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Theories & Approaches

All Theories & Approaches

Adolescent Development: Aspects

The many changes experienced by an adolescent can be grouped into five major categories:

In this section, we will explore some key features of each of these aspects of development.

Physical Development

Adolescents experience a growth spurt, which involves rapid growth of bones and muscles. This begins in girls around the ages of 9-12 and in boys around the ages of 11-14.

Sexual maturation (puberty) also begins at this time. During puberty, most adolescents will experience:

  • oilier skin and some acne

  • increased sweating especially under arms

  • growth of pubic and underarm hair, and facial and chest hair in boys

  • changes in body proportions

  • masturbation and fantasies about sexual intimacy

  • in boys, enlargement of testicles, erections, first ejaculation, wet dreams, deepening voice

  • in girls, breast budding, increased vaginal lubrication and the beginning of the menstrual cycle

See ReCAPP's edition on Puberty for more information on changes that occur during puberty.

The physical changes of early adolescence often lead to:

  • New responses from others
    In response to these physical changes, young adolescents begin to be treated in a new way by those around them. They may no longer be seen as just children, but as sexual beings to be protected — or targeted (Get Organized: A Guide to Preventing Teen Pregnancy, 1999). They face society's expectations for how young men and women "should" behave.

  • New concern with physical appearance and body image
    Both adolescent boys and girls are known to spend hours concerned with their physical appearance. They want to "fit in" with their peers yet achieve their own unique style as well.

Many adolescents experience dissatisfaction with their changing bodies. Weight gain is a natural part of puberty, which can be distressing in a culture that glorifies being thin. In response, some adolescents begin to diet obsessively. About 20% of all females aged 12-18 engage in unhealthy dieting behaviors. Some of these adolescents develop eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia.

Risk factors for girls developing eating disorders include:

  • low self-esteem

  • poor coping skills

  • childhood physical or sexual abuse

  • early sexual maturation

  • perfectionism
    (American Psychological Association, 2002)

For more information on body image and eating disorders, see ReCAPP's edition on Body Image.


Cognitive Development

A dramatic shift in thinking from concrete to abstract gives adolescents a whole new set of mental tools. They are now able to analyze situations logically in terms of cause and effect. They can appreciate hypothetical situations. This gives them the ability to think about the future, evaluate alternatives, and set personal goals. They can engage in introspection and mature decision-making. As a result of their growing cognitive abilities, most developing adolescents will:

  • Become more independent.

  • Take on increased responsibilities, such as babysitting, summer jobs, or household chores.

  • Shift their school focus from play-centered activities to academics.

  • Begin to consider future careers and occupations.

  • Look to peers and media for information and advice.

  • Begin to develop a social conscience: becoming concerned about social issues such as racism, global warming and poverty.

  • Develop a sense of values and ethical behavior: recognizing the value of traits such as honesty, helpfulness, caring for others.

As adolescents begin to exercise their new reasoning skills, some of their behaviors may be confusing for adults. It is normal for them to:

  • Argue for the sake of arguing.

  • Jump to conclusions.

  • Be self-centered.

  • Constantly find fault in the adult's position.

  • Be overly dramatic.


Emotional Development

Adolescents are faced with the large task of establishing a sense of identity. The new cognitive skills of maturing adolescents give them the ability to reflect on who they are and what makes them unique. Identity is made up of two components (American Psychological Association, 2002):

  • Self-concept
    The set of beliefs about oneself, including attributes, roles, goals, interests, values and religious or political beliefs

  • Self-esteem
    How one feels about one's self-concept

The process of developing a sense of identity involves experimenting with different ways of appearing, sounding and behaving. Each adolescent will approach this exploration in his or her own unique way.

Adolescents must also develop relationship skills that allow them to get along well with others and to make friends. The specific skills that they need to master as part of their emotional development include:

  • Recognizing and managing emotions.

  • Developing empathy.

  • Learning to resolve conflict constructively.

  • Developing a cooperative spirit.

For more information, see ReCAPP's edition on Friendship.

The course of emotional development will be unique for each adolescent. Yet some tendencies are seen in specific groups of adolescents.

  • Gender Differences
    Boys and girls face different challenges in our culture and may have different emotional needs during adolescence. Girls tend to have lower self-esteem than boys (Bolognini, Plancherel, Bettschart & Halfon, 1996).

    Some girls may need help learning to express anger and to be more assertive. In contrast, boys may need to learn to be more cooperative and that it's okay to express emotions other than anger (Pollack & Shuster, 2000).

  • Cultural Differences
    For many adolescents, this may be the first time that they consciously recognize their ethnic identity. Ethnic identity includes the shared values, traditions and practices of a cultural group.

    Feeling positive about one's ethnic identity is important to the self-esteem of an adolescent. This can be a difficult challenge for adolescents from minority cultures in the United States, given that they are often faced with negative stereotypes about their culture.


Social Development

The social development of adolescents takes place in the context of all their relationships, particularly those with their peers and families. Key features of adolescent social development are summarized in Table 6 (American Psychological Association, 2002):

Table 6: Key Features of Adolescent Social Development

Social Group Early Adolescence (ages 9-13) Middle Adolescence (ages 14-16) Late
(ages 17-19)
  • Center of social world shifts from family to friends.

  • Peer group tends to be same-sex.

  • Strong desire to conform to and be accepted by a peer group.

  • Peer groups gradually give way to one-on-one friendships and romances.

  • Peer group tends to be gender-mixed.

  • Dating begins.

  • Less conformity and more tolerance of individual differences.
  • Serious intimate relationships begin to develop.
  • Increasing conflict between adolescents and their parents.

  • Family closeness most important protective factor against high-risk behavior.
  • Family influence in balance with peer influence.

One of the greatest social changes for adolescents is the new importance of their peers. This change allows them to gain independence from their families. By identifying with peers, adolescents start to develop moral judgment and values, and to explore how they differ from their parents (American Psychological Association, 2002).

Young adolescents are very concerned with being accepted by a peer group. This great desire to belong can influence some to engage in activities that they normally would not consider.

By middle adolescence, the intensity of involvement with a peer group gives way to more intimate friendships and romances. Peer groups may remain important longer for adolescents belonging to ethnic minority groups. For these teens, peer groups provide a much-needed sense of belonging within the majority culture (American Psychological Association, 2002).

The relationship between adolescents and their parents is changed by the adolescent's social development. However, the shift in the adolescent's social world from family to peers does not lessen the importance of the family in the adolescent's life. Family closeness has been confirmed as the most important protective factor against certain high-risk behaviors such as smoking, alcohol and drug use, and early initiation of sexual intercourse (Resnick, Bearman & Blum, et. Al. 1997).

For more information on parent-child connectedness, see ReCAPP's edition on Parent-Child Connectedness.

The adolescent's new desire for independence leads to increasing conflicts between adolescents and their parents. Minor conflicts and bickering are considered to be normal as teens and their parents adjust to their changing relationship.

The characteristics of an adolescent's community can also have a great impact on his or her social development. Communities include features such as:

  • Neighborhood socioeconomic status

  • Support networks for families in low socioeconomic status neighborhoods

  • Schools

  • Religious organizations

  • The media

  • People who live in the community


Behavioral Development

All of the developmental changes that adolescents experience prepare them to experiment with new behaviors. This experimentation results in risk-taking, which is a normal part of adolescent development (Dryfoos, 1998; Hamburg, 1997; Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). Engaging in risk-taking behavior helps adolescents to:

  • Shape their identities.

  • Try out their new decision-making skills.

  • Develop realistic assessments of themselves.

  • Gain peer acceptance and respect.
    (Ponton, 1997; Jessor, 1991)

Unfortunately, some of the risks that adolescents pursue may pose a real threat to their health and well-being. These include motor vehicle accidents, pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, and cigarette smoking. Adolescents need guidance to channel the drive toward risk-taking behavior into less dangerous and more constructive pursuits.

First, adults who work with adolescents must be able to talk with them about the process of decision-making regarding sex, drugs, alcohol and other safety concerns. The goal is to help the adolescent weigh the dangers and benefits of a particular situation, consider his or her own strengths and weaknesses that may affect decision-making, and then make the best decisions possible (Ponton, 1997).

For more information on decision-making, see ReCAPP's Learning Activity Making Difficult Decisions, the Educator Skill Helping Young People Make Healthy Decisions about Drugs, and the journal summary of Decision Making for Pregnant Adolescents.

Second, adults must be aware of positive pathways that teens might take to satisfy the need to take risks: becoming involved in a school play, learning to play a musical instrument, taking up a sport. A simple stretch beyond one's former capacities constitutes a risk and can satisfy many adolescents' need for risk taking (American Psychological Association, 2002).

Most adolescents will take risks. Eventually most will learn how to realistically assess risks and then will change their behavior accordingly. For others, risk-taking behavior may signal a problem that is a serious threat to their well being. Signs that an adolescent's risk behaviors are beyond normal experimentation include behaviors that:

  • Begin early, age 8 or 9.

  • Are on-going rather than occasional.

  • Occur in a social context with peers who engage in the same activity.

According to the American Psychological Association (2002), the areas of most concern for youth at risk of developing problem behaviors are:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse.

  • Pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

  • School failure and dropping out.

  • Crime, delinquency and violence.

There are several factors that can help prevent the development of problem behaviors in adolescents, even under adverse circumstances such as poverty:

  • Stable, positive relationship with at least one caring adult.

  • Religious and spiritual anchors.

  • High, realistic academic expectations and adequate support.

  • Positive family environment.

  • Emotional intelligence and ability to cope with stress.

Unfortunately, these factors are not ones that an individual can create alone. A community must be able to offer the resources to build these elements into its structure. In order for this to happen, the needs of youth must be given priority (American Psychological Association, 2002).

For more information on risk and protective factors related to adolescent sexual risk-taking behaviors, see ReCAPP's information on Risk and Protective Factors in Theories & Approaches.


Next: Questions to Consider for Professionals Working with Adolescents>>