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Unique Issues in Emotional Development

Physical changes increase adolescents’ capacity for emotional awareness, self-management, and empathy, but emotional development is strongly influenced by context. This means that many aspects of adolescents’ lives can influence their emotional development. Among these aspects are:

  • Self-esteem. How people feel about themselves–or the way they perceive their own talents, characteristics, and life experiences–can affect their sense of their own worth. An adolescent’s self-esteem can be influenced by approval from family, support from friends, and personal successes. Research shows that adolescents with a positive self-concept experience greater academic success than do adolescents who lack this quality. Concerns about body image also are common and can provide opportunities for parents, teachers, and other caring adults to teach self-care, offer encouragement, and reinforce a positive body image. For some adolescents, the concern for body image is extreme and–when combined with other warning signs–may indicate an eating disorder. Eating disorders are one type of mental health problem among adolescents. However, feeling good about oneself does not necessarily protect against risky behaviors. Therefore, it is still important to limit adolescents’ exposure to risky situations and empower young people to make healthy choices when they inevitably come across such a situation.
  • Identity formation. There are many facets to identity formation, which includes developmental tasks such as becoming independent and achieving a sense of competence. Adolescents may question their passions and values, examine their relationships with family and peers, and think about their talents and definitions of success. Identity formation is an iterative process during which adolescents repeatedly experiment with different ideas, friends, and activities. This experimentation is normal and can provide adolescents opportunities to learn more about themselves and others, but it isn’t always balanced with thoughtfulness or a cognitive ability to consider the consequences of their actions. Although this path to finding one’s identity can prove challenging for some families, it also can motivate adolescents to learn about themselves and become more confident in their own, unique identities.
  • Stress. Adolescents live in a variety of environments and experience a wide range of stressors that affect emotional development. Learning healthy responses to stressful situations is part of normal development, and some stress can even be positive. However, some adolescents face particularly traumatic events, such as experiencing or witnessing physical or sexual abuse, or school violence. Some of these events are prolonged or recurring, such as chronic neglect or being bullied. Some adolescents also have to deal with multiple types of traumatic stress. These more extreme forms of stress, often referred to as toxic stress, can weaken an adolescent’s immune system, resulting in chronic physical health problems and potentially leading to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Toxic stress also can lead to stress-related diseases and cognitive impairment in adulthood. Adolescents who experience this form of stress also are more likely to use harmful substances, engage in other risky behaviors,1 and experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition in which a person relives a traumatic event through persistent memories or flashbacks and experiences other symptoms such as insomnia, angry outbursts, or feeling tense. However, people respond to stress differently, and a strong support system can help protect adolescents from long-lasting negative effects and create an environment that enables youth to thrive. 

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 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Trauma and violence. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on August 10, 2018