A lot of terms are used to cover the span of years between childhood and adulthood, from “tween” to “teen” to “adolescent.” The term “adolescence” covers the years between 10 and 24 years old and generally refers to this time of significant change in physical and emotional development.
This article will help to define what these ages and stages can mean for your teen and your family, what important mental health considerations are more likely to come up, and specific ways to bond with your teenager during each stage.
So many terms are thrown around to cover the decade-plus span of adolescence that it can feel confusing to parents. At the same time, anyone living with teens is quick to say there is a massive difference between a 13 year old and a 17 year old, which makes it hard to describe both as “teenagers.” Adolescence is typically broken down into 3 sub-phases based on changes seen during these years, and other terms used to describe these phases are included.
These years can also be referred to as “tweens,” or “pre-teens.” While adolescence was formerly thought to begin at 12 or 13, better understanding of physical and neurological development has led to including the three years prior to the teens as the true beginning of adolescence.
You’ll likely see more rapid physical changes in your young teenager’s body - their growth may begin to remind you of the toddler years when you were getting a new pair of shoes each month. These changes can feel overwhelming to your child since they are often accompanied by hormonal shifts that affect your child’s mood and mental state at the same time. Gently helping your child recognize that rapid changes in height, weight, and body shape are expected and welcome, and sharing positivity about this can help ease the transition.
Similarly, it’s also normal to not see physical changes as rapidly during this period. If you sense your child is comparing themselves to others and feeling self-conscious, either because they are developing sooner, or they feel “behind,” remind them that they are on their own personal health trajectory and no else but they can decide what’s normal and ok. If it’s helpful, schedule some additional time for your child to talk with the pediatrician alone - not having a parent present may help your child be more forthcoming about health questions and concerns. Rest assured that any significant concerns will be brought back to your attention.
Along the same lines, you may notice that your child is suddenly more concerned with privacy. They may insist on being alone in the bathroom or bedroom when they previously allowed siblings or parents in. They may want to begin dressing differently, and spending longer periods of time apart from parents and other family. As long as this change is not extreme, it’s often best to accept and support this new desire for individuality.
While 10-13 is considered the beginning of adolescence, you’ll notice that these years in particular feel most connected to childhood mentally. During the teen years, your child will begin to develop more complex, abstract thinking, but this early part of adolescence is often characterized by more child-like “black and white” and literal thinking. This, paired with the new emotional experiences of adolescence, can lead to the first episodes of “stormy” moods that seem to shift day to day. It may be challenging for your teenager to take a realistic perspective since their emotions are telling them everything feels very intense and true at any given moment. Remember that, even if something feels “blown out of proportion” or dramatic to you, to your teen, it is new, intense, and very real.
It’s important to watch for signs of anxiety and depression in your teen during this time, since the physical, emotional, and mental changes can be overwhelming. This can also be when your child first begins to explore and discover new elements of their identity, including gender expression and sexuality. While this can be a positive and exciting experience for some, for others it can bring up feelings of anxiety and isolation. A good approach is to leave space for your teen to describe their experience to you first before offering an opinion or advice. Connecting to mental health support that specializes in the unique phase of adolescence can be most helpful for both your child and yourself.
Even though your adolescent may start to crave time away from you, the early adolescent years can be the perfect time to set a precedent of spending quality time together. For many adolescents, it’s important to continue doing some of the same activities with their parents that they did during childhood, to retain a sense of predictability and dependability during a time of massive change.
As the parent, you can begin to mix in new experiences that honor their growing independence - let them make more choices during the activities; follow their lead, and ask for their opinion more frequently. The most important element is creating consistency that they can trust, and sticking with it even if your adolescent expresses indifference.
This is the period of time most closely associated with the “teenage” years and all its well-known expectations: moodiness, puberty, new relationships, and an emerging “adult” personality.
For most teens, these years will be when puberty happens - you will see rapid physical changes in your teenager. Depending on your teen’s sex and gender, this will be when menstruation begins and when physical sexual maturity occurs. You’ll notice hair growth, voice changes, skin changes (like acne), and changes in height, weight, and/or body shape. For some teens, these changes happen rapidly early on. For others, they can be a longer or more delayed process. Check with your pediatrician when your child starts to show signs of puberty, and remember this is an important time for your child to be given time to talk to the pediatrician alone.
You may notice that your teen develops some elements of mature thinking, like planning for the future or beginning more complex relationships. At the same time, you’ll also see that these developments are balanced with a more child-like impulsivity or variability. This is because the part of the brain that controls advanced planning and thinking skills is still developing during the teen years, and not finished until the end of adolescence at 24.
It’s normal for teens to argue with their parents more during these years in particular. This is because your teenager is developing an independent identity for the first time, and having ideas, opinions, and beliefs that are “separate” from their family sometimes is the only way they can “try out” a new, more mature identity. If your teen seems angrier and more distant than usual, remember that it is normal for this to be a tumultuous period in family relationships. If these changes feel more persistent or extreme for your teen, consider talking to a mental health professional about what you’ve seen.
Additionally, your teen will likely begin to have their first romantic relationships around this time. It’s normal for teens to want to spend more time away from their family, and become more interested in friends and romance. Again, if you feel concerned that the changes you’re seeing are more extreme - either your teen refuses to spend any time with family at all, or does not seem interested in expanding their social world - talking with a professional is a good place to start.
As your teen develops, it’s important to ensure the quality time you’re spending together acknowledges their growing identity and independence. At the same time, consistency is essential to remain connected with your teenager while they develop and change. Be ready to “ride the waves” of your teen’s flexible identity and interests, and try not to attach too quickly to new hobbies and friends. The best approach is to always “meet your teen where they’re at.” If they’re into one hobby one week and a different one the next, go with the flow to remain connected.
Even though the 18-year mark is when we are legally considered adults, technically your child is still an adolescent until their neurological development is complete around age 24. While you may notice physical and emotional changes slowing during this time, this can be the period of the largest changes in your family when your teen embarks on a college or work journey outside of your family for the first time.
Your teen may surprise you by demonstrating mature and complex thinking all of the sudden. Usually these moments are warmly emotional and relieving for parents, when you watch your teen making calmer and more forward-thinking choices. At the same time, new found freedom may bring riskier choices and the toughest challenges in your relationship yet. For most parents, it’s a mixture of both.
Your teenager will have finished their physical development by this time, and you’ll see them settle into their adult physical form. Remaining positive about body changes is essential as they navigate romantic relationships and find independence from the family. While you will likely have much less involvement in your now-adult child’s medical life, remaining a source of positive support for them emotionally will continue to help their developing worldview and relationships.
While the “storm and stress” of the teen years may be behind your teen neurologically, the big transitions that accompany moving to college or living apart from family for the first time can be when mental health concerns emerge. Create a routine of remaining connected with your child, and encourage them to connect to support if they are struggling with feelings of anxiety or isolation. Substance use can also emerge as an issue for the first time when a late-adolescent is living away from home. Demonstrate that you can accept and discuss difficult topics, and have regular conversations about safety and what to do in unsafe situations.
While you may notice that your late-adolescent’s relationships seem to be maturing as well, these years can also contain first heartbreaks and endings of friendships as they explore a larger social world. Large changes continue to be the norm into your child’s 20s. Encourage them to lean into their developing values as they navigate ever more complex relationships.
If your late-adolescent is going to be leaving home for the first time, it’s important to establish expectations and routines for remaining connected before they leave home. Frequently, parents want more communication than their young adult does - this is normal. Talk with your late adolescent about what they’d like staying in touch to look like, and any flexibility around this. Just as with the younger years, your involvement in their life continues to be important as they grow. But now that they are an adult, they should have an equal say in the boundaries of communication.
The adolescent years can be full of questions and uncertainty, but also full of joy and positive change. If you or your adolescent could benefit from more support, consider therapy at Joon Care, where every provider is a trained expert in adolescents. We’d love to support you.