Part II: Understanding Your Adolescent

Knowing About Teen Develpment Decreases Stress

mother yelling at uninterested teenIn this 2nd part of the series, we explore the developmental growth of teens which can cause huge emotional and social changes during adolescence. A lot of confusion and tension can be lessened when parents are clearer about why their teenagers act as they do.

But the stress of adolescence is not inevitable. In truth, only about 10% of teens in our society experience major disruptions and find themselves in serious trouble.


Why Do Teens Act Like They Do?

Cultural Influences

It is interesting to consider that in primitive cultures, adolescents have similar physiological changes, but do not have many of the other characteristics of teens in our society. We can compare our own experiences to these simpler societies to identify some of the causes for teenage stress in our society:

  • Puberty rites in primitive cultures lift the youngster in one neat step from child to adult; this lessens the ambiguity and identity confusion that many teens in western society experience.

  • In our more complex society, a long delay exists between the onset of sexual maturity and recognition as an adult. The law rather than sexual development determines when teens can drive, be out past curfew, or marry without parental consent.

    Teens remain dependent longer due to increased education, and as a result, exist in a limbo when biologically they are mature, but culturally they are treated as youngsters.

  • Parents often present conflicting expectations and demands: at times we may try to control our teens and make their decisions for them; at other times, we may expect them to have adult attitudes and judgment.

  • Rising divorce rates and increasing mobility cut into a youngster’s need to belong to an intact family and to identify with his community.

  • In large urban communities, it is harder to convince yourself that you matter and have an important contribution to make when you are one of a large mass of people.

  • In our privileged culture, young people are swamped with possessions they have not worked for, which gives less of a sense of personal achievement and less opportunity to gain an identity through developing goals and striving to reach them.

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Adolescent “Jobs” and How you can Help

frustrated father talking at teen

Along with these culturally imposed reasons for adolescent stress, there are developmental realities that cause some degree of turmoil and disruption in teenagers’ lives as well in their families’ life, especially for their parents.

As with all ages, there are life ‘tasks’ that teens need to accomplish in order to complete this part of maturity and move on successfully to the next stage of development: young adulthood.

All of these tasks together are huge jobs that teens need to work on during the years between 11 and 20 and even beyond.

As parents, it is your job to help them accomplish these tasks successfully so that when they enter the young adult years, they are ready to tackle the developmental jobs of those years.

Defining themselves as a separate person from others, especially their parents.

This focus of the teen is the one that causes much of the rift between the generations. As he works to learn who he is as a unique person, he strives for independence and needs to reject and criticize his parents or the larger society – while he is still so unsure of his separateness, he has to ‘protest too much’ to convince himself that he is indeed his own person.

How you can support your teens:

  • Listen to their ideas without judgment.

  • Allow them to pull away without feeling guilty.

  • Don’t take most of their criticisms of you personally (even though that is hard sometimes).

  • Encourage positive peer relationships.


Developing and practicing their own values.

Part of his separating from his parents comes as he decides in adolescence what he stands for and what he believes in. Often this comes in the form of rebellion against parents’ values as a way to determine what his own are.

How you can support your teens:

  • Allow a certain amount of safe experimentation with different value systems.

  • Allow them to differ with you about beliefs.


Coping with body changes and sexual feelings and relating to the opposite sex.

The rapid physical changes that teens go through make them feel like the bodies they are inhabiting are not their own. They need to become comfortable in their ‘new bodies.’ Anxiety increases as they begin to be interested in and involved with the opposite sex.

How you can support your teens:

  • Treat physical growth as normal while expressing pride and excitement in their new maturity and development.

  • Understand their feelings of awkwardness and discomfort with their new bodies, and be sensitive to it.

  • Support their interest in age-appropriate opposite sex relationships, without pushing it on them and without instilling fear and distrust.


Preparing to function in the outside world.

Although it might seem far off in the future, many of the activities of early and middle teens actually are preparing them for adulthood and adult responsibilities and decisions. They are:

  • developing intellectually;

  • experimenting with many interests and passions;

  • getting a sense of their own abilities, strengths, weaknesses and limitations;

  • learning to address and resolve problems they encounter;

  • setting goals for themselves in school and other areas of their lives;

  • learning to make decisions.

How you can support your teens:

  • Support interests and encourage involvement.

  • Support them in solving their own problems.

  • Give opportunities for decision-making.

  • Guide them in setting and meeting goals: short, medium and longer-term.

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The Warp-Speed Development of Teens

At no other time in a human’s life other than the first year is so much growth taking place so rapidly and in so many areas of development at once.


Teens are experiencing puberty, a period of rapid growth that marks the end of childhood and the beginning of physical and sexual maturity.

Sexual maturity is usually reached about two or three years after the onset of these first physical changes. Girls tend to enter puberty between ten and fourteen years of age which is two to three years ahead of boys.


Early physical maturity often causes girls to be self-conscious and embarrassed at first. By 8th or 9th grade, their maturity can be a source of prestige. A girls’ sense of attractiveness leads to a better self-image.


Early physical development in boys often leads to greater athletic ability, attractiveness to girls and selection for leadership in the peer group. A boy’s sense of increased effectiveness of his body (through greater athletic ability and agility) leads to a better self-image. Late onset of puberty in boys often leads to poorer self-image and difficulty making friends, at least temporarily.

In General

  • Boys who develop late and girls who develop early seem to have the hardest adjustments.

  • Growth in different parts of the body does not proceed at a consistent or uniform pace. Teens may, therefore, seem clumsy and gangly, become awkward, and be self-conscious about their bodies.

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Teens are learning how to function in groups and with peers. Because of the stretched-out adolescence in our culture, teens form a peer subculture which has customs and values different from adult society.

The adolescent peer group is something that parents often think of as very harmful to their teens. Actually, it is very important to teen’s development.

The peer group serves many important functions:

  • It helps the teen move from dependence on their parents to full independence; it is a transitional, intermediary step, much as our toddlers’ blankies were when they were young.

    Friends serve as a safe haven, a place the teen can “belong” and find support, approval and affirmation when self-doubts rear their heads.

  • The teen learns about leadership, sex-role expectations and interpersonal skills with same and opposite-sex persons in his peer group.

  • The peer group helps the teen to define himself and helps him to answer the question of his age: “Who am I?” He finds a group which expresses the identity he is trying on for himself.

But remember – the parents and family of teens still function as the “secure base” from which teens begin to explore the world.

The type and quality of peer group relationships change over time:

    teens forming a circle

  • In pre-adolescence, same-sex groups are predominant based on similar interests.

  • In early adolescence (junior high), the same-sex groups continue with some interaction with opposite-sex groups.

  • In middle adolescence (high school), teens transition from same-sex cliques to a combination with opposite-sex cliques (often called a herd or a posse).

    Opposite-sex friends are more common and friendships are based more on similarities in values and perspectives. Relationships can be intense with a strong sense of loyalty, disclosure, dependence, and intimacy.

  • In late adolescence (18 +), teens begin to stand apart from the herd and develop romantic relationships to one person at a time.

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The teen years are a period of rapidly increasing intellectual development.

    teen thinking

  • Teens are able to think abstractly and hypothetically and to engage in problem solving.

  • Self-understanding increases. A teen’s ability to think about his own thinking increases self-consciousness and is the cause of much of the insecurity, conflict and anxiety that is so common in adolescence.

  • At the same time, this more mature thinking increases his ability to look at other people’s perspectives.

Two cognitive causes of teens’ self-absorbed behaviors:

  • As part of their search for identity, teens develop a concept of their ideal self, what kind of people they would like to be. When the teens do not live up to their best vision of themselves, they can feel inadequate.

  • When children are young, they tend to think of their parents as ideal or perfect; this gives them a feeling of security. Teens now see their parents as real people, with flaws that they are often all too eager to point out.

    However, giving up the image of their parents as ideal creates a feeling of insecurity, vulnerability and disappointment.

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The adolescent years are a roller coaster of intense ups and downs. opposite arrowsTeens are in-between childhood and adulthood, no longer a child but not yet an adult. They experience many opposite reactions which cause much of the anxiety and emotional turmoil so common in this age group:

  • They vacillate between still being dependent and then trying desperately and aggressively to be independent.

  • They are at times very impulsive, but can show signs of responsibility at other times.

  • They can be shockingly self-centered, especially at home with family, but can be touchingly caring and altruistic with friends.

  • They can be apathetic about things that their parents care about, but passionate about remote causes and situations.

  • They often have very poor judgment, but show the beginning glimmers of good judgment and critical thinking.

Adolescent Paradoxes

  • While they have a strong yearning to be accepted, they also have a strong pull to be unique – they don’t see that being like everyone in their peer group is a contradiction to their insistence that they are different from everyone else.

  • They can be extraordinarily idealistic (and world-weary parents may say naïve) about things far removed from them, while being cynical and critical about parents’ choices and values.

  • They can be enthusiastically and charmingly engaged in conversations and causes on the one hand and be very distant and unapproachable (often with parents and siblings) on the other hand.

  • They vacillate between being very black and white thinkers who are absolutely sure about certain issues, and being extremely indecisive and unable to move forward.

  • At times they seem to think they are omnipotent, and at times they can suffer from extreme self-doubt.

Three causes of teens’ emotional stress:

    stressed teen.pptx (2)

  • The imaginary audience
    Teens assume that other people are as preoccupied with them as they are with themselves. This increases self-consciousness and leads to a need for increased privacy.

    So if your teen is closeted in his room for long periods of time, he may be trying to get a break from this imagined audience.

  • The Personal fable
    Teens believe that their feelings are unique, and, therefore, nobody else can understand them or has ever felt this way before. They especially cannot imagine that a parent could ever have had the feelings that they are having.

    This personal fable leads to a belief in their own invulnerability and leads to increased risk-taking. The belief that “It won’t/can’t happen to me” comes from this sense of immortality and specialness and is the source of much worry and anxiety on the part of parents.

  • Closeness with Opposite-Sex Parent
    As with preschoolers, teens become close with the opposite-sex parent; this builds self-esteem and prepares the teen for later relationships with a mate.

    The flip side is that this is often accompanied by conflict with the same-sex parent as the teen works to assert his own independence and identity. In general, conflict between mother and daughter increases while boys tend to take flight, becoming reclusive or absent from the house.

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Children develop slowly and in stages into adulthood. It helps to remember that children acquire increasingly mature moral reasoning and behavior over time, so that if they show lapses, you are not too disappointed and don’t over-react.

The timing of the stages described below varies from child to child. They slowly begin to apply the higher levels to more and more situations in their lives until it becomes a part of their moral behavior.

Early to mid-teens

telling right from wrong-scales
Typically, children in this stage are concerned about what people think of them. So they figure that “If I want people to like me, I’d better be a nice person.” By living up to the expectations of people they care about, they can also feel good about themselves.

But the limitation with this stage of moral reasoning is that it confuses what is right with what other people want them to do.

  • This is where the peer subculture can be problematic: because early teens are so identified with their peer culture, if the group does not subscribe to values that the parent believes in, the teen may for a while accept what the peer group supports even if it is opposed to his parents’ values.

  • The challenge for parents is to keep their teens tuned in to positive values and wanting to please people with those values, and not to succumb to negative peer pressure.

High schoolers and older teens

The good news is that older teens do develop a more independent perspective as they realize the shortcomings of the previous way of thinking. They continue to care about the people they know personally.

  • But they look beyond their immediate world and begin to think, ”There’s more to being a good person than pleasing my family and friends. There is a bigger society out there and I’m part of it. I have responsibilities and obligations to it.”

  • They begin to believe in being a good and conscientious citizen.

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teen brainThe teen brain is still developing and is in a state of transition.

New research made possible by advancements in brain imaging technology, especially in MRI imaging, has revealed that the adolescent brain is a hotbed of activity and that the brain keeps developing well into the twenties. Not only are new cells developing, but old connections are being pruned.

  • The pre-frontal or neo-cortex area of the brain that is the site of higher-level thinking and controls impulses, allows a person to consider consequences, to make decisions, to think critically and to temper behavior with judgment. It is simply not fully developed in teenagers.

  • One of the reasons that teens don’t control their impulses, don’t use better judgment and don’t think about the effects of their behavior in advance is that they can’t: they don’t have the neurological maturity to do so.

  • But the good news is that with all the changes that are going on in the teen’s brain, there is great opportunity for growth and development and increased maturity.


Teens are growing physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally, morally and neurologically. So, it is not surprising that these changes can lead to increased mood swings, insecurity, arguments, and stress. But they also lead your teen eventually to greater levels of maturity in all these areas so that they leave the adolescent years as young adults better able to manage themselves in the world.



For more information about raising a teen, check out the following books. Purchasing from through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
Yes, Your Teen is Crazy by Bradley Uncommon Sense for Parents of Teenagers by Riera The Roller Coaster Years by Giannetti and Sagarese The Second Family by Taffel Raising a Teenager by Elium How to Hug a Porcupine - Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years by Ross You and Your Adolescent by Steinberg

<recommended books about raising adolescents

<all our recommended parenting books


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<additional articles about teen issues

<Library of Articles topic page
<additional online resources for parenting teens