Adolescent development:

Adolescence is a time of massive change and while it is different for every individual, there are some aspects that are common to all adolescents - the physical, cognitive, social and emotional changes which take a young person from childhood to adulthood.  


As Teen Life Coaches, we are trained to help normalise some of these changes and support and guide teens through this sometimes turbulent period of their lives.  Having an understanding of the changes that occur during adolescence helps us to create compassionate conversations with teens and support them through these experiences. 

Some of the behaviours and changes which occur in adolescence may look like symptoms of mental illnesses.  Alternatively, the symptoms of mental illnesses may be masked by the big changes which occur during this development period.  As well as this, the changes experienced during this time, and the stress of being an adolescent, can contribute to the development of mental health problems. Normal teen issues may include low self-esteem or self-confidence, friendship conflicts, a communication break down with parents or becoming distracted or disinterested in academic pursuit.  As Teen Life Coaches, if we suspect a teen is experiencing mental health problems we encourage the young person to get appropriate professional help and can assist with support and information. 

Changes during adolescent development:

Adolescent development involves the following broad areas: physical, cognitive, social and emotional changes.

Adolescence is a time of significant growth and development inside the teenage brain.

The main change is that unused connections in the thinking and processing part of the teen’s brain (called the grey matter) are ‘pruned’ away. At the same time, other connections are strengthened. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.

This pruning process begins in the back of the brain. The front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is remodelled last. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, responsible for the teen’s ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems and control impulses. Changes in this part continue into early adulthood.  Because the prefrontal cortex is still developing, teenagers might rely on a part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour.  The amygdala is part of the limbic system which is hugely influential and key during the teenage years, being very active and often over-reactive. This emotional engine, or motor system, located in the core brain is also responsible for survival, memory assessment and storage.

Physical changes:

Puberty is a time when a person's body changes from the body of a child to that of an adult. Typically puberty begins sometime between the ages of 11 and 15, but can begin earlier or later.  It is frequently accompanied by an increase in concern about personal appearance.  Changes are similar for males and females including an increase of muscle mass and rapid gains in both height and weight.  The voice deepens, although more pronounced for males.  Body hair will begin to grow and some adolescents will have difficulty with pimples or acne.

The most pronounced changes are in secondary sex characteristics.  These are triggered by an increase in male and female sex hormones, mainly oestrogen in females and testosterone in males. For both male and female adolescents, these changes mean that the body is preparing to produce children, although adolescents are not psychologically or socially ready for parenthood.  These changes frequently trigger an increase in sexual thoughts and feelings and may lead to sexual experimentation and sexual behaviour, whether or not the young person is ready for it in other ways.

Cognitive changes:

Adolescent development also involves changes in the way a person thinks about themselves, others and the world around them.  Children think in very concrete ways and tend to accept what they are told.  Adults are able to reason, think about abstract concepts, analyse and critique their own thoughts and what others say and do.  Adolescence bridges these two ways of thinking.  These changes are a product of a developing brain, an accumulation of life experiences and education.  

Adolescents also begin to use more reasoning and logic to solve problems and make decisions, both at school and in their own lives.  This includes analysing and critiquing things they see and hear, their behaviour in relationships with others, formulating beliefs and thinking about consequences and long-term plans.

Developing beliefs about the world means thinking about abstract concepts such as right and wrong, the "meaning of life" or spiritual or religious convictions.  This includes thinking about ethics and justice, both in relation to the adolescent's own life and the wider world.  This can be accompanied by questioning adults in authority, rules and social norms; becoming passionate about causes such as animal rights, the environment or poverty; and debating topics that are important to them, sometimes becoming intolerant of the beliefs of others.

Adolescents frequently take risks and make poor decisions, even if they are usually sensible and show good judgement, which can be difficult for parents and other significant adults in their lives to understand.  This is partly because the brain is going through dramatic changes.  The part of the brain which is responsible for decision making develops over the course of adolescence.  In the meantime other parts of the brain are doing the job - and not always doing it very well.  Sometimes a parent may have to offer their frontal lobe function in the form of reminding a teen to organise, plan or consider all the consequences. 

Social changes:

One of the most important changes during adolescence is the shift from an orientation toward family and parents to an orientation towards friends, in preparation for adulthood and independence. Learning to resolve conflict and cope with peer pressure are important.

Adolescents will begin to ask themselves who they are and who they want to be.  This will include thinking about their future adult roles, desired career and lifestyle.  In developing their identity, many adolescents will experiment with different looks and styles; changing hair colour, clothing styles, and other aspects of appearance.  This is quite normal, even when it is frustrating to the adults in their lives.  It is useful to remember that adolescents are trying out identities to see which one fits best.  

Adolescents also need to learn to manage relationships with others, including those of the opposite sex, and many will experiment with romantic relationships.  Adolescents also begin to understand themselves as sexual beings, without necessarily engaging in sexual relationships.  

Emotional changes:

There are a number of emotional changes that occur.  There is a greater intensity of emotional states and stronger, faster emotional reactions.  For example, an argument with a friend may quickly result in a screaming match and a vow never to speak again, and a romantic attraction may quickly become infatuation.  The emotional functions of the brain develop more quickly than many of it's other functions, contributing to poor decision making at times.  For this reason, adolescents are more likely to take additional risks, be impulsive and look for new ways to have fun without considering the consequences.  Learning how to identify and manage emotions are important skills to learn in order to become more resilient to the ups and downs of life.