Adolescent Age Range And What It Means

By: Sarah Fader

Updated July 03, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Deborah Horton

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We feel your pain. We really do.

One minute your teen is demanding adult responsibilities like driving privileges and a later curfew. The next she is whining about being asked to take out the trash.

Your son is taller than you are, yet he still needs help remembering to finish his homework assignments and to put his socks in the laundry.

So is your adolescent child an adult now? Is she ready for adult responsibilities?

Or is he still a child?

It's so hard to tell. Depending on the day, you're not sure whether you should let your teen try living on her own or whether you should take away her car keys and lock her safely in her room for eternity.

But while the constant waffling between childhood and adulthood may be an annoying inconvenience for you, that ill-defined no-man's-land between childhood and adulthood poses some legal and cultural challenges to society in general. This maddening gray area is evident in the many inconsistencies in our laws and social policies.

When a youth turns 16, he is legally allowed to drive, to drop out of school, or to declare emancipation from his parents. But he may not rent a car or drive with another young driver until the age of 25. He is allowed to vote at 18, but he's not allowed to serve as a representative to the U.S. Congress until the age of 25. He is allowed to smoke cigarettes at 18, but not allowed to consume alcohol until the age of 21. He may begin working at the age of 14, but he is allowed to remain on his parents' health insurance until the age of 25.

Our laws reveal our uncertainty about where exactly adolescence begins and ends, and this uncertainty can create real problems. To what degree do we hold teenagers legally responsible for their actions? Should we give them adult responsibilities like driving, drinking, voting and running for elected office? Or should we prolong childhood as long as possible to keep them safe?

It seems clear that moving too far in either direction is problematic. If we give adolescents more responsibility than they can handle, this not only harms them but their communities and the larger society as well. But if we hold their hands for too long, we risk creating a generation of young people who lack the confidence to care for themselves.

So what's the answer? What is the right age to declare that a young person is no longer an adolescent…but an adult? What's the adolescent age range definition?

The answer is more complicated than you might think

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Stages Of Adolescence

Nearly everyone agrees that adolescence can be broken into three stages: early, middle and late adolescence.

However, the chronological ages of these stages have evolved due to changes in our culture.

It is commonly accepted that adolescence kicks off with the onset of puberty. This is the beginning of the physical development that will take place throughout adolescence. By middle adolescence, much of this work is finished: teens have nearly attained their adult height and weight, and they have the physical capacity to reproduce.

Due to improvements in health and nutrition, puberty is now happening much earlier than it used to. This effectively means that adolescence begins sooner, at about the age of 10 as opposed to 14.

At the other end of the spectrum, adolescence seems to last longer than it used to, as well. The average age for both men and women to enter their first marriage continues to rise. Adolescents are now more likely to prolong their educational experience by going to college or university, or even grad school, thus postponing entering the workforce. Also, recent scientific discoveries about brain development reveal that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for rational decision making) is not fully developed until some time in our mid-twenties.

For all these reasons, the precise ages for each stage of adolescence seem to be a moving target.

Here is a breakdown of each stage with approximate age ranges and some of the tasks accomplished in each

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Early Adolescence (ages 11-13)

This is the time of the greatest physical growth; your child's height and weight will rapidly increase. Boys' voices will deepen, and girls will begin to menstruate. Both boys and girls develop the cognitive ability to understand that their parents are not perfect, and this may result in conflict. They still share the same value system as their parents. At this age, children see right and wrong in concrete, black-and-white terms. They will become moody and insist on more privacy.

Middle Adolescence (ages 14-18)

At this stage, puberty is mostly completed. Teens are now able to engage in abstract and relativist thinking, which helps them with the formation of their own identity as separate from their parents. They can think about the future and set clear goals. Peer groups continue to be important. Teens will define their identities and values based on their peer groups rather than their parents. They may develop feelings of love or passion for the opposite sex.

Late Adolescence (ages 19-21+)

At this stage, adolescents can demonstrate concern and compassion for the feelings of others. They have developed a sense of self that is separate from their parents or their peer group. Their peer relationships are still important, and they also begin to develop more serious relationships. The traditions of their upbringing and culture may once again become important, as they reflect on their earlier selves as part of their larger identity. They can engage in adult thinking and to set clearly defined goals for the future.

Of course, it's difficult to predict where your child might fall within these approximate age ranges. Some might start puberty as young as 9. Others might still be at work on the tasks of adolescent development as late as age 29.

So how can parents, communities and government entities come to a consensus about the correct age to launch young people into adulthood?

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When Does Adolescence End?

Until recent years, 19 was the commonly agreed-upon age for the end of adolescence. In most cultures, this coincided with the end of secondary education and the beginning of a young person's encounter with the full-time working world.

In fact, many argue that the entire concept of adolescence is nothing more than a social construct which didn't even exist 100 years ago. The first mention of adolescence was in a paper written in 1904. Before that time, children left school and entered the workforce at young ages. When child labor laws got children out of the workforce, and other laws kept them in school longer, it lengthened their time of dependence, freeing them to work on social and cognitive tasks of growing up which they might otherwise have ignored.

There are some who think that similar cultural shifts are creating yet another developmental no-man's-land, which needs yet another definition. Psychologists now believe that longer overall lifespans combined with the postponement of traditional adult responsibilities give us a group known as "emerging adults."

In many ways, this label seems to fit. With increasing independence, it seems disrespectful to label a young person in his twenties as an "adolescent." However, he has not yet quite achieved the traditional milestones of adulthood.

Whether we extend the age range for adolescent development to 24, or we label twentysomethings as "emerging adults," it seems clear that young people in this age group need just the right balance of independence and nurturing.

Implications

What implications does extending the adolescent age range mean for public policy?

Here are a few logical results.

  • Extending youth support services to the age of 25, especially for those in foster care or with special needs
  • Expanded mental health services for adolescents
  • Delay the age when adolescents are considered legally competent to make their own decisions
  • Ensure that adolescents and "emerging adults" have access to quality healthcare

Of course, each of these recommendations has the potential to cause a domino effect on our culture. What might happen to teens who live in abusive homes and want to be emancipated from their parents? What about young girls facing an unplanned pregnancy who need to seek out services, but whose parents are morally opposed to abortion? The debate about when young people are old enough to make their own decisions has many personal and deeply emotional implications.

There is also the question of whether we are "coddling" our young people too much by shielding them from responsibility. After all, a twenty-year-old would shrink from referring to himself as an "adolescent," and prefers to be considered an adult. If that's the case, shouldn't we give him the respect of allowing him to make decisions on his own?

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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

What are the 3 stages of adolescence?

It is commonly accepted that adolescents undergo three major developmental stages which are early adolescence, middle adolescence, and late adolescence (early adulthood). Because of how critical the adolescent transition is, psychologists and major mental health bodies like the American Psychological Association (APA) recommend that timely and constructive interventions and support are most needed during this period.Knowing the different stages of adolescent development will go a long way to help you understand their behaviors, thought systems, and feelings they are experiencing per time.

  • Early Adolescence: This is the stage when a teenager is approaching puberty. During this stage, adolescents of both sexes go through physical growth and increased sexual development and interests. This period is often uncomfortable for some as their body, mind, and intellect are experiencing some changes which influence their emotional and psychological growth. Though during this stage, they may have limited interest in the future, their moral thinking is usually developed during this stage.
  • Middle Adolescence: For both males and females, this is the period when puberty is completed, although, physical growth may slow down. Cognitively, they tend to be more abstract, although, they may go back to concrete thinking when stressed. Adolescents in this stage are more aware of themselves and they experience several social, economical and psychological changes such as an increased drive for independence and increased self-involvement.
  • Late Adolescence: This is the young adulthood phase where adolescence experience lesser physical development, and more psychological and mental developments. They think and act more rationally, make decisions about their future, are more emotionally stable and independent, and have a firmer sense of self-identity.

What are the 5 characteristics of Adolescence?

Adolescence is the period of transition between childhood to adulthood, and it is usually characterized by rapid developments and changes that may be inconsistent and uncomfortable. The 5 characteristics of adolescence are:

  • Biological Growth and Development: This is the onset of adolescence which is marked by the beginning of puberty. Growth spurts, voice changes, sexual characteristics are developed, complexion problems may occur, and specific hormones are released.
  • Undefined status: Adolescents tend to be subjected to unclear social expectations, which usually vary by culture and upbringing. Some are treated as children, while some, as adults. Some may be allowed to marry at age 16, vote at 18, and take alcohol at age 21.
  • Increased Decision making: Adolescents and preteens begin to become responsible and take more decisions themselves, set goals and chase career paths.
  • Increased pressure: Parents, teachers, and peers all pressurizes adolescents to behave and act in specific manners. Peer pressure is always the strongest during adolescence and a lot of teens may feel pressured to go into romantic relationships or get a job.
  • The Search for Self: Adolescents can establish what is normal or acceptable and they also begin to set important priorities. They also prepare for future roles and try to equip and prepare themselves to assume these roles in the near future.

What are the types of adolescence?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the different classification of adolescents are the purely rebellious- young people who push the patience of their parents and adults around them, continuously trying to shed off the old ‘child’ identity and prove all grown up. Some of these adolescents continually get involved in vices like car theft, carjacking, pick-pocketing, drugs, etc. The other type of adolescents are the purely compliant who are generally obedient and abide by the set rules by their parents and adult models. And there is also the mixed type of adolescents who are a combination of the two.

What are the four stages of adolescence?

  • Stage One: Letting Childhood Go

Early Adolescence (Ages 9-13): This is the phase when they let childhood go, and may begin to express dissatisfaction when being defined or treated as a child. They become less interested in traditional childhood activities, expressing grievances about limits on personal freedom and seemingly unfair demands from adults in their lives.

  • Stage Two: Forming A Family with Friends

Mid Adolescence (Ages 13-15): This is the stage when adolescents are more aware of themselves, are given to peer pressure, and are driven by the desire for social freedom from parents and the need for immediate gratification. They become more concerned about acceptance and the need to belong amongst their peers, and most decisions are driven by this need to blend in. They may also desire to spend more time with their friends rather than their parents.

  • Stage Three: Acting all Grown Up

Late Adolescence (Ages 15-18): Adolescents at this stage exhibit more level of independence, as they are now engaged in more grown-up activities like paid employment, involvement in romantic relationships, driving a car, setting goals for the future, etc. They tend to push for more adult freedom and this may sometimes be problematic for parents or adult figures in their lives.

  • Stage Four: Stepping Off on their Own

Young Adulthood (Ages 18-23): This is the trial independence phase. They are more independent and mostly may even get separated from home, live independently, pursue set goals, and are more responsible for their actions and decisions.

Why is adolescence so difficult?

According to the American Psychological Association, the period of transition from a child who is dependent on parents, to a self-reliant and independent adult is one of the most dynamic, extensive, and influential developmental periods in a human’s life. Adolescence is considered the most difficult stage of a person’s life and this can be traced to the fact that the phase comes with rapid physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological changes. As much as it can be an exciting period, it can also be very uncomfortable and confusing for both the adolescent and even their parents. From the time puberty begins, they begin to experience changes in physical appearance, girls begin to menstruate, boys grow muscles, and they begin to act and feel differently. They also start seeking relationships outside their immediate family, give in to peer pressure, and seeking gratification and acceptance which may make them begin to unhealthy decisions. Of course, disagreements begin to occur between adolescents and their parents as they now want to have their way with things, keep secrets, take decisions without involving their parents, spend more time outside with friends, and seek independence from parents.

What are the 5 stages of adolescence?

There are major developmental stages that adolescents go through and parents and other adults need to understand these so they can relate better with the adolescents and also support and care for them. The five stages of adolescent development are:

  • Physical Development: This is a primary characteristic of adolescence. Adolescents experience growth spouts, skeletal structures experience changes, brain development, as well as hormonal and sexual developments, occur. Girls begin to develop breasts and hips, and menstruation also starts, while boys begin to grow muscles. The physical changes may vary by gender; for girls, these changes may begin from age 12, while for boys, changes may begin at about age 14.
  • Social Development: Adolescents begin to socialize and relate more to with their peers than their parents. While as kids, children have loyalty to their parents or other adult role models like teachers, this loyalty shifts to their friends and peers at adolescence. They begin to have a strong need to belong, and peer approval and perception is of great importance for them, while adult approval may reduce in importance.
  • Emotional Development: Adolescence is the phase when emotions begin to run high. Preteens may begin to exhibit argumentative and even aggressive behaviors as a result of sudden and intense emotions. And because they are beginning to develop a sense of self, they may alsoo become self-absorbed and preoccupied with themselves, whilst also scrutinizing their thought processes and personalities. They also constantly test the limits of what behaviors are acceptable and challenge adult authority. Adolescents also tend to overreact to situations, ridicule or make fun of others, or feel embarrassment.
  • Intellectual Development: This is another major characteristic of adolescence; and while it is not as visible as physical development, it is just as strong. Adolescents tend to exhibit a wide range of individual cognitive characteristics, including independent thoughts and metacognition. They develop higher thinking, advanced language skills, a sense of purpose, and social consciousness.
  • Moral Development: It is during adolescents that kids’ attitudes, belief systems, and values are formed, and these traits usually remain with them forever. Adolescents move away from just accepting the adult moral judgment and they develop their own set of values, although they usually hold on to the values of parents or adult role models. They also tend to be idealistic and possess a strong sense of fairness, as well as reconciling their understanding of people who care about them with their egocentricity. Adolescents may approach moral dilemmas in different ways, depending on gender- boys view moral issues through justice lens and females, through interpersonal care lens.

At what age does adolescence end?

The phase of adolescence is known to kickstart when puberty begins and ends when adult identity and behavior are established. This development phase corresponds to the period between 10 and 19 years of age, which also goes in line with the World Health Organization’s definition of adolescence.

What are the 7 stages of development?

The following are the 7 stages of human growth and development:

  • Conception: This is the stage when the sperm from the man and the egg cells from the woman joins together to form a foetus. It is the beginning of human life.
  • Infancy: This is the stage from a child’s birth up to about 18months. The child is solely dependent on parents, and also begins to crawl, roll over, walk, and is relatively active. Regarding physical development, infancy is the stage where growth is most rapid. It is also during infancy that the child begins to develop a sense of trust in its caregivers when basic emotional and physical needs are met, and lack of such may go on to affect the child almost throughout its lifetime.
  • Childhood: This is the period between 18months to about 13 years of age. Usually, growth happens in spurts and the child becomes more independent. Fine and gross motor skills are developed.
  • Adolescence: During this stage of development is when puberty occurs- between 13years to 18years. Physical features like breasts, hips, and muscles develop, and emotional and social changes also take place. The child begins to find pleasure in spending more time with friends instead of at home, submits to peer pressure, and cares a lot about validation and acceptance from peers. Adolescents may also begin to pick and have goals for their future during this phase. They also may get independence from parents as they begin to work during this period. This the stage that prepares one for adulthood.
  • Adulthood: This developmental period launches one into full adulthood, and it begins around 18 years. Physical changes stop, while emotional, cognitive, and social changes continue. This is the point in a human’s life where one establishes intimate relationships and friendships. They pursue their career and life goals, many get into romantic and marital relationships, have children, and build families.
  • Middle Age: This phase begins around 45 years of age. Generally, during this stage, people are caught between productivity or being stagnant. During this stage, the body begins to deteriorate from its peak and adults lose some of their physical strength, agility, ability, and body functions. This is the period that reflects the need to create a legacy that would make one continue to be relevant even during this period and as they approach old age.
  • Old Age: This phase begins at around age 65. People in this stage tend to become more dependent on full-time care from children or family members, and are more prone to lifestyle diseases like cancer, stroke, etc, during this phase. This is the last stage of human life, after which death occurs.

What are the problems of adolescence?

Being the period when active growth and physical, emotional, sexual, psychological occurs, adolescence is a potentially turbulent period that comes with series of problems. A lot of adolescence tend to get into depression as they pursue the need to fit into a group, low self-esteem as a result of body changes, prevalent bullying issues, etc. Adolescents may also suffer from Dysthymia, a mood disorder that is a bit less acute than the major depressive disorder but can be quite as chronic.  It is known to last for close to 2years. Another prevalent problem is anxiety disorders, which stems from the expectations that they have for themselves, or that others may have about them. The antisocial and oppositional defiant disorder is also a common problem in adolescents- teenagers disobeying rules, being disrespectful, being very impulsive and acting without thinking, stealing, not caring about how their actions affect others, being violent to people and animals, etc. Issues that are related to growth and development, education/schooling, emotional instability, social-phobia, eating disorders, some childhood sicknesses which may extend to adolescence, mental health disorders are some problems of adolescence.

What are the developmental stages of a teenager?

For adolescents in their teenage years, some of the developmental milestones that may occur are:

  • Physical Development: This is the period when the difference in growth for boys and girls is most noticeable. While boys are hitting the age in which they begin to grow rapidly, girls are slowing down on the growth. Boys are growing muscles while hips and breasts are showing in girls. This period, most teenagers have a big appetite- which sometimes, leads to obesity if not well managed, may need more sleep, become more agile and coordinated which helps them to learn new skills and attempt complex projects.
  • Cognitive Developments: Teenagers may begin to think more about their lives, and even also how the world works as a whole. They begin to show increasing ability to make informed guesses, reason and sort facts from fiction. They think more abstractly, build strong reasoning skills, set personal goals for the future, and make their own decisions. They also begin to develop a strong sense of right and wrong.
  • Socio-Emotional Development: During the teen years, kids exhibit huge emotional and social changes as they grow. They begin to strive for independence, recognize personal strengths and challenges, are driven by peer acceptance, want to make more friends, may seem impulsive, moody, self-centered, argumentative. They also develop a better sense of who they are and the positive contributions they can make to friendships and other relationships in their lives.

What happens in late adolescence?

This phase is a transforming moment in an adolescent’s life, and the different milestones of development have prepared the adolescent for this final transition into adulthood. Usually, physical development is already complete by late adolescence, and at this point, the young adult already developed a sense of personal identity, has a more rational and realistic conscience and perspective about life and has refined moral, sexual, and religious values. Intellectually, the adolescent is still developing and this process may continue into the third decade of life. The society, however, regards kids in the late adolescent stage as legal adults in many ways.

Is adolescence a stressful time?

The adolescence phase is a period marked with inevitable turmoil which is a result of the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is often referred to as a period of ‘storm and stress’ for both the adolescents and their parents alike. The trouble with emotions, behavior, and relationships, especially with parents or guardians- is more prevalent. The reasons for this storm and stress isn’t farfetched- hormones are growing here and there, realities of life and accumulated stress factors setting in, physical growth and kids are more sensitive, peer pressure influences set in, unmet expectations, and so on. As difficult as this period can be, a lot of reputable organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA), and the World Health Organization amongst others provide numerous recommendations on to make this development stage easier for both the adolescents and the adults in their lives. Talking to a trained psychologist like the ones at ReGain can also help in tremendous ways.

What changes happen during middle adolescence?

During middle adolescence, usually between 14 to about 18 years, the puberty-related physical changes continue. Growth spurt will have started in boys, while for girls, physical changes are nearly complete and most girls have their regular menstrual periods. Many teenagers may become more interested in sexual and romantic relationships during this stage, as they begin to question and explore their sexual identity. Adolescents in this phase may also have increasing arguments with their parents as they begin to find out that their parents aren’t perfect and start to test boundaries. They also tend to desire time outside with friends than inside the home, and peer pressure is mostly at its peak. Their brain also continues to change and mature, although, there is still a lot of difference in the way a typical middle adolescent thinks, compared to an adult.

What is the difference between puberty and adolescence?

Although the meaning of the two words tends to get blurred during discussions and writings, the two aren’t the same thing. Puberty can be referred to as the period during which changes – especially physical and biological- happen, while adolescence is the period when someone transitions psychologically and socially from childhood into adulthood. Adolescence encompasses a larger period than puberty because the latter is over when the young individual’s body has fully transformed. Of course, it still takes some more time for him or her to be considered an adult.

Simply put, puberty is a phase of physical transition, while adolescence is the social and psychological transition.

What happens in the brain during adolescence?

The brain of children always has a rapid growth spurt when they are young. As soon as they are six, their brains are already about 90-95% the size of an adult brain. Adolescence is a period of significant growth and development in a teenager’s brain, and while some of these changes happen before puberty, some continue even long after. This may depend on age, hormonal changes in puberty, experience, etc. Usually, the main change is that the unused connections in the thinking and processing aspect of the child’s brain which is called the ‘grey matter’ gets pruned away, whilst other connections are being strengthened at the same time. This way, the brain is becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. This pruning process starts in the back of the brain, while the prefrontal cortex, which is the front part of the brain, gets remodeled last. The prefrontal cortex, being the decision-making part of the brain is what makes the adolescent able to plan and also to think about actions and consequences, control impulses, and solve problems, and these changes go on into early adulthood. However, because the development of the prefrontal cortex is still ongoing, teenagers may rely on the amygdala- a part of the brain associated with impulses, emotions, instincts, and aggression- to make decisions and solve problems more than adults do.

It's understandably terrifying to think of young people out there driving, drinking, voting, and making adult decisions that affect all of us when their brains and personalities are still in such a constant state of flux. But perhaps it is only by allowing them the freedom to make mistakes that they can truly discover who they are.

If you or someone you love is an adolescent or an emerging adult in need of support, don't hesitate to get in touch with one of our trained counselors at BetterHelp today.


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