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Adolescent Development Explained

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Adolescence is a time of enormous transition as children move through the teenage years and into adulthood. Although adolescence may appear to be a turbulent time, it’s also a period of great potential as young people engage more deeply with the world around them. Adolescents typically grow physically, try new activities, begin to think more critically, and develop more varied and complex relationships. In short, adolescence is a significant period in terms of development and the transition into adulthood.

This section examines the major developmental changes that occur in adolescence and provides suggestions on how parents and caring adults can support young people as they navigate through this critical period. It builds on The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, the seminal report developed by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as well as on other important sources of information. The section focuses specifically on five areas of adolescent development:

  • Physical (hormonal changes and development)
  • Cognitive (changes in the way the brain functions)
  • Emotional (how adolescents process emotions and stress) 
  • Social (changes in familial, social, and romantic relationships)
  • Morals and values (how adolescents regard their place in the world)

It’s important to note that these five areas often overlap and intersect. For instance, adolescents who are struggling with depression and/or anxiety also can experience problems with their school work, parents, peers, and physical health, and may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. Adults need to understand this complexity, respond in a supportive way, and seek professional help for such adolescents if needed. 

For each of the five areas of development, parents and professionals will learn about:

  • Changes that are a normal and necessary part of adolescence;
  • Different ways that adolescents experience these changes and reasons for this variation; and 
  • How adults can support adolescents’ optimal health and development by guiding young people and helping them build the skills they need to thrive in the future. 

Parents and other adults who care for and work with adolescents need to learn about adolescent development and continuously educate themselves about the realities of adolescent lives today. Teens’ lives are complex, can change quickly, and can present issues that did not exist (e.g., social media) or were not fully acknowledged (e.g., mental health disorders) for prior generations of adolescents. If parents and caring adults understand the challenges and opportunities that adolescents face today, they can provide more effective support and encouragement for the young people in their professional and personal lives. 


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on October 25, 2019