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Emotional Development

General Emotional Changes Adolescents Experience

Healthy emotional development is marked by a gradually increasing ability to perceive, assess, and manage emotions. This is a biological process driven by physical and cognitive changes and heavily influenced by context and environment. During adolescence young people generally become more aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others, but these perceptions may still be tenuous. Adults sometimes expect adolescents to keep their emotions from interfering with performance in school, work, and other activities, but doing so may be challenging in a complex environment. Some adolescents may be excited to take on new challenges as they become more independent, whereas others may need more support to build their confidence. The process of emotional development gives adolescents the opportunity to build skills, discover unique qualities, and develop strengths for optimal health. 

Factors that affect how well adolescents navigate this process include: 

  • Hormones. These critical chemicals in the brain that bring about physical changes also affect adolescents’ moods and heighten their emotional responses. These characteristics together mean that teens are more easily swayed by emotion and have difficulty making decisions that adults find appropriate.1 Adolescence also is a time of rapid and sometimes stressful changes in peer relationships, school expectations, family dynamics, and safety concerns in communities. The body responds to stress by activating specific hormones and activities in the nervous system so that the person can respond quickly and perform well under pressure. The stress response kicks in more quickly for adolescents than it does for adults whose brains are fully developed and can moderate a stress response. Not all stressors are bad. Positive experiences such as landing a first job or getting a driver’s permit can trigger a stress response that enables adolescents to approach a challenge with alertness and focus.
  • Self-management. By managing their own emotions, adolescents can establish positive goals and gain foresight into how their emotions can influence their goals and futures. To improve their ability to manage emotions, adolescents must first learn to recognize and describe strong, complex emotions. Although young people learn to describe basic emotions earlier in life, as they get older they develop an ability to truly grasp what emotions are and understand their impact. When adolescents can recognize how they feel, they can choose how they will react to a situation. They also learn to avoid the problems that strong emotions sometimes cause. However, because the brain’s frontal lobe–which is responsible for reasoning, planning, and problem-solving as well as emotions–doesn't fully develop until the mid-twenties, adolescents may find it difficult to manage their emotions and think through the consequences of their actions. Over time and with the support of parents and helpful adults, adolescents can develop the reasoning and abstract thinking skills that enable them to step back, examine their emotions, and consider consequences before acting rashly.

Additional information on adolescent emotional development can be found in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, produced by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


1 Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., & Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449-461. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/S_Sharma4/publication/236195824_Maturation_of_the_adolescent_brain/links/00463531a014be8823000000.pdf.


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on July 29, 2018