Maturing biologically and transitioning developmentally are both widely accepted notions.  However how this is structured and understood can vary significantly according to culture (Sigelman & Rider, 2006).

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a leading social neuroscientist of adolescent development refers to the definition of adolescence as “the period of life that starts with the biological, hormonal and physical changes of puberty and ends at the age at which an individual attains a stable, independent role in society”.  She goes on to acknowledge that this “can go on a long time”.  The consensus from a range of fields is that ‘adolescent transition’ begins as early as 10 years old and continues into the mid-twenties.

Adolescence is not a uniform process but rather a dynamic period of development characterised by rapid change.  The following domains have been identified as central to these changes:

  • Physical – onset of puberty (physical growth, development of secondary sexual characteristics and reproductive capability)
  • Psychological – development of autonomy, independent identity and a value system
  • Cognitive – moving from concrete to abstract thought
  • Emotional – moodiness & shifting from self-centredness to empathy in relationships
  • Social – peer group influences, formation of intimate relationships, and decisions about future vocation

There is no single theory or model of development that gives us a universal understanding of the changes that young people undergo.  If we did view development as normative, this would ignore the influence of other factors such as changes within the broader social and economic environment.  This view would also overlook cultural and religious differences amongst young people.

Myth Busting: Debunking common myths about adolescence

There are a lot of myths surrounding adolescence.  While we now know these to be untrue, they can still make life much more difficult for both young people and adults.  Unfortunately, what others believe about us can shape how we see ourselves and how we behave.  This is especially true when it comes to young people and how they “receive” commonly held negative attitudes that many adults project (directly or indirectly) – that they are “out of control” or “lazy” or “unfocused”.  Instead, through understanding more about this period of development, we can debunk many of these myths, repositioning adolescence as an essential time of emotional intensity, social engagement and creativity.  

Raging Hormones cause teenagers to “go mad” or “lose their mind”

While, hormones do increase during this period of development, it is not the hormones that determine what goes on in adolescence.  We know that it is, instead, changes in the development of the brain that influences adolescents experiences.

Young people just need to “grow up”, “Its just a phase”

Often, adolescence is seen as something that everyone just needs to survive until they “grow out of it”.  Whilst it is a very confusing and terrifying time where so many things are new and quite intense, adolescence is not just a phase.  Instead, it is a period of growth where a young person can thrive.  “The ‘work’ of adolescence – the testing of boundaries, the passion to explore what is unknown and exciting – can set the stage for the development of core character traits that will enable adolescents to go on to lead lives of adventure and purpose.” – Dan Seigel

Strive for Total Independence

While there is a natural and necessary push toward independence, young people still benefit from relationships with adults during this time.  Rather it can been seen that the healthy move to becoming an adult is towards interdependence, not competly “do-it-yourself”.  During adolescence the nature of the relationship young people have with their parents or carers changes and friends become more important but they still benefit from adults being around.

Despite this, there is a range of developmental tasks that young people must undertake to successfully negotiate this transition.

These are:

  • Achieving independence from parents and other adults
  • Developing a realistic, stable, positive self-identity
  • Forming a sexual identity
  • Negotiating peer and intimate relationships
  • Development of a realistic body image
  • Formulation of their own moral, value system
  • Acquisition of skills for future economic independence

To achieve these, young people must take risk and learn through experience.  Young people need the support, space and experience to develop the necessary capabilities to eventually take responsibility for their own safety, health and well-being.  At times, though, young people expect or yearn for structure, support and nurturing that was available to them as a child, even though they will often never admit it.  As such, there is a role for limits in the lives of young people, most often set around what is believed to compromise the safety, health and future prospects of the young person.  The setting of limits linked with fair consequences provides structure and a sense of containment as well as a clear set of rules that young people can test out and define themselves against.  Check out our section on limit-setting.

The role of sleep in adolescent development

Sleep is important for everyone.  It helps the body to rest and repair its systems.  Without it, all body systems that are involved in either physical or mental health, do not function well.  Sleeping patterns actually do change during the teenage years because of two main reasons.  The first is that simply teenager have a lot more going on in their lives and sleep tends to be low on the priority list.  Secondly, all the developmental changes occurring in adolescence mean that young people actually need more sleep which they usually don’t get. 

During adolescence there is a delay in the time when melatonin (a sleep hormone) is release from our brains to our bodies.  Therefore adolescents are not tired until later in the evening.  So their bodies actually are not ready to fall asleep until later and then when they still have to get up in the morning like adults or children, they struggle as they haven’t had enough sleep.  This can result in young people:

  • Having difficulty concentrating and remembering things
  • Feeling more irritable or stressed than usual
  • Feeling less energetic

Developmental Sub-Stages

While adolescence can span from 10 to mid-twenties, it is useful to understand the differences along this timeline.  These discrete developmental periods or sub-stages are useful to act as a guide however it is acknowledged that they cannot capture the unique and continuous nature of each young person’s development.  This is particularly the case when the young person has had experiences that have impacted their development at an earlier age such as trauma or early substance use.

Below are the key characteristics of young people according to the three sub-stages (early, middle and late) that have generally been used in developmental psychology (Steinberg & Morris, 2001; Bashir & Schwarz, 1989).

Early adolescence (10 to 13/14)

Young people who are 12 and 13 years old are clearly in the early adolescent phase. The needs and functioning of some 14 and even 15 year olds may also mean they fit within this stage, highlighting the limitation of using age as a marker. The key characteristics of young people in this stage are:

  • The start of becoming an individual and independent – a shift in orientation from parents to peers
  • Relatively responsive to direction
  • Need structure and respond well to it
  • Tendency for black and white thinking or concrete thinking
  • Strongly focused on the present and can be impulsive
  • Learn from experience
  • Transition from primary to secondary school
  • Legal status is as a minor

Mid-adolescence (14 to 17)

The middle adolescent stage generally relates to young people who are 14 to 17 years old.  This stage is associated with heightened cognitive and emotional development. The characteristics are:

  • Critical period for development of identity and a value system
  • Desire to appear in control
  • Strong need for privacy
  • Continued need for structure and experiences to be regulated
  • Need for status and acceptance
  • Increased experimentation and risk taking
  • Can overestimate their coping abilities
  • Increased capacity for thinking about consequences of actions
  • Still legally a minor and school attendance is compulsory until 15

Late adolescence (17/18 to 21)

Young people aged 18 to 21 years are generally considered to be in the late adolescent stage.  In this stage, young people are typically beginning to establish their identities and further develop their capacity for problem solving, consequential thinking and self-management. This process is likely to continue well into their twenties. It is critical to remember that all young people in this stage continue to be impulsive and show characteristics commonly associated with early developmental sub-stages. Relevant characteristics are:

  • Begin to consolidate identity
  • Capacity for problem solving and consequential thinking increases
  • Become more future orientation
  • Increase their mobility
  • Risk taking continues
  • There are greater social expectations to ‘act’ as an adult
  • At age 18, legally seen as an adult
  • Consider choices about vocation
  • Increased ability to access more adult-style service provision


Further Resources