Adolescence is the developmental transition to adulthood that includes rapid changes in the brain and body, often at different rates and is a time for healthy exploration of identity and learning independence. It can also be a stressful or challenging for teens because of these rapid changes.
Although every adult has gone through puberty and has personal experience with this transition, it is still important to understand the different types of changes occurring physically and psychologically during adolescence. The following overview covers the major types of development, the related changes, and common challenges that may result.
These TAG Talks address different topics related to adolescent development and learning more about what is most helpful to youth experiencing this transition:
- The Power of the Adolescent Brain: This video uses research to shine a light on adolescent brain development and explores what researchers have discovered about adolescent brain development, functioning, and capacity and provides practical suggestions for practitioners and families with adolescents.
- The Changing Transition to Adulthood: This video is about the transition to adulthood today, how it has changed over time, what skills and capacities are helpful for youth, and the roles of families, education, and employment in the process.
- Adolescent-Centered Healthcare – The Mount Sinai Model: This video is about the growing understanding that adolescents and young adults need healthcare that is geared specifically to their needs and is distinct from services provided to adults or young children.
- Adolescent Substance Use, Addiction, and Treatment: This video is about addressing substance use and addiction in adolescents and young adults and the most effective approaches to treating addiction, including opioid addiction.
- The Crisis of Connection for Adolescent Boys: This video explores the crisis of connection, its impact on the health and well-being of adolescent boys, and the implications for supporting teens.
During adolescence the body usually experiences a growth spurt, which is a time of very rapid growth in height and weight. Puberty, which also happens during adolescence, is the time period of maturation where sexual organs mature.1 Rapid changes in the body can be exciting, scary, and/or confusing. Some adolescents may mature early while others experience late maturation, both of which can cause added stress of standing out as different. This can be particularly distressing because adolescence is the peak developmental window for wanting to fit in with peers.
Nutrition and Physical Fitness
The rapid physical development during adolescence requires an increased number of calories for girls and boys. A challenge during this time is making sure that teens are consuming a sufficient balance of appropriate foods. Two extreme nutritional issues during adolescence are obesity and eating disorders, both of which can have negative physical and psychological effects on youth.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that children and adolescents ages six to 17 years do 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily. A lack of exercise contributes to adolescent obesity, so learning about physical activity and promoting healthy behaviors is important in helping support healthy adolescent development. Additionally, the availability of fast foods that provide large portions of high-calorie, low-nutritional value food, also contributes to adolescent obesity.2 Many neighborhoods also \have little to no access to healthy food, also known as food deserts.3
The most well-known eating disorders are anorexia-nervosa (a dangerous psychological disorder that causes a person to eat very little and often exercise excessively), and bulimia-nervosa (characterized by binge-eating a lot of food and then purging this food through vomiting or laxatives). While adolescent females are more than twice as likely to experience an eating disorder than males, it is becoming a more prevalent issues among adolescent males.4
Getting enough sleep during adolescence is crucial for optimal physical and cognitive development. In general, adolescents need an average of nine hours of sleep every night to feel rested. This is also when adolescents’ internal clocks shift making them want to go to bed later and sleep in later in the morning. On top of this, increasing academic and social demands (e.g., constant availability of social media through smart phones) can cause teens to go to bed later and not be able to meet these demands. Combined, this can lead to sleep deprivation, which can result in lower grades, depressive symptoms, and difficulty with mood regulation.5 The most dangerous consequence is car accidents due to drowsy driving, making driver safety an important youth topic.6
Adolescence is known for being a time for teens to assert their independence from family and begin to make decisions on their own. This is largely due to developmental changes in the brain that create significant advances in cognitive abilities. What is occurring during this time is large numbers of neurons are growing rapidly and there is an increase in interconnectedness between neurons, which allows for more complex and sophisticated thinking.7
What can make things notoriously volatile during adolescence is that different parts of the brain are making these changes at different times. The frontal lobe that controls “executive functions” (i.e., considering long-term consequences, controlling impulses) is one of the last parts of the brain to fully mature, which in some individuals does not occur until well into their 20s. This can cause lapses in judgement, increases in risk-taking behaviors, and mood swings.8 Figure 1 depicts a neuro imaging scan of brains at different ages and shows how the blue/purple areas (i.e., more fully-mature areas) gradually encompass most of brain, but not until 20 years old.
Figure 1: Neuro imaging scan of brains at different ages
Image Source: National Institute of Mental Health; Paul Thompson, Ph.D., UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging
Abstract reasoning and adolescent rebellion are typical types of adolescent behavior. Although these behaviors can create challenges for youth, their family, and other adults who work with them, they are a normal part of psychosocial development. This area of development focuses on identity and asking the important question, “Who am I?”9
During this time, adolescents have more complex thinking abilities and can start to see how they are different from others and from their family. Issues around self-esteem are common as they begin to differentiate themselves from others while also experiencing physical changes in their body. Self-esteem can be a complex experience as some adolescents may have high self-esteem in their family life but low self-esteem among their peers, or in their academic performance.10
This is also a time for adolescents to establish their autonomy while trying different roles to figure out their identity. The quick advances in the brain will also help adolescents to become future-oriented and begin to be able to plan for their future.11
The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth
This report examines the neurobiological and socio-behavioral science of adolescent development and outlines how this knowledge can be applied, both to promote adolescent well-being, resilience, and development, and to rectify structural barriers and inequalities in opportunity, enabling all adolescents to flourish. The report focuses on leveraging the developmental opportunities to harness the promise of adolescence—rather than focusing myopically on containing its risks. In addition to discussing adolescent development and the impact of inequality and injustice, accompanying resources include a communication toolkit, commissioned papers, and a video series in English and Spanish with recommendations for the education, justice, child welfare, and health care systems.
Adolescent Development Explained
This webpage from the Office of Population Affairs 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.
Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary and Trends Report 2007-2017
This report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH) provides data summary and trend information on varying topics, including sexual behavior, high-risk substance use, violence victimization, mental health and suicide, and minority youth.
Bullying and Pediatricians
This fact sheet from StopBullying.gov explains how pediatricians and healthcare providers are important allies to help determine if a child is being bullied. They can alert parents to the signs of bullying and how it may impact a child’s health, and can provide resources for intervention, relief, and healing.
This research summary from StopBullying.gov describes how psychosocial matters, including bullying, can be addressed during adolescent well-care visits, annual school physicals, sports physicals, and acute care.
Physical Activity Guidelines for School-Aged Children and Adolescents
This second edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services, provides guidelines for physical activity for school-aged children and adolescents.
National Youth Sports Strategy
This webpage provides details on the National Youth Sports Strategy, which is an essential resource for policymakers and key decision-makers in youth sports. It aims to unite U.S. youth sports culture around a shared vision: that one day, all young people will have the opportunity, motivation, and access to play sports — regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, ability, or ZIP code.
This health topic page from the National Institute of Mental Health provides comprehensive information on eating disorders, including risk factors, types of treatment, and other resources.