Often, it’s difficult for parents to know what’s healthy and what’s concerning when it comes to the psychological health of their teens. Adolescents can change dramatically as they develop socially, emotionally, and physically. When parents see behaviors in their teen they hadn’t seen before, they might worry about what’s normal. This article will explore the normal stages of adolescent development to help ease the concerns parents may be feeling about developmental changes their teen experiences.
Normal Stages of Adolescent Development Vs. Mental Illness
From time to time, teenagers may experience discouragement, feelings of not fitting in, uncertainty about the future, and an inability to meet the demands of parents and teachers. This may lead to teens feeling depressed or down. However, this is different than having a mental illness. If a teen were depressed, parents would see an ongoing experience of withdrawal from friends, isolation, perhaps feelings of guilt, and other regular symptoms.
Typically, adolescence does not have to include storms and turbulence nor does it include chronic symptoms that get in the way of a teen’s ability to live their life. In fact, most teenagers can move through the stages of adolescent development without significant emotional turmoil. Yes, there are challenges that come with the transition from childhood to adulthood, but most teens get through this change without significant behavioral issues or disturbance.
It’s important to remember that each teen is different with his or her unique personality and temperament. Because of this, the typical issues that come with early and late adolescence may show up differently and uniquely for each teen. This is where parental instincts may need to come in to identify whether an issue your teen is facing requires professional support. The rest of this article, however, provides information to help further distinguish between causes for concern and normal or typical behavior for this life stage.
The Initial Steps Toward Independence
It’s commonly known that adolescence is the stage of finding greater and greater independence. And this process begins in early adolescence (when teens are in middle school and in their first year of high school) and accelerates during later adolescence (during their sophomore, junior, and senior years of high school). During early stages of adolescent development, teens may undergo some identity exploration without yet making claim to one identity specifically. There may be some role playing, experimenting with peer groups and their style of dress. There may be some identity confusion. During early adolescence, teens have made no commitment to an identity and their beliefs continue to be ambiguous or nonexistent.
Identity exploration is a vital stage of adolescence, and teens should be allowed to be curious and explore in their own way. Erik Erikson, the famous developmental psychologist, felt that this was a critical task of adolescence and that this period of exploration leads to a healthier adulthood. As long as teens are safe, parents should be okay with teens changing their hair color, experimenting with new friends, being creative, and finding new ways of expressing themselves. In their move towards finding an identity, there will be steps towards seeking independence. With this young teens might experience the following:
- Struggle with sense of identity
- Feeling awkward or strange about one’s self and one’s body
- Focus on self, alternating between high expectations and poor self-esteem
- Interests and clothing style influenced by peer group
- Improved ability to use speech to express one’s self
- Realization that parents are not perfect; identification of their faults
- Less overt affection shown to parents, with occasional rudeness
- Complaints that parents interfere with independence
- Tendency to return to childish behavior, particularly when stressed
Later Adolescence and a Growing Sense of Independence
Research shows that those teens who have gone through a period of identity exploration and who later commit to an identity tend to be more independent, respond to stress better, have more realistic goals, and exhibit a higher self esteem than other teens. Some teens might even go through an identity crisis which often leads to an adult-like acceptance of their social, religious, political, and occupational identities.
It’s important to note that although a teen might commit to an identity, it may not be permanent until years later. During college, for instance, he or she might move in and out of that identity until adulthood settles in. However, establishing an identity is crucial for overall well being. Those who do not commit to an identity typically feel out of place in the world and do not pursue their passions or preferences, such as sports or extracurricular activities. Although adolescence is challenging, going through an identity crisis may be a necessary step to finally committing to an identity, and doing so, leads to psychological, emotional, and even physical health.
During the late stages of adolescent development, as an older teen develops a stronger sense of identity (possibly after having gone through an identity crisis), they may exhibit:
- Increased independent functioning
- Firmer and more cohesive sense of identity
- Examination of inner experiences
- Ability to think ideas through
- Conflict with parents begins to decrease
- Increased ability for delayed gratification and compromise
- Increased emotional stability
- Increased concern for others
- Increased self-reliance
- Peer relationships remain important and take an appropriate place among other interests
Cognitive Changes During Adolescence
Part of what makes the adolescent years so challenging is that the teen brain is still developing. A teen might have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood, but they are also working with an underdeveloped brain. For instance, the grey matter of the brain, which contains most of the brain’s neurons and is known as the thinking part of the brain, is still growing in teens.
Alongside this is the still developing frontal cortex, which completes its growth during ages 23-26. The frontal cortex performs reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, necessities for being an adult. This might explain a teen’s tendency to make poor decisions and an inability to discern whether a situation is safe. Teens tend to experiment with risky behavior and don’t fully recognize the consequences of their choices. Because of the cognitive changes teens are experiencing they will likely exhibit the following:
- Mostly interested in present, with limited thoughts of the future
- Intellectual interests expand and gain in importance
- Greater ability to do work (physical, mental, emotional)
As a teen’s brain continues to develop, they may move closer to possessing the abilities to reason, discern, and discriminate. In early adolescence, a teen will likely exhibit impulsivity, the inability to determine safe behavior. However, as they grow, older teens may exhibit:
- Work habits that are becoming more defined
- Increased concern for the future
- More emphasis being placed on their role in life
Despite a teen’s tendency to be impulsive, the teen brain also tends to make them emotional and creative. And parents might want to support a teen’s passion, creative ideas, and personal interests. In fact, because of a teen’s move toward independence and finding their unique identity, supporting their creativity and interests can also support their search for self during the stages of adolescent development.
Sexual Changes during Adolescence
Because the impulsivity of most teens and their underdeveloped brain, it is recommended that a teen not be left to make a decision about sexual activity on his or her own. As mentioned above, it is not until their mid-twenties that the brain comes into full development. It is at that time when a young adult might begin to appropriate, mature decisions. However, up until that point, it is worthwhile for parents to have a conversation with adolescents about sex, especially if there is any indication that they may have interest in becoming sexually active.
A parent might facilitate better decision making by asking questions, setting boundaries, and encouraging their teen to spend time with groups of friends versus one person at a time. Examples of boundary setting might be prohibiting a teen’s attendance to parties that have no parental supervision and role playing to develop responses that will work in order to curtail an intimate experience. During the early stages of adolescent development, teens may exhibit the following in regards to sexuality:
- Shyness, blushing, and modesty
- Girls develop physically sooner than boys
- Increased interest in sex
- Movement toward a particular sexual orientation (research shows that a person begins to recognize their sexual orientation early in life)
- Concerns regarding physical and sexual attractiveness to others
- Frequently changing relationships
- Worries about being normal
Younger teens will often behave impulsively and possess an inability to make mature decisions, especially when it comes to sexuality. However, as the brain continues to develop and as adolescents continue to mature, they will demonstrate the following regarding their sexual life:
- Feelings of love and passion
- Development of more serious relationships
- Firmer sense of sexual identity
- Increased capacity for tender and sensual love
It is essential for parents and caregivers to talk about sexual health with their teens. Although it can be a difficult conversation to have for some parents, doing so can prevent early pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Uncovering Their Own Morals, Values, and Direction
Depending on a teen’s family, education, and political environment, a teen may or may not have the opportunity to explore morals and values that are important to them. Of course, a person’s morals and values can have an influence on the direction of their life and the choices they make. In some families, values and morals might be decided for them and teens will adopt these without question. In other families, teens may be encouraged to discover for themselves the morals and values that are meaningful for them. For these adolescents it might not be until later in life (or not at all) that they have the chance to differentiate the values given to them and those that are unique to them.
If a teen has the opportunity to explore their own morals and values during the stages of adolescent development, they might exhibit the following:
- Rule and limit testing
- Capacity for abstract thought
- Development of ideals and selection of role models
- More consistent evidence of conscience
- Experimentation with sex and drugs (cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana)
As you can imagine, the ability to distinguish your own morals and values from those of others is part of a teen’s task of forming an identity. It can be a difficult process for some teens because they may want to give into the morals and values of others in order to fit in with their peers or their family. Whether they can stand firm in their own morals and values will depend a large deal on whether an adolescent has the opportunity to investigate this for him or herself. If they are given the opportunity to freely explore on their own, they will likely have a greater sense of confidence, competence, and resiliency. If an adolescent moves through a process of forming their own values, they may demonstrate the following:
- Greater capacity for setting goals
- Interest in moral reasoning
- Capacity to use insight
- Increased emphasis on personal dignity and self-esteem
- Social and cultural traditions regain some of their previous importance
Ask for Professional Help
In this article, indicators of normal stages of adolescent development were provided for parents and caregivers. It’s important to have a measure upon which to determine whether a teen is experiencing mental illness or exhibiting behaviors that are of concern. Using this information, parents and caregivers can determine whether there is need for professional assistance.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that each adolescent is different and the above indicators may vary slightly from teen to teen. If you are in fact concerned about your teen, remember that what’s listed here might not fully describe what you’re seeing in your teen; this article is meant to provide a general picture to gauge what is normal and what’s not. If you are concerned about your teen, don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional.