Adolescent Psychology: What Makes Teens Different, And How Can Psychology Help?

Updated October 13, 2019

Reviewer Sonya Bruner

Adolescence is a time of great change for teens as well as everyone involved in their lives. The teen has to develop their identity and independence. At the same time, they face growing pressure to be responsible and trustworthy even while they grapple with issues like sexuality, drug use, and peer relationships. Adolescent psychology seeks to understand teens and equip them for making the transition from child to adult.

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What Is Adolescent Psychology?

So, what is a good adolescent psychology definition? Adolescent psychology deals with mental health issues of adolescents. Adolescence typically covers ages 13 through 19. Adolescent psychologists recognize and help adolescents during this period of growth and transition in their physical, cognitive, moral, sexual, and social development.

Adolescent psychology can benefit teens going through normal adolescent changes and help them deal with their emotions. Abnormal adolescent psychology can help teens who have mental health conditions.

How A Teen's Mind Works Differently

Adolescent developmental psychology is concerned with many different types of changes. Development from childhood to adulthood is a complex process. It isn't just about adding knowledge and understanding. Teens going through this transition think, feel, and behave differently than they do either as children or as adults. These differences can be seen in all areas of development.

Physical/Sexual Development

The physical signs of adolescence are obvious. Boys and girls start growing pubic hair during this time. They get taller, with girls reaching full height by 16 and boys reaching their full growth by 18. Girls start having the periods, and boys have nocturnal emissions. Girls' breasts develop. Boys' voices deepen.

Most importantly to adolescent psychology is that their brain is developing physically. The areas of the brain that allow them to control their behaviors and emotions develop the most during this phase. The areas where risk and reward are calculated to develop quickly during adolescence, too. They're also able to think more efficiently due to changes in the myelin and synapses of the brain.

All these physical changes bring changes in the ways adolescents think and behave. They develop sexual awareness and attractions and may become sexually active. As long as they are healthy, their bodies are stronger and more coordinated than ever before, allowing them to excel in sports.

Teens have many opportunities as well as challenges related to their physical development. Adolescent psychology can help them make sense of the physical changes they're going through and how to deal with them positively.

Cognitive Development


Adolescence brings new ways of thinking. As children develop cognitively, they can think abstractly. Rather than just the things they have direct knowledge of, they can imagine things they've never experienced. Because of this, they develop the ability to take on abstract concepts found in advanced math. They begin to understand spirituality and love.

Abstract thinking also makes teens greater risk-takers, as they feel invincible to harm. Yet, as they mature, they develop greater reasoning skills and can think things through logically. They develop the ability to judge things for themselves. They can think through the possible consequences of an action before they decide to go through with it.

This cognitive development doesn't happen in a flash. In early adolescence, children mainly use their newfound abstract reasoning for schoolwork and at home. They start expressing their views about what activities they want to engage in and choose their own goals. They see short-term consequences but not always long-term ones.

In middle adolescence, their thinking becomes more complex. They can imagine what their future will be like but have a hard time applying those thoughts to their decision-making process. They question things more. In late adolescence, teens begin to think outside themselves more. They may think more about what's happening in the world and the major challenges facing society as a whole. They are extremely concerned with career choice and what to do after they leave home.

Emotional Development

During adolescence, teens look to their peers for emotional support. They begin to have more conflicts with their parents until late adolescence, when they may become closer to them again. They become closer with same-sex friends, experience many different emotions, and become more independent from their parents.

Adolescents need privacy. They're concerned about the way they look and may develop body image issues. As they reach late adolescence, they become more confident in themselves and their beliefs. They may seek sensory experiences and become sexually aroused easily. During late adolescence, they begin to have better control over their emotions. Much of adolescent psychology deals with teaching teens how to manage their emotions.

Moral Development

Teens develop their sense of morality during adolescence as well. They're coming from the authority and social order stage of development, in which they were focused on fixed rules. However, as they mature, they begin to think regarding social contracts. They are concerned with doing what is mutually beneficial and doing what is morally right, even if it isn't legally right. As they grow into adulthood, their moral focus may shift again, as they begin to think of the right as something that is right universally, across legal systems and cultures.

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Adolescent Identity

Along with other facets of cognitive, emotional, and social development, teens develop their own unique identities. From early adolescence to late adolescence, their thinking is affected by adolescent egocentrism, more at first and less later on. Three features of adolescent egocentrism are:

  • Self-absorption - their focus is almost entirely on themselves.
  • Personal fable - they see themselves as special and unique.
  • Imaginary audience - they think others are focused on them and notice everything about them, what they say, and what they do.

Adolescent Issues

Adolescent psychology deals with important issues that can have a lasting impact on the life of a teen. Some of these include independence, sexuality, drug use, and peer relationships. Adolescent psychologists help teens work through these issues to resolve them in positive ways.


Teens need to become independent to become fully functioning adults. As they develop, they can gain the skills to become autonomous. To do this, they must:

  • Explore their identity and develop a stable sense of who they are
  • Become more aware of themselves and their thoughts and behaviors
  • Set and reach goals

Parents can play a role in helping adolescents gain their independence by allowing them to make their own choices and live with the consequences. At the same time, teens need their parents' love and respect. They need support from parents who are confident in their children's abilities. They need guidance without strict control.


Teen sexual development involves many different tasks. The teen needs to understand and feel okay with the changes that are going on in their bodies. They need to learn how to make decisions about what they do with their bodies, including sex. They need to discover their sexual identity and learn how to have healthy sexual relationships. While only about 50% of teens have sex before the age of 18, even those who don't need to develop sexual awareness and relationship skills.

Drug Use

Most teens will be faced with the possibility of using drugs and alcohol. They need to be aware of the consequences, but drug education needs to focus on the actual risks of using drugs rather than outrageous scare stories. Teens have the cognitive ability to recognize the difference between concern and attempts to control them. For many parents, the key to discouraging drug use is to communicate the dangers well.

Peer Relationships

Peer relationships are extremely important to teens. They have to learn how to build relationships as well as how to end them. They have to deal with competition from peers, both socially and academically. Child and adolescent psychology can provide them with tools for social interactions with peers and teach them to nurture relationships that are important to them.


Abnormal Child And Adolescent Psychology

Abnormal child and adolescent psychology deal with teens who have mental health problems. Some common mental health issues that teens deal with include:

  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts
  • Self-mutilation or cutting
  • Body dysmorphic disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism

If a child has or is suspected to have, any of these or other mental conditions, they need to receive help from a psychiatrist and a therapist. Dealing with these problems during adolescence not only helps them get through the turbulent teen years, but it also gives them a chance at a better future.

What To Do When Your Teen Is Struggling

The teen years are hard for every adolescent. Yet, some teens have more problems than others. If your child seems to be struggling to the point that they are in extreme emotional distress or their daily functioning is impaired, you need to get them help as soon as possible.

As a parent, you suffer when your children struggle, too. You need to take care of your mental health if you want to be emotionally strong enough to provide your teen with the support and guidance they need. If your home is in a state of constant upheaval, you need to get help for yourself, as well.


You can talk to a licensed counselor at for help in dealing with your teen's adolescence and all the challenges it brings. Online therapy happens on your schedule and at your convenience. With the right help, you can see your teen through this trying time in the most productive, positive way.

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