Teen Mental Health: Exploring Normal Adolescent Development – Part One

This blog often contains articles about what’s wrong with teens. From posts on teen depression, anxiety, OCD, and ADHD, there’s little information for parents and teens to know what is typical for teen mental health and development. Finally, the three articles in this series will do just that.

This and the following two articles will explore what adolescence looks like for middle school into the early high school years. The first two articles will examine the developmental stage of early adolescence from cognitive to physical to emotional changes, and the last article will explore these same changes for teens moving through late adolescence.

To begin, Michael Rutter, a child psychiatrist in the United Kingdom indicated that adolescence is a challenging time because a child is searching for his or her identity. Teenagers will experience discouragement, feelings of not fitting in, uncertainty about the future, an inability to meet the demands of parents and teachers, and this may result in a sullen mood. Yet, Rutter says that adolescence does not have to include storms and turbulence. In fact, most teenagers can move through this stage of life without significant emotional turmoil. Sure, 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.

Because parents are seeing some of this turmoil, they are often confused by adolescence. They might draw a conclusion that teens are depressed or anxious or on drugs. While each teenager is different with his or her unique personality there are some typical issues of being a teenager that most will face during early and late adolescence. The following lists are meant to provide a means for distinction between what are causes for concern and what are normal or typical for this life stage.


Early Adolescence – Middle School and Early High School Years

During early stages of adolescence, there is often identity confusion, and what researcher James Marcia called identity diffusion. In this case, teens have made no commitment to an identity and their beliefs continue to be ambiguous or nonexistent.

If a teen has the opportunity to explore various roles, beliefs, and attitudes, he or she is experiencing what James Marcia called moratorium. It is a period in which there is identity exploration without yet making an identity to any one identity specifically. 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.


Movement Towards Independence

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
  • Moodiness
  • 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


Cognitive Changes

The teen brain is still developing, particularly the part of the brain that has to do with logical reasoning. 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. However, for adults, the brain’s grey matter development is complete. 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)

The next article in this series will explore additional changes that are normal for early adolescence. The last article of this series will examine what is typical for late adolescence.