understanding adolescence - for families

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Young people undergo many different changes as they go through adolescence and increasingly take on adult roles and responsibilities.

These changes include physical changes, as well as changes to their thought processes and emotions (cognitive and emotional changes), sense of identity and values (psychological changes), relationships (social changes), and realistic aspirations for the future.All young people are unique and therefore the degree, rate and pace of specific physical, emotional and social changes varies with each young person.


Adolescence is characterised by rapid change in several areas:

Physical development

This is often the most obvious set of changes in a young person as they grow and develop their adult physical characteristics.

Psychological development

Some of the most significant psychological changes relate to the development of autonomy and independent identity. This often leads to the challenging of decisions and actions that they may have previously accepted, and often the discovering of new boundaries as they work to create their own identity.

Cognitive development

The concrete thinking of childhood begins to move to more complex abstract thinking. Skills such as planning, prioritising, organising thoughts, suppressing impulses, problem solving and weighing consequences are developing and influencing the decision making process in young people.

Emotional development

With lots of changes in thinking comes a range of emotions that the young person may not have experienced in the same way previously. While the young person is developing their own self identity it is understandable that in this process they may experience more moodiness, irritability, and frustration, however again, as there skills develop, their ability to manage these fluctuating emotions becomes more advanced.

These changes also see the young person developing a greater sense of empathy, shifting from a focus of being self centred to now understanding more about the experiences of others.

Social development

While children generally see the family as an integral part of their life, many young people, while continuing to value the role of support of their family, begin to rely more heavily on the support and guidance provided by their friends. In addition, they may also begin to seek out intimate relationships.

The main development tasks that occur are:

  • independence from parents and other adults

  • development of a realistic stable positive self-identity

  • formation of sexual identity

  • negotiation of peer and intimate relationships

  • development of realistic body image

  • formulation of their own moral/value system

  • acquisition of skills for future economic independence

With adolescence/young adulthood, comes a significant time of change and development.  The onset of mental health problems at this time of life can therefore have significant impact on the development of important life skills if left untreated.

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