changing physical appearance can lead to self-conscious feelings. Sometimes teens struggle with appearance-related issues, such as acne or being overweight. Body image issues, such as eating disorders, may also develop during the teen years.​

Social Development

While young children focus mostly on family, teens develop a greater interest in peer relationships. As they desire increased independence from their parents, they tend to rely more on friendships. Peer pressure can be an issue as teens often want to experience a sense of belonging. Teens often switch peers groups throughout the teen years as their interests shift.

Rebellious behavior is sometimes common during the teen years. A teen may develop different personas or go through various phases. Sometimes teens try to shock their parents or want to get tattoos or piercings as a means to express themselves.

Throughout adolescence, teens experience an increased ability to have empathy for other people. Dating and romantic relationships often become important during the teen years. It’s normal for teens to develop sexual interests.

Emotional Development

Most teens experience great fluctuations in their self-esteem. They may feel good about themselves one day and feel extremely inadequate another.

Mood swings are common and sometimes, teens return to childish behavior. Teens begin to develop the skills to regulate their emotions. As they mature, they should develop skills to help them become less emotionally reactive. They can learn how to recognize their emotions and cope with uncomfortable feelings in healthy ways. They can also learn how to address conflict productively.

Mental health issues may emerge during the teen years. Depression, anxiety disorders, and behavior disorders sometimes become evident.