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An Introduction to Adolescent Development

This topic center provides a review of theories of child development for children aged 12-24. For information on parenting and child development of infants aged 0 to 2, please visit our Infant Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of preschool children (early childhood aged 3 to 7, please visit our Early Childhood Parenting and Child Development topic center. For information on parenting and child development of middle childhood children (ages 8 to 11), please visit our Middle Childhood Parenting and Development center.

What is Adolescence?

Adolescence is a transitional period, from childhood to adulthood which spans the ages of 12-24 years old. During adolescence the desire for independence and autonomy increases, and parents usually find themselves much less thrilled with the developmental indicators of this increasing maturity.
What is Adolescence?

Parenting during Adolescence

A teen's normal developmental process can certainly confound and frustrate even the most patient and understanding parents.

Parents gasp and clap in excitement as they witness their toddlers' first steps or hear them babble their first words. Children's first day of school, their first piano recital, and their first soccer game can cause parents to beam with pride. However, similar developmental milestones during their children's transition into adulthood are much less welcome. Instead of beaming with pride when their teens question the rules or challenge authority, parents often find themselves wanting to scream in frustration.While this developmental period certainly presents parents with many challenges, it also includes many bittersweet moments that mark their child's increasing maturity. Some of these developmental milestones may include:

  • Graduation from high school or trade school.
  • A teen's first romantic relationship.
  • A first job.
  • The first home-away-from-home.

  • One of the most difficult aspects of parenting adolescents is dealing with their affinity for experimentation, particularly when it comes to substance abuse. Epidemiological studies estimate that around 80% of adolescents report trying alcohol; the risk for using tobacco and marijuana is similarly high. Read more about substance abuse, treatment, recovery and commonly used drugs.


History of Adolescence as a Developmental Milestone

It may be surprising to learn that the concept of adolescence as a separate and distinct period of development is a relatively recent phenomenon.

teens on their phones

  • Prior to the mid-twentieth century, children became adults by transitioning directly from school into the workforce, often beginning their own families at the same time.
  • However, as the industrial revolution's new wave of digital, electronic, information technology surged, the transition from child-to-adult became more lengthy and complex.
  • In today's technological world, it simply takes longer for youth to become adequately trained, employed, and financially independent.

Similarly, the post-World War II era marked the beginnings of radical social changes in American culture.

Married couple

  • The advent of the counter-culture movement during the 60's, the development of reliable birth control, and the mass entry of women into the workforce, all exerted a powerful influence on the fundamental structure of the American family.
  • These forces changed the traditional American values about marriage and family and altered the way in which children transitioned into adulthood.
  • When youth get married today, they are generally older than previous generations and usually wait longer to before having children of their own.

Definition of Adolescence

As a result of these changes to the American economy and American culture, the duration of adolescent development extends beyond "teenage" years to include development from ages 12 to 24.

  • Because the adolescent developmental period is so lengthy (10-12 years), it is usually broken down and discussed in terms of early, middle, and late adolescence.
  • In fact, some developmental theorists even refer to yet another, separate developmental period between childhood and early teens calling these youth, "tweens" or "tweeners" (be-tween childhood and adolescence).

Subsequently, today's youth face many challenges that are quite different from their parents' own teenage years; challenges that their parents simply did not encounter. Therefore, the parents of today's youth cannot readily draw upon their own teenage experiences to understand some of the difficulties facing youth in contemporary society.


Developmental Stages

In addition to these simple observations of a changing culture and economy, the validity of a separate and distinct period of adolescent development has been supported by scientific research. This research provides additional evidence that adolescents are uniquely different from children and adults in a number of significant ways.

Our goal is to describe the normal, average, development of adolescents so that parents and other caregivers can recognize, understand, and appreciate the important developmental milestones of this transitional period. With this increased knowledge and understanding, parents are in a better position to support and guide their teens throughout these amazing, but often difficult years. While this article is primarily descriptive in nature, future articles will provide parents with concrete advice and practical solutions for common problems that often occur during this developmental period.

This article will explore these differences, and will discuss the many facets of adolescent development. We will specifically discuss six dimensions of development:

  1. Physical.
  2. Cognitive
  3. Emotional
  4. Social
  5. Moral
  6. Sexual.
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