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Social Development

General Social Changes Adolescents Experience

The process of social development moves adolescents from the limited roles of childhood to the broader roles of adulthood. For young people, this transition includes: 

  • Expanding their social circles. Young children mostly spend time with their family. Their social circle expands slightly as they enter school. By the time they reach adolescence, their networks also can include people from team sports, student organizations, jobs, and other activities. As their social circles expand, adolescents spend less time with their families and may focus more on their peers. Young people also develop a greater capacity to form stronger relationships with adults outside of their families who may function as mentors.
  • Expanding their social roles. The changes adolescents experience in their brain, emotions, and bodies prime them to take on more complex social roles. Cognitive and emotional development work together to help adolescents have deeper conversations and express their emotions better. Physical development signals that adolescents are becoming adults and that they may become entrusted with greater responsibility. Adolescents may assume new roles, such as taking on a leadership position in school, on a team, or at church; serving as a confidante; or being a romantic partner. 

Building new connections and establishing identities outside of the context of the family is a normal part of healthy development. Interacting with people outside of the family circle can teach adolescents how to maintain healthy relationships in different contexts and identify roles they can play in the broader community. Still, it is important to remember that adolescents will need support as they experience these new roles. Engaging in role-playing and rehearsing strategies modeled by peer and adult mentors may help adolescents practice cooperation, communication, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, as well as tactics to resist peer pressure.1

One aspect of social development that promotes having a broad social network is the tendency of adolescents to become more aware of how other people feel. The ability to empathize and to appreciate the unique differences among people increases in adolescence. Adolescents often learn to take other people’s feelings into account, be compassionate about the suffering of others, listen actively, and interpret nonverbal cues. Although youth typically begin to express some complex emotions early in life,2 adolescents start to examine their inner experiences and express their emotions verbally. However, because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until early adulthood, adolescents often find it challenging to interpret body language and facial expressions. As the prefrontal cortex develops and the capacity for abstract thinking grows, adolescents will be able to empathize more deeply with others. 

Additional information on adolescent social 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 Spence, S. H. (2003). Social skills training with children and young people: Theory, evidence and practice. Child and adolescent mental health, 8(2), 84-96. Retrieved from http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~smrobert/indep_summer/cam.pdf
2 California Department of Education. (2016). Foundation: Expression of emotion. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/itf09socemofdeoe.asp


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