Adolescent Psychology: Providing Support For Teens

Medically reviewed by Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC
Updated April 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Teenagers live in an exhilarating time of transition from childhood to adulthood. The adolescent age range can be full of exciting discoveries as they develop their unique personality traits and skills. On the other hand, the journey from early adolescence to young adulthood is accompanied by some challenges. Because the brains of teenagers differ fundamentally from those of younger children or adults, understanding their unique psychology at every adolescent age range can help you strengthen your relationship and better support them as they grow.

Adolescent psychology can be tough to navigate on your own

Understanding key elements of adolescent psychology

In addition to the number of changes adolescents usually go through physically and socially, their brains are undergoing multiple biological processes and developmental transformations that cause distinctive and often irrational behaviors that may confuse a parent. For example, you may notice that your once level-headed child is now making impulsive choices and participating in new risk-taking behaviors. One of the most widely recognized theories of cognitive growth was advanced by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. In Piaget’s theory of child development, age twelve and above is known as the formal operational stage. Cognitive development during this time is when individuals typically show increases in deductive logic, understanding of other perspectives, and abstract thinking. Teens’ brains don’t just increase in knowledge in this stage, they gain the ability to start thinking in different ways altogether. Decision making skills typically develop rapidly in young people. Understanding a couple of the cognitive and psychological developments that are likely contributing to these changes may help you better cope with them as they arise. Here are two key things that will help to explain your child’s development during this phase.

Adolescent egocentrism 

From early to late adolescence, a person’s thinking is typically affected by a concept known as adolescent egocentrism. Three main features of adolescent egocentrism involve: 

  • Self-absorption, which means that their focus is almost entirely on themselves.
  • Personal fable, which means they see themselves as unique and special.
  • The imaginary audience, means they think that others are focused on them, noting everything they say and do.

If your child seems particularly self-absorbed, convinced that no one can understand what they’re going through, or is highly self-conscious, the common phenomenon of adolescent egocentrism is likely at play. Understanding that this is one of the normal adolescent behaviors and a natural phase of human development that will pass can be comforting to parents and can remind them to do their best to offer consistent support despite periods of frustration.

Decision-making and impulse control

After the rapid growth and cognitive development that occurs during childhood, an adolescent’s brain is approximately the size of an adult’s. However, critical areas of it still need nourishment and time to fully develop. This process, known as remodeling, takes place throughout the entire brain and occurs from the back of the brain forward. During remodeling, unused neural connections are trimmed away as other often-used pathways are preserved and grow more efficient—especially those related to controlling behaviors and emotions and calculating risk and reward.  

That’s why, as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explains, adolescents are more likely to: 

  • Be impulsive 
  • Misunderstand emotions and social cues 
  • Get into accidents or physical fights 
  • Take risks or make dangerous choices

If you’ve recognized the above behaviors in your teen, it may help you to understand that they’re likely occurring due to natural brain development for their phase of life. While parenting teenagers of this age may seem like they need less and less guidance or parenting with each passing day, it’s a prime time to model and teach them things like how to emotionally control, weigh consequences, take accountability, etc.—all skills that will be crucial for their healthy functioning as adults. It's important to understand adolescent psychology.


How to support your teen during this time

Children and adolescents require support from adults—especially parents and teachers—that fosters a healthy environment for their emotional growth and brain development. Your adolescence definition and understanding adolescent psychology vary from your perspective but the truth remains the same and that is, adolescents need guidance. However, you may not know exactly how to provide this, especially when they push you away or act in a volatile and irrational manner. Here are a few tips for offering them the guidance they need during adolescent development, even in the face of their sometimes unpredictable or confusing behavior.

Encourage their independence 

Teens need to gradually work toward independence and a sense of self-efficacy so that they’ll be prepared to take care of themselves when they reach the age of adulthood. As they develop, they can gain new skills necessary to become autonomous. To do this, they must: 

  • Explore their identity and develop a stable sense of who they are in a social context
  • Become more aware of themselves and their thoughts and behaviors 
  • Learn to set and reach goals 

Caregivers can play a role in helping adolescents gain independence by allowing them to make their own age-appropriate choices and live with the consequences. You may also practice showing your teen love and compassion when they make mistakes to teach them that failures are okay and can even be helpful growth opportunities.

Model healthy behaviors

Even if they don’t act like it, your teen likely looks up to you. It’s normal for young people to look to adults in their lives for how to behave, so you can also support them simply by modeling healthy behaviors. For example, showing them how to weigh options to make decisions and communicate clearly and calmly to resolve conflict can be useful, as can helping them come up with personal strategies for managing difficult emotions. Seeing you put these things into practice first can help them fill their toolboxes with these tools, which will be useful to them as they navigate identity formation, and throughout the rest of their lives.

Keep the lines of communication open

Striving to keep the lines of communication open so your child feels they can come to you with challenges or concerns is typically useful at this age as well, communicating with teens is a little challenging but is very important to help them. As they build social skills and social relationships, your teen is likely to start emotionally relying more on peers and friends at this age. However, maintaining a positive relationship with a parent figure remains a point of particular importance for a teen to feel safe. They still want to know that they can bring challenges, problems, fears, or concerns to you too, and that they’ll be met with compassion and warmth rather than judgment or condemnation. 

Watch for signs of mental health conditions

The Office of Population Affairs estimates that as many as half of adolescents will experience some kind of teen mental health disorder at some point.

Watching out for common signs of mental health challenges in your child will be helpful during this time because you can help connect them with the appropriate resources and support if you notice any.

Common mental health challenges during the teenage years include depression, anxiety disorders, adolescent drug use issues, risky behavior, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. While each condition has its specific symptoms, noticing some of the following could indicate the presence of one—meaning it’s worth locating mental health support for your child: 

  • Low self-esteem 
  • Loss of interest in social activities 
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Trouble concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things
  • Fixation on failures; excessive self-blame and self-criticism  
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Fixation on the way their body looks
  • Excessive exercise 
  • Extreme changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Problematic alcohol and/or drug use 
  • Agitation or restlessness 
  • Disruptive or risky behaviors 

If you’re concerned about your teen’s mental health, seeking the support of a mental health professional is typically recommended. Research on adolescent psychology shows that getting the proper guidance as soon as possible can help keep your teen safe and improve their quality of life. It can also equip them with the tools needed to handle challenges later in life as adults.

Adolescent psychology can be tough to navigate on your own

Offer to connect them with a therapist

It’s normal for teenagers to encounter obstacles and frustrations amid all this change in their world, particularly during their high school years. Whether they’re showing signs of a mental health condition or not, connecting them with a mental health professional like a therapist can be useful. A qualified therapist can offer your teen a safe space where they can express and process their feelings about the challenges they may be facing. The therapist can then provide teenage counseling and help them develop healthy coping mechanisms for moving through difficult situations and relationships. If it’s easier or more comfortable for your teen to meet with a provider from the comfort of home, you might consider online teen counselingResearch suggests that it can offer similar benefits to in-person sessions, and a virtual therapy platform like TeenCounseling can connect teens ages 13–18 with a licensed provider with whom they can speak via phone, video call, and/or online chat.

While being a teen comes with many challenges, so does being the parent of a teen. That’s why it’s not uncommon for parents to want to understand the main content of their child’s challenges and seek the support of a therapist during this time as well. If you’re looking to receive this kind of guidance from the comfort of your own home too, an online therapy platform like BetterHelp offers the same services as TeenCounseling but for adults. You can fill out a quick questionnaire about your needs and preferences and get matched with a licensed therapist who you can connect with via phone, video call, and/or online chat. Read on for client reviews of TeenCounseling and BetterHelp counselors.


The teen years can be difficult for both adolescents and parents. Learning more about the cognitive and psychological developments your teen is going through during this time may help you understand how to better support their specific needs and identify useful health services. In addition, seeking the help of a therapist for you and/or your teen can be helpful as well.

Adolescence can be a challenging life stage
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