Understanding the Psychology of Adolescence and How to Best Support Your Teen’s Mental Health

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.

Major Developmental Changes During Adolescence

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.

Emotional development

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. 

Cognitive development

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.

Behavioral development

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:

  • Experimentation with appearance, hobbies, interests, and opinions
    These help teens find their own unique identities.
    Focusing more on peer relationships than family relationships helps teens individuate and develop autonomy.
  • Arguing and challenging rules
    As teens develop their own interests, goals, and values, they may chafe against parental norms or expectations. 
  • Risk taking behaviors
    As discussed above, heightened emotion seeking, limited impulse control, and desire for peer acceptance may promote an increase in risk taking behaviors.

Impacts on Adolescent Behavior and Mental Health

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:

  • Anxiety - Increases in worry, panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, and physical symptoms of anxiety (headaches, stomachaches) are some of most common symptoms of anxiety.
  • Social Anxiety - Similar to anxiety, but the symptoms are typically in social or performance situations (social events, class presentations, tests, sports, or other peer to peer social interactions)
  • Depression - Sad or irritable mood, not enjoying anything, low energy, low motivation, and difficulty sleeping are some of the most common symptoms of depression.
  • Self-injury - Self-injury includes actions such as cutting, burning, picking, or head banging that causes some physical harm but is done without suicidal intent. A lot of research suggests that when stress or negative emotions are very intense, self-injury can relieve those emotions in the short-term - although it is a worrisome behavior in the long term. Increases in anxiety, depression, stress, and negative mood can be hard to tolerate.hen teens lack good coping skills, they will sometimes turn to self-injury to cope. This can be a sign teens need more support.
  • Substance use or other risky behaviors - Some experimentation is relatively normal in adolescence, but many teens develop unhealthy habits with alcohol, marijuana, or other substances. This can result from sensation seeking (liking how the substances make them feel) and/or attempts to cope with negative emotions (liking the escape provided by substances). Unsafe use of substances in adolescence can have long term consequences and is also a sign teens need more support. 

How to Support Your Teen

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:

  1. Model the behavior you want to see - If you want your adolescent to learn how to express and regulate emotions in healthy ways, start by doing so yourself. Watch how you express emotions such as anger, disappointment, and anxiety. It is healthy to show these emotions, as well as show how you use adaptive coping skills to regulate them. 
  1. Support independence and good decision making - Like any life skill, teens have to practice how to make independent decisions to become good at it. As your teen gets older, give them more opportunities to do things independently, solve their own problems, and make decisions.
  1. Open communication - Since many teens will naturally gravitate toward wanting more privacy and spending more time with friends, it is more important than ever to foster open and safe communication at home. Take time to check in with your teen daily, by taking a curious and nonjudgmental stance about their life. Ask more than you tell, and validate more than you correct. Being willing to touch the tough topics - sex, substances, and relationships - will make it easier for your teen to open up to you during this sensitive time.
  1. Know when to get them more help - While some amount of increased moodiness and irritability is to be expected, along with variable motivation and focus in school, trust your gut when it comes to your teen’s mental health. How might you know when normal adolescent mood and behavior tips into worrisome territory? Look for persistence and impact. Down, anxious, or irritable mood that is consistent and lasts more than a week, and/or starts to affect grades, relationships, or safety are signs that your teen might benefit from therapy or more support.

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May 11, 2023
Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD | Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development. She is Professor Emeritus at Seattle Pacific University, where she previously chaired the Clinical Psychology PhD program and continues to supervise doctoral trainees.

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