Changes To Expect In Late Adolescence
By: Alisen Boada
Updated September 22, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Sonya Bruner
We might assume that we leave adolescence behind once we graduate high school, but adulthood is actually still one step away. Another round of development happens between ages 18 to 21, since our brain isn't done maturing until age 25. But this is also when we start making our first big life decisions, like going to college. Because our minds are still growing, how we deal with the excitement and pressure of venturing out on our own can have a lasting impact on our future success and wellness. This makes late adolescence a great time to learn healthy coping strategies that can support you throughout your lifetime.
The changes we go through during adolescence can be broken down into three separate parts:
- Early adolescence refers to the ages of 11 to 14 years old
- Middle adolescence is ages 15 to 17
- Late adolescence age ranges from 18 to 21, with some experts noting a range from 18 to 24
By the time we get to late adolescence, we've survived through the raging hormone phase of our teen experience. But while the emotional rollercoaster of high school drama is over, there are still a few changes our mind and body have left in store, which we'll discuss more later. These last significant shifts are also happening right when we start taking on adult responsibilities that come with our early 20's. This makes late adolescence a potentially vulnerable time for our mental health, with 75% of disorders starting before the age of 24.
According to the World Health Organization, 10 to 20% of adolescents experience mental health conditions that often go underdiagnosed and undertreated. Knowing what to expect during this phase in our lives can help us lookout for when we might need some help as we choose who we want our adult selves to be.
Finding Your Identity as an Adult
A lot of being a teenager is about testing out our identity as our minds and bodies go through big developmental changes. Late adolescence is when things start to stabilize, and we begin navigating life on our own terms for the first time. We graduate high school and explore who we are in the world as we leave home, move to new cities, decide whether to go to college and start learning how to live on our own.
For better or worse, modern society no longer gives us a clear path to adulthood. It's up to us to figure out our new social roles as work and relationships norms keep changing. Many of our early morals come from things outside our control, like family traditions, peer approval, and school expectations. During late adolescence, we get the chance to try new ideas for ourselves and sort through what we truly believe in. Figuring out what we value plays into our long-term choices and satisfaction, like if we need to weigh the trade-offs between the comfort of job security versus the risk of doing something we love. As we take on new challenges, we learn that mistakes are not reflections of self-worth, but rather more information that we can use toward giving us a sense of confidence in who we want to be. The last phase of growth we go through during late adolescence actually puts us at our best to start on this adventure of self-exploration.
Changes During Late Adolescence
Late adolescence can feel like a strange in-between place. You're not a teen anymore, but not yet an adult. It's also when our bodies and minds are finally fully equipped to take on the world.
By late adolescence, we've already experienced our biggest growth spurts and are now at our physical peak for hard work and safe reproduction. While our body's ability to recover is now at its fastest, we can sometimes push to extremes without realizing the stress we're putting on ourselves. We pull all-night study sessions, workout through pain, and party like someone who has yet to discover the true meaning of the word "hangover." But the habits we start during this phase in our lives can actually have a lasting effect on our future health.
As we get older, it takes longer for our bodies to get back into balance after going past our limits. Skipping sleep or meals, not getting enough exercise, and going through long periods of stress can strain our body's natural cycles, eventually causing wear and tear. Many studies observing things like heart health have found that good habits in late adolescence (like regular exercise and eating well) can lower the risk for heart disease in middle age.
Our relationships, both friendship and romantic, expand our understanding of the world through new experiences and learning what it takes to care for others. As we get older, our reasons for making friendships change from what was important to us in our teen social lives. We start forming connections based on commonly shared ideas and values rather than activities. We also start enjoying the stability, intimacy, and support between our close friends over groups.
Though many teens start dating in high school, during late adolescence, our romantic relationships become less about exploring sexuality and more about love and sharing personal experiences. Though we're still figuring out what we're looking for in our partners, "hook-up" culture can sometimes undermine our ability to learn the mutual support and openness it takes to keep up adult relationships. Ideally, we eventually find how to balance attraction, enjoyment, and respect to build the foundation for healthy relationships with the people we want to share our lives with.
Different parts of the body grow at different rates during our teen years, and this also goes for our brains. In early to mid-adolescence, the areas that guide intense emotions and impulses develop before the parts that help us problem solve and think ahead (also called the prefrontal cortex). This is what leads to classic high school hijinks like eating Tide Pods. But by the time we get to late adolescence, the reasoning part of the brain is close to being fully formed.
This lets us think in more complex ways. It becomes easier to pursue our goals once we learn how to plan things out, test ideas, and consider different points of view. We're able to easily walk in others' shoes to challenge our childhood beliefs and form our own thoughts and values. As we push back on ideas we took for granted, we start to realize there is usually more than one answer to most of life's problems and that thinking critically is how we make our own meaning of the world.
But this is also a time when the phrase "use it or lose it" holds true. During late adolescence, our minds are ripe for taking in new knowledge and skills, but eventually, our brains start to trim away the things we don't practice regularly. This is why it's important to start trying out health habits and coping strategies early and often so that they become a normal part of a lifelong toolkit for dealing with challenges.
Learning to Take Care of Yourself
Our first taste of freedom also comes with a big learning curve. For many folks, this is the first time we're responsible for every part of our lives, from cleaning to health to choosing your schedule. Being away from home can sometimes tempt us to indulge in doing whatever we want, like eating pizza for breakfast.
Starting good self-care habits is now something you get to choose to do for yourself and the things you want to accomplish in life. The longer we practice these things, the more naturally they happen without having to think about them. This doesn't mean we never get to have fun. In fact, having a healthy social life and doing the things we love are great ways to cope with stress.
Know What You Need to Keep Going
Learning how to recognize and meet our own needs is how we avoid burning out when the going gets tough. It's great to work hard toward our goals, but one of the most helpful life skills is balancing productivity with doing what you need to stay happy and healthy, both emotionally and physically.
Get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, even if it's something easy like taking walk breaks, using stairs, or going to a yoga class. Making your physical activities social will help you stick with it.
Try to make time for 8 hours of sleep, or at least get rest when you need it between work, classes, and hanging out with friends. Practice good sleep hygiene by not scrolling through your phone right before bed. Instead, try doing something else you enjoy, like reading a favorite book.
Mindfulness & Self-Care
Add a little time for mindfulness in your day. This just means noticing your thoughts, emotions, and body without any judgment. Think of it as a little check-in with yourself that you can even do while taking a shower or brushing your teeth. Focusing on how we're feeling in the moment can keep stress in perspective and let us face difficult feelings without pushing them away. Mindfulness is especially helpful if you've been feeling down or anxious. It can also let you know when you might need some extra help if there's something been struggling with.
Seek Professional Help
Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health concerns in late adolescence. We're figuring out a lot of things for ourselves for the first time, and it can be tricky to know if what we're feeling is normal stress or not. If you feel like something is wrong, the best decisions you can make for your mental health is to reach out for help. We wouldn't ask ourselves to walk around on a sprained ankle without getting it checked out, and we should treat our mental health the same way.
Look out for things like difficulty sleeping, feeling unusually irritable or easily angered, and having low energy. The earlier we catch conditions that might be troubling us, the more we can reduce their potential impact on our future. Checking in with a remote licensed counselor on BetterHelp gives you an easy option to fit around busy work and school schedules. For people aged 13-18 years old, BetterHelp has devoted TeenCounseling to serve this age group. Read below for some reviews of TeenCounsling and BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Tammi has made such a difference in my life. Had I not had her help, I'm pretty sure I would've lost all contact with my 19-year-old daughter, who chose to live with her father. She understands teenagers and moms of teenagers! So kind, wise, experienced, compassionate, and level headed, I can't say enough good about her!!"
"My teen has had an extremely positive experience with Amanda. She's been great helping him through some struggles. She is able to connect with him in a way that is effective and meaningful to him, and he values her insights and guidance. It's a relief as a parent to know he has someone he trusts to help him work through things."
Late adolescence is when we finally get the chance to be the writers of our own story. Don't be afraid to give yourself the support you need to explore new ideas, connect with people, and learn the skills that will help shape the adult life you want to create. Take the first step today.