The adolescent years - roughly ages 12 through 24 - are a developmental period characterized by pretty dramatic changes in multiple domains. Hormones are raging, emotions are high, brains are as yet “under construction”, and teens tend to disconnect from family to focus on peers. While all of this is normal, it doesn’t make it easy - on the adolescent or the parent.
This article walks through all the major developmental changes of adolescence, impacts of adolescent development on teen behavior and mental health, as well as how to support your teen during this developmental period.
The best description I ever heard about the psychology of adolescence was this: It’s like starting the engines without a driver. The “engines” in this case are all the big emotions of the teenage years and the (absent) “driver” is the cognitive/self-regulatory functions that haven’t quite come online yet. Let’s walk through the major emotional, cognitive, and behavioral changes of the adolescent period.
We’re all pretty family with the hormone changes that are happening in adolescence. And while it is true that puberty and all the hormone fluctuations that come with puberty can contribute to more intense emotions, there’s another big contributor: changes in brain chemistry.
The adolescent body is working to establish its adult levels of two key neurotransmitters involved in emotion regulation - serotonin (a brain chemical involved in stress and negative emotions) and dopamine (a brain chemical involved in positive emotions). While these neurotransmitters are in flux as the underlying systems develop, there are two predictable emotional impacts on most adolescents:
(1) increases in negative emotions and heightened stress sensitivity, and
(2) decreases in positive emotions and suppressed positive reactivity.
Combined, this makes the typical adolescent more likely to experience negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and anger and also to have a harder time experiencing positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, and connection. It’s no surprise that teens can seem swamped by negative moods and unable to enjoy the things they used to enjoy! Their brain chemistry is simply not cooperating.
While emotions are supercharged during adolescence, unfortunately the brain regions involved in emotion regulation are like tiny little triple-A batteries struggling to keep their device functioning. While the parts of the brain involved in emotional reactivity (the limbic system) are at full throttle, the brain regions involved in emotion regulation, impulse control, and decision-making (the prefrontal cortex) are the last to develop during the adolescent period - and they are not fully online until the mid-20s.
This means that teens often struggle to deploy good self-control and decision-making, especially in times of high emotion. They can appear to be self-focused, unable to anticipate future consequences, and highly susceptible to peer pressure and actions with immediate positive effects. They’ll choose the instant gratification over the long-term positive benefit - the video game or snapchat conversation over studying or the drink at the party over the safety of getting home.
What’s complicated for parents is that adolescent self-regulation can seem highly variable during this time - the same kid who can create a color-coded study guide for a final or explain the steps of a complicated video game to a sibling will make seemingly thoughtless decisions to forget to turn homework in, skip class, drink alcohol, or engage in a risky, thrill-seeking behavior. This is because the brain is developing during adolescence, it just isn’t fully developed.
In conditions of low emotions, adolescents often appear as cognitively mature as adults. But in conditions of high emotion - including during peer interactions, when stressed, or when trying to impress other kids - they can struggle to effectively deploy good self-control or decision-making.
The major psychological developmental tasks of adolescence are identity development and building autonomy. During this stage, teens need to learn who they are separate from their parents, siblings, and peers, and also start preparing to become less reliant on parents as they approach adulthood. While these goals are pretty clear, the paths towards them are often confusing and winding! As adolescents are navigating these developmental transitions, you may observe the following:
The effects of the complex emotional, cognitive, and behavioral changes that come with adolescent development can be seen in changes in both behavior and mental health problems. Teens may seem more emotionally reactive, with more obvious anxiety, low mood, and irritability or angst. They may seem more sensitive to stress and over-reactive to previously minor situations. The combination of heightened emotions and underdeveloped cognitive regulation may manifest as poor impulse control, difficulties with decision making, sensation seeking, and risk taking behaviors.
For many teens, these emotional changes in combination with the increased stress of adolescence leads to an increase in mental health problems. The most common mental health concerns among teens are:
The tremendous amount of change happening in adolescence makes it a developmental period in which there is also a lot of potential for parents to have positive impacts on their teens’ development. Learning how to express and regulate emotions, how to control behavior, how to make good decisions, and how to balance peer and family priorities are all important life skills that parents can shape through effective support. Some tips for coping with the complex psychology of adolescence: