The developmental phase of 12-18 years old marks the progression from forming attachment to family to a new focus on peer relationships, experimentation, personal autonomy, and self-exploration and expression. Traditionally adolescence has been viewed as a turbulent time. However, now it is widely recognized that most teens weather this developmental phase without significant problems. The challenge for parents is to alter parenting strategies from stringent management to persuasion and negotiation, all without losing your sanity. These challenges typically result in a more complex pattern of conflict than before. But speaking as a mom of teens, their clever wit and boundless scheming can be really fun and keeps one on her toes. Their independence even allows parents some personal time. They are growing up quickly and will be launching soon enough. Soak it in!
- During adolescence, teens demonstrate a two to three year growth spurt that rivals the one that occurred during infancy. Boys may grow as much as 9 inches taller and girls as much as 7 inches taller, reaching on average 98 percent of their adult height (Tanner, 1978). Not only are teens taller, but they also develop secondary sexual characteristics like breasts and hips for the girls and more musculature with wider shoulders for the boys.
- Temporal lobe cortical gray matter peaks at 16.7 years in girls and 16.2 years in boys (Lenroot, 2006).
- During adolescence, we see another surge in synaptic pruning. This process involves the retraction of the neuron from the synapse (the space between connected neurons). By late adolescence nearly half of synapses that were not used or damaged are eliminated, which is believed to make brain functioning more efficient (Chechik, 2004). With fewer unnecessary wiring tangles, brain circuitry is regulated and childhood structures are replaced with the complex fibers necessary for adulthood. The major aspects of experience-dependent brain remodeling, with its use it or lose it process, is now largely complete resulting in more refined cognitive and emotional capacities. By twenty years old, the cortex begins to decrease in area, which continues through adulthood (Brown, 2012).
- The synaptic pruning spike of adolescence seems to reveal genetically or experientally vulnerable circuits that may be related to the onset of psychiatric disorders and addiction. Late adolescence and early adulthood is the developmental period when most chronic mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and mood and anxiety disorders, first emerge. It is also a time when we seek and are particularly sensitive to stress and novel experiences. It is hypothesized that stress (and drug use) may alter grey matter pruning in a pattern that contributes to the emergence of severe mental illness like schizophrenia. Furthermore, some teens will move from drug experimentation to the launch of life-long addiction patterns.
- Impulsivity and high emotionality is particularly obvious during this time, partly due to the fact that the prefrontal region (the seat of problem solving and judgment) and the limbic system (responsible for emotional self regulation) are the last brain areas to mature.
- The spikes of hormones characteristic of adolescence affect the raphe nucleus (the area responsible for arousal and mood), typically resetting sleep-wake cycles. As a result, we see teens wanting to live more like vampires…staying awake late into the night and sleeping in late into the morning.
- Just as the brain is pruning, we also see continued myelination (the laying down of fatty sheaths that insulate the neuron and allow it to work with more coordination and speed). The corpus callosum (which connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain) is largely made up of this white matter.
- Brain functioning from childhood and adolescence move us from critical windows ripe for open learning potential to skill specialization. With more sophisticated neurological integration, teens start to demonstrate higher order thinking ability characterized by better emotional stabilization, abstract thinking, and increased capacity for insight and planning. It is with these new abilities that they aggressively, and sometimes recklessly, seek to gain experience that will ultimately lead to the wisdom of adulthood. Genetic predisposition not only provides the blueprint for brain development, but it also affects what environmental stimulation that teens will seek. Brain hardware motivates behavior, and behavior motivates brain development. Psychologists call this bi-directional effect nature via nurture.
Cognitive & Motor Development
Here are some highlights of core psychological theories about development during the adolescent years:
- Sigmund Freud characterized the genital stage of development during adolescence in which sexual intercourse becomes the dominant motive of behavior. He theorized that the emotional storminess of this time is due to the psychological struggle between the id (reawakened primitive instinct), the ego (the mediator), and the superego (societies rules and values).
- Margaret Mead concluded that adolescence is not a universally volatile time. She believed that cultural and social factors contributed to this belief rather than biology.
- Jean Piaget theorized that by 12 years old, kids are entering the stage of formal operations. This more complex method of thinking allows teens to hold ideas in mind to operate on and reason more systematically, making it possible to better imagine and plan into the future.
- Erik Erikson characterized adolescence as a crisis of identity versus identity confusion. In other words, he believed adolescents begin to develop a personal identity by reconciling beliefs, abilities, and desires with adult norms.
- Today’s adolescents endure a multitude of stressors. More specifically, they transition from elementary to middle school, then middle school to high school. This means more teachers, increasing academic expectations, and transitioning from being the oldest, most capable kids at school to newbies who must adapt to a larger social pool. And it’s not as if they socialize each other gently. Teens use humor, peer pressure, and often downright cruelty to coax each other to fit new social expectations. Teens are also expected to take on more responsibilities at home and school. For many, their parents also enter the age range where we see the highest divorce rates. Theorists suggest this is because parents go through transition pains of their own as their kids gain independence. The strain may lead to divorce, while others were intentionally waiting until coparenting responsibilities lifted. Teens undergoing family transitions along with increasing academic and social expectations have a lot to deal with indeed.
- With the development of metacognition (thinking about thinking), the ability to think about the past, present, and future emerges. Teen learning style becomes more versatile, with a consistent ability to make alterations to learning techniques in service of more efficiency and excellence.
- While developing their new identity independent from parents, teens delight in developing their own unique subcultures characterized by iconic symbols, unique styles of dress and special interests (music), private jokes, and unique slang. Adults in the community often form strong options about teen “sex, love, and rock n roll” culture, some enjoying it with fun reflection of their own youth and others fearing the bold intensity of it all.
- Teen virtual identity reflects these changes just as their nonvirtual identity does. Parents must balance supportive screen monitoring with a healthy respect for online privacy.
Social and Emotional Development
- Developing teen girls are particularly sensitive to body image and maintaining the approval of others. As a result, adolescent girls often display a sizable drop in perceived self-worth and are at higher risk for clinical depression than boys. Other high risk mental health issues may develop during this time, including mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and contagious, troubling behaviors like self harm.
- During the teen years, interpersonal relationships have increasing influence on self-worth. For socially successful teens, this social feedback contributes to a global self-esteem. For less equipped or unlucky teens, this may mark a decline in their beliefs about competency and ability. The more warm, supportive, and clearly communicative their parental support system, the more likely the teen will demonstrate resilience. As teens push back, skilled parents begin to adopt a more democratic parenting style, allowing teens more of a voice in making decisions.
- In clinical practice, I often see families struggle with the child-to-adolescent transition; especially if parents have been highly involved in their children’s overall decision making. As teens branch out in search of independent experiences, parents may naïvely perceive adolescent behaviors as intentional betrayal. When parents become too heavy handed with punishing consequence, the parent child alliance can be damaged with resentment, anger, and guilt. A strong alliance from childhood and real efforts to develop patience, faith, and a rich sense of humor are critical to successful coping. Social support for parent and teens is also important for positive outcome.
- Adolescent peer groups often take on complex roles similar to those seen in families. This new sense of security from peer cliques in place of the traditional family and the “try-outs” and competition for these roles can become very complicated. Furthermore, as peer conflicts arise, parental suggestions become less and less helpful. For example, “just don’t hang out with them” or “go to the school administration” are rarely adequate solutions and often lead to more problems than they were intended to solve. Teen and parent frustration can lead to lack of obedience, blatant disregard, and overall strain on the parent-teen relationship.
- By age 14, most adolescents have adopted a dramatic dependence on peers for support and approval. They are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their abilities to assess the complex psychological aspects of friendships, including dispositional similarities and dissimilarities as well as situational factors that may influence behavior (Damon & Hart, 1988). As a result, teen friendships become more intimate with an emphasis on loyalty and popularity. Competition for romantic partners also peak, leading to tearful drama and broken hearts. The first cut is the deepest becomes more evident with romance and breakups taking an increasing focus among teen groups.
- Clinically, I see many middle- and high-schoolers struggle to find their best peer group. Feelings of loneliness, rejection, and envy often come into play as best friends split due to changing needs and interests. More complex conflicts and the resulting heightened emotion are often reflected in social media blogs and posts. Teens often promote their new “image” and peer attachments without regard to future consequences. In other words, teens may intentionally release racy photos and posts in order to look more sophisticated or sexually experienced. One moment of lapsed judgment can now be shared with thousands of friendly and rival peers, never to be recaptured or controlled.
- Lawrence Kohlberg theorized that most teens assess “what is right” as living up to others’ expectations. For others, the more advanced moral development stage 4 consider “what is right” to be fulfilling one’s duties. It is precisely this sophistication that leads to the following burgeoning adolescent traits that conflict with parent rules and experienced wisdom:
- Sexuality: “He’s hot!” “She’s hot!” Teens are now interested in attracting and being attracted to potential sexual partners. Lunchtime in middle school is a lesson on finding every excuse to hug or wrestle with all the awkward and giddy playfulness that entails.
- Pseudostupidity: Teens often make things more complicated and dramatic than they need to be, overlooking the obvious while focusing on the extraneous. It seems like they’re being dense, but in reality they’re practicing developing cognitive skills. They tend to take absolute positions (always, never, everybody, nobody), which can spin into hopeless emotional states. Also, they’ll analyze every little bit of an interaction to the point of analysis paralysis. This can be very frustrating for parents, yet it is necessary for teens to overanalyze before they realize that complex analysis isn’t always necessary. They tend to overstep the mark before they settle into a more measured, moderate position. It takes a lot of practice and failure to achieve mastery. Besides, rehashing situations with great enthusiasm is an attachment exercise with similarly emotionally reactive friends. They typically have poor insight into their perceptual errors.
- Idealism: Not only do teens often naively assume things will work out for the positive, but this perspective allows them to challenge entrenched ideas and think outside of the box. This trait is what motivates young people to courageously challenge and start social movements.
- Imaginary audience: Teens can become very self-conscious, partly because they are actually convinced EVERYBODY is looking at them. This is a healthy factor that results from attachment transitioning from parents to peers. The truth is, there IS some intense social scrutiny going on during this phase of development. Forging a new self-identity means exploring different looks, behaviors, and perspectives. Sophisticated parents know not to sweat the small stuff. Most troubling teen behaviors are short-lived.
- Omnipotence and invincibility: Without a fully developed executive control center (prefrontal brain region), teens are often unable to anticipate consequence. As a result, they are often impulsive and take risks they probably shouldn’t. It’s not unusual for teens to choose aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive problem solving means while they master assertiveness.
- Apparent hypocrisy: Another manifestation of teen egocentrism is their tendency to accuse others of misdeeds while blatantly dismissing their own. Maddening to parents, this means teens often criticize parents for selfishness while making selfish demands. Occasional correction with emotional neutrality or humor is critical to keep the parent-child alliance in balance.
- Despite their intentional individuation efforts from their family of origin, teens tend to share their parents values and opinions more than you might think. And just as they push us away, they need us more than ever. It’s a mistake for parents to threaten abandonment in response to their kids’ normal efforts to become independent. The goal is to love them openly despite their protests. In general, teens DO NOT do well in families where the parents aren’t there consistently or have given up. They DO do well with parents who gradually allow them opportunity to grow and experiment instead of monitoring, intruding, or policing them too strictly.
- Despite many teens dropping out of sports and extracurricular activities at this age, research demonstrates that ongoing participation contributes to positive outcomes in academic achievement, psychological health, and later involvement in political and social causes (Schafer, 579).
- Risk issues to monitor include sleep deprivation due to vamping and caffeine or amphetamine abuse, unhealthy nutrition or inadequate or excessive exercise that may be related to body image, and unreasonable academic and activity scheduling.
I am one of those adults that thinks teens are hilarious, which is why it’s a speciality of my clinical psychology practice. Of course, having two at home now there are certainly times when their disdain for all that is rad about me strains my resilience. But overall, teens have the key to my heart. I admire their brash courage and quick-to-trigger vulnerabilities. As they strive for an independent identity and experiment with their power, we parents need clarity and a ton of loving support. GetKidsInternetSafe is here to provide it. If you have any specific challenges or questions about your teens, please make a comment and I’ll be sure to address them.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
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