Adolescent Psychology: What Makes Teens Different, And How Can Psychology Help?
By Joy Youell
Updated May 12, 2020
Reviewer Sonya Bruner
Teenagers live in an exhilarating season of transition from childhood to adulthood. This time can be full of exciting discoveries as teens develop their unique personality traits and skills. There are also challenges that accompany the process of becoming an adult. Because teenagers are fundamentally different from children and adults, it's important to understand them better, so you can support them as they grow.
Adolescence is a time of great change for teens, not to mention everyone involved in their lives. It's important for teenagers to develop an identity and independence. At the same time, they face growing pressure to be responsible and trustworthy while they grapple with issues like sexuality, drug use, and peer relationships. Adolescent psychology seeks to understand teens and help them make the transition from child to adult.
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that adolescence is a season of fast-paced development in five key areas: moral, social, physical, cognitive, and emotional. To support this development, adolescent psychology focuses on mental health issues for people between the ages of 13 and 19. Adolescent psychologists recognize and help teenagers during this period of growth and transition.
How A Teen's Mind Works Differently
Teenagers can present challenges to the adults in their lives. If you're struggling with your teenager, this is normal. Ask any other parent with teenagers at home. There are many ways to better understand and connect with your teen, so you can help them cope with the changes they're experiencing. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry explains that adolescents are more likely to:
- Be impulsive
- Misunderstand emotions and social cues
- Have accidents of physical fights
- Take risks or make dangerous choices
Development from childhood to adulthood is a complex process. It's about more than learning. Teengers 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.
The physical signs of adolescence are obvious. Boys and girls start growing pubic hair during this time. They also get taller, with girls generally reaching full height by age 16 and boys generally reaching full height by age 18. Plus girls start having periods, and their breasts develop; boys have nocturnal emissions, and their voices deepen.
From the perspective of adolescent psychology, brain development during this period is particularly important. The areas of the brain that allow teens to control behaviors and emotions experience significant development during this phase, as do the areas where risk and reward are calculated. Teenagers also gain the ability to think more efficiently due to changes in the myelin and synapses of the brain.
All of these physical changes affect the way adolescents think and behave. They develop sexual awareness 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, so they can deal with them positively.
In addition to physical development, adolescence brings new ways of thinking. As teenagers develop cognitively, they gain the ability to think abstractly. Imagination and complex reasoning develop exponentially during this phase. Because of this, teenagers gain the ability to understand abstract concepts found in advanced math and begin to think more about ideas like spirituality and love.
Abstract thinking also makes teens greater risk-takers because they feel invincible to harm. As they mature, they luckily develop stronger reasoning skills and can think things through logically. They develop the ability to judge things for themselves, so they can think through the possible consequences of an action in advance.
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 they can't always envision the long-term.
In middle adolescence, their thinking becomes more complex. They can imagine what their future will be like, but they have a hard time applying those thoughts to their decision-making process. They also question things more. In late adolescence, teens begin to think outside themselves in a new way. They may think more about what's happening in the world and the major challenges facing society. They may also become concerned with career choices and what to do after they leave home.
During this tumultuous time, 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 specifically become closer with same-sex friends as they experience many different emotions and become more independent from their parents.
It's normal at this time for adolescents to want and need privacy. They're concerned about the way they look and may develop body image issues. As they reach late adolescence, they'll likely become more confident in themselves and their beliefs. They may seek out 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.
Teens develop their sense of morality during adolescence as well. They are transitioning from the authority and social order stage of development, in which they were focused on fixed rules. As they mature, they begin to analyze social contracts and relationships. 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 "right" and "wrong" as universal concepts that apply across legal systems and cultures.
Along with other facets of cognitive, emotional, and social development, teens develop their own unique identities during this stage. From early to late adolescence, their thinking is affected by adolescent egocentrism, though less and less as they mature. 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, noting everything about them including what they say and what they do.
It's normal for teenagers to encounter struggles amidst all of this change. 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. As they goes through this exciting and challenging phase of development, teens may need help from adolescent psychologists, so they work through and resolve these issues in positive ways. As they go through these experiences, they learn how to handle difficult situations and therefore become more independent.
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, and
- Set and reach goals.
Parents can play a role in helping adolescents gain 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 abilities, but they also need guidance without strict control. This can be challenging for parents, especially in areas like sexuality, drug use, and friend groups.
Teen sexual development involves many different tasks. Teenagers need to understand and feel okay with the changes that are going on in their bodies, and they need to learn how to make decisions about what they do with their bodies, including sex. Along the way, they need to discover their sexual identity and learn how to have healthy sexual relationships. While about 50 percent of teens have sex before the age of 18, even those who don't need to develop sexual awareness and relationship skills.
Most teens will be faced with the possibility of using drugs and alcohol. It's important for them to be aware of the consequences, but drug education needs to focus on the actual risks of using drugs rather than outrageous scare stories. Otherwise, it's not effective because 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 are extremely important to teenagers. They learn how to build relationships as well as how to end them. Plus, they 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:
- Suicidal thoughts and attempts
- Self-mutilation or cutting
- Body dysmorphic disorder
- Eating disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Mood disorders
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/or a therapist. Dealing with these problems skillfully during adolescence not only helps them get through the turbulent teen years, but it also gives them a chance for a better future.
Sometimes a parent or primary caregiver is not the right person to help an adolescent through this season of life. Some of the things teenagers value, such as privacy and anonymity, can be found through an online counselor. BetterHelp offers therapists and mental health professionals who specialize in adolescent psychology. These caring individuals can provide a safe place for your teenager to learn new skills to help them cope with life changes. They can also help you as a parent if you're struggling during this time. Our team has helped multiple teens and parents of teens navigate communication along with the issues detailed in this article; in fact, BetterHelp has devoted the platform TeenCounseling to serve people aged 13- to 18-years-old. Below are some reviews of TeenCounseling and BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"I have been working with Carolyn for 6 months now, and have tremendously benefited from her counseling as I support my daughter for Anorexia. Anorexia is a very complex mind-body illness and the family members can play a very important role in the recovery by educating ourselves and understanding her behavior. This allows me to use correct words with her, and watch by own behavior with her so I am supporting her in a healthy manner, and not enabling her illness further. Additionally, my own stress has been very difficult as I watch my sweet daughter suffer, so I had been in need of finding coping skills for myself. Carolyn's expertise, her very compassionate but clear guidelines and feedback to me have made be more confident and capable in dealing with this difficult illness. I am finding a lot of strength from her therapy, and most importantly I am handling my daughter better and can see the difference in my interactions with her. I am thankful to Carolyn for coming into my life when I needed someone to guide me through this. In addition to our weekly video chats, I am able to send her quick texts on the BetterHelp app if an issue arises and I need her thoughts, and Carolyn replies back very quickly with more tips to help me. I have recommended BetterHelp to friends as access to a great therapist like Carolyn would not have been possible for me without this platform... while I also do this from the convenience of my time and home. Thank you Carolyn, and thank you Betterhelp for being here for me!"
"Dr. Torres is amazing with the things she is doing with my 13 year old daughter. My daughter has recently been bullied which caused her to be angry and lack of motivation skills was 0. No confidence in herself. She would not go anywhere or do anything. When my daughter spoke with Dr Torres for the first time, a few days later she picked up herself and started to go out and wanted to do things with me and by herself, she also wants to sign up for dance. I was completely amazed, everyone I spoke to was amazed. I'd also like to add that Dr. Torres is kind, patient, calm and very warm and friendly to me and my daughter. Every time I tell my daughter Dr. Torres is calling, a big smile comes on her face, it's so wonderful to see that. I know will still have a long journey to go, and I cant wait to see what happens next, I am so glad I signed my daughter up for this. Please keep up the excellent work."
The teen years are hard for every adolescent, but some teens have more problems than others. If your child seems to be struggling with extreme emotional distress or other issues, 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. You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp for support as you navigate your teen's adolescence and all of 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 a way that works for you, too.