Adolescent Development: An Overview of the Growth of Teenagers

Group of Teenagers

by Dr. Jennifer Feldmann

There is a myth that teenagers are angry, rash, sullen trouble makers who dislike their parents. As an adolescent medicine specialist, I find this stereotype to be inaccurate; I love teenagers. In fact, 80+% of teenagers make it through adolescence without significant conflict or pathology. To appreciate teenagers for all their marvelous qualities, it is helpful to consider the developmental tasks they are instinctually accomplishing. Cognitively, teenagers are moving from concrete thinking to abstract thinking which includes the ability to imagine future consequences of their actions. Physically they pass through puberty and manage adult bodies with full reproductive capacity. Socially and emotionally they move from a parental/ family based sense of self to a more independent self-identity rooted in relationships with friends and romantic partners but still including family.

At the heart of these goals is emancipation, defined as “the freeing from restrain, control or power of another”; developmentally stated, teenagers are working hard to become strong, thoughtful, independent adults able to manage their own relationships, finances, and families. This is a long and challenging process with the brain development required to achieve self-reliance lasting into the early 20’s. Adolescent brain development is patchy with the emotional, more impulsive limbic system, developing before the more rational portion of the brain. Further, dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the euphoria associated with pleasurable or exciting experiences, is lower in the adolescent brain, but released at higher levels when triggered.

Translating brain development into behavior: Teenagers are driven to try new things, take risks and be impulsive without full realization of risk or consequences. Parents need to lovingly hold their boundaries with established rules, curfew, chores… while allowing teenagers to make independent choices (and mistakes) provided they will not be in danger. In early and middle adolescence stages, friends / social connection will become more important than family. Guardians need to remember adolescents are not rejecting them, rather stretching toward emancipation. Encourage healthy social connections, invite teenager’s friends along, and do not take their peer preference personally. Although it may feel like teenagers do not want or value parents’ opinions they truly do. For example, before launching a discussion about a bad grade or a messy room, check in about their day, listen to them, and establish a positive connection.

Remember, once adolescence is over, parents have ideally supported and loved a teenager into a thoughtful, capable adult who will again value parents and guardians.