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An Introduction to Adolescent Development

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This topic center provides a review of theories of child development for children aged 12-24. For information on parenting and child development of infants aged 0 to 2, please visit our Infant Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of preschool children (early childhood aged 3 to 7, please visit our Early Childhood Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of middle childhood children (ages 8 to 11), please visit our Middle Childhood Parenting and Development center and Child Development Theory: Middle Childhood center.

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Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What physical development takes place in adolescence?

  • Adolescents experience a tremendous amount of physical growth and development that begins during the prior developmental stage called Puberty and continues during adolescence.
  • Because the rate of physical development is so varied during adolescence, it often becomes a source of difficulty and discomfort for youth as some teens will develop more slowly than their peers.
  • During adolescence, most growth in height generally occurs during one, single growth period, or "growth spurt."
  • For girls, the most rapid growth generally occurs between the ages of 10 and 13 years, but for boys, it's between the ages of 12 and 15 years.
  • While their bodies are changing and growing it's particularly important for teens and older adolescents to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, with plenty of exercise, and adequate, restful sleep.
  • As adolescents continue to mature they become better able to move their bodies with greater skill and precision.
  • Young teens develop both primary and secondary sexual characteristics that are brought about by hormonal changes. Primary sexual characteristics refer to the reproductive organs themselves; e.g., the ovaries and testes. Secondary sexual characteristics refer to other characteristic indicators of adult male and female bodies (e.g., body hair).
  • Teen guys will notice their voices begin to deepen between ages 12 to 15 years as their vocal cords grow longer, and their larynxes, or voice boxes, grow larger.
  • Most teens will notice that their perspiration becomes more odoriferous which can be quite unpleasant.
  • Hormonal changes can also cause skin problems by increasing the production of skin oil (sebum) and creating a greasier look and feel to the skin.
  • Most teens also struggle with acne blemishes at some point during their adolescent period.

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What cognitive development takes place in adolescence?

  • In this stage, youth can now represent in their mind circumstances, or events that they have never seen, nor personally experienced.
  • Youth can also now consider a problem, or situation, and can identify the many variables that may influence or affect the outcome. They can estimate the most likely outcome if one or more variables are changed or manipulated.
  • Adolescents can determine whether a statement is logical based solely on the wording of the statement, rather than having to observe or re-create the actual scenario to determine if it is logical.
  • By observing other people's behavior, expressions, comments, and appearance you can interpret this information and make reasonable guesses about what another person may be thinking, wanting, needing, or feeling.
  • While the ability to use abstract thought and keen observational skills enables youth to become more attuned to others and more sensitive to people's needs, it can also lead to some new social and emotional difficulties when youth use their new cognitive abilities to compare themselves to others.
  • Youth can now recall a large amount of detailed information such as lengthy, complicated, driving directions, and can remember and apply patterns or formulas such as when solving a complex calculus problem.
  • Teens' vocabularies continue to grow as they develop an impressive working vocabulary of over 40,000 words. This includes the acquisition of words with more abstract meanings, which mirrors their new ability to think in more abstract ways.
  • Adolescents' grammatical skills also improve to become more refined and sophisticated.

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What emotional development takes place in adolescence?

  • Adolescent emotional development is often characterized by rapidly fluctuating emotions.
  • Social support enables youth to practice handling stressful and challenging circumstances while simultaneously knowing that if they should need help someone is nearby and willing to assist them.
  • Emotional maturity is indicated by the ability to identify and express emotions appropriately, and the ability to demonstrate a variety of positive coping responses to stress.
  • Self-esteem seems to be at an all-time low during early adolescence, but during middle to late adolescence, youths' self-esteem begins to improve because their increased maturity enables them to enjoy many new experiences.
  • Self-esteem also begins to improve as youth begin to understand the difference between performance outcomes resulting from inherent, natural talent and ability; versus, performance outcomes resulting from hard work and perseverance.
  • Youth will experiment with different social skills and social strategies and will also observe their peers, and adults they admire, to develop and improve their social skills.
  • As youths' self-identities evolve, a value system emerges. A majority of youth will explore their value system, at least to some degree, and this exploration may range from a simple questioning of why things are the way they are, to experimentation with a different set of values and beliefs, to outright rejection of generally accepted values and beliefs.
  • Sometimes experimentation goes a step further by testing the limits and boundaries set by their parents, teachers, and other authorities.

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What social development takes place in adolescence?

  • Adolescents will begin to form many different types of relationships, and many of their relationships will become more deeply involved and more emotionally intimate.
  • Youth must also learn to balance multiple relationships that compete for their time, energy, and attention.
  • During the adolescent years, teen peer groups become increasingly important as teens experience more closeness in these friendships and more gratifying relationships with their peers as a result.
  • Because acceptance by a peer group becomes so important, teens may modify their speech, dress, behavior, choices, and activities in order to become more similar to their peers.
  • By late adolescence peer groups may resemble a close-knit, second family and may provide youth with a large portion, if not most, of their emotional support.
  • During early and middle adolescent years, there is usually more frequent conflict between teens and their parents as the youth are trying to assert their individuality and are exercising their independence. Typically youth will become closer to their parents again during late adolescence.
  • Sibling relationships will also change during this time and the extent of these changes will depend upon the number of siblings in the family, whether the siblings are older or younger than the adolescent youth, and the number of years between siblings.
  • Youth in early and middle adolescence will usually begin dating. By late adolescence, youth continue to explore dating and romantic relationships.
  • Youth may become more involved with team sports, student organizations, and other activities that will put them into contact with even more adults outside their family.
  • In middle adolescence, youth may begin either paid or volunteer employment and then must determine how to please their supervisors, how to negotiate with management about scheduling or pay, and how to successfully meet the requirements of the job.
  • A socially mature adolescent will have learned to achieve balance and satisfaction in their relationships with others despite the increasing complexity of their social networks with family, friends, romantic partners, co-workers, teammates, coaches, teachers, classmates, etc.

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What moral development takes place in adolescence?

  • During adolescence, a teen's understanding of morality expands and their behavior becomes more closely aligned with their values and beliefs.
  • Teens must make moral judgments on a daily basis.
  • Peer pressure can exert a powerful influence because friends play a more significant role in teens' lives.
  • By late adolescence most teens are less rebellious as they have begun to establish their own identity, their own belief system, and their own place in the world.
  • Youth begin to realize that when situations are handled in a manner that seems fair, reasonable, and/or beneficial to all parties, it becomes easier for people to accept and honor the decision.
  • Teens generally begin to be able to imagine a problem from another person's perspective and try to place themselves in another person's "shoes," before making a moral decision.
  • In later adolescence, people often begin to understand that governing bodies, such as the United States Congress or the school administration, are morally obligated to design and enforce rules and laws in a manner that balances individual freedom, with the needs of the larger group, in order to protect the safety and welfare of all.

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What gender identity and sexual development takes place in adolescence?

  • As youth grow into adult bodies capable of sexual reproduction, their sexual interest is piqued just as they are becoming interested in forming adult-like, romantic relationships.
  • During adolescence, youth must make many decisions about their sexuality, and will come to learn a great deal about themselves including an understanding of their own sexual identity and sexual orientation.
  • Youth must form a gender identity; i.e., whether they consider themselves to be masculine, feminine, or both (transgendered).
  • For transgendered people their biological sex does not predict a single, corresponding gender identity. Instead, their internal experience of themselves is that of the opposite gender, or of both genders.
  • Throughout adolescence, most youth will question their sexual orientation in one way or another.
  • The current working hypothesis of scientists and researchers is that people do not willfully "choose" their sexual orientation or their gender identity.
  • Parents and other caregivers can assist youth to understand that sexual thoughts, sexual questions, and sexual desires are perfectly natural and normal at this age.
  • There are several ways that parents can positively influence youths' sexual choices by: 1) applying appropriate discipline and proper guidance, 2) offering emotional support and understanding, and 3) providing objective and accurate sexual information.

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