Understanding Adolescence

By: Other | August 4, 2017

Written by Francine Martinez, Ph.D.

At this time in my life, I have parents around me with young children in the 2-to-4 year-old range. I’ve been taken by their trials and tribulations while raising increasingly independent beings. I chuckle at the term “threenager,” which describes the emotional and behavioral challenges of that particular age group.

When talking with those parents, I remind them that this is “practice” for them in balancing love, structure, boundaries, and consistency in their “threenagers” that will be needed once their children move into their “teenager” phase. This produces a lot of sighs from the parents as they anticipate what that phase might be like. At the same time, I also offer assurance that parents will be fine when they’ve grown as a parent to understand their children.

A good friend once told me as I worked through my own daughter’s teenage years, “If they were solid, good human beings going into this phase, and you remain consistent in your parenting, they will emerge as solid, good human beings on the other end.”

So, let’s understand what is happening psychologically and physiologically with human beings during this developmental period.

Psychology of Adolescence

Developmentalist, Erick Erickson, identifies adolescence in two distinct stages:

  • Early Adolescence – 12-18 years of age
  • Later Adolescence – 18-24 years of age

In Early Adolescence, Erickson posits that individuals attempt to gain understanding and acceptance of several developmental tasks. Such tasks include physical maturation, emotional development, membership in peer group, and romantic or sexual relationships. Individuals are expected to accept what they were taught without exploration or to explore under the pressure of peers. This is truly a difficult position to be in!

What we observe during this time is a growing fidelity to others, with family taking “second place.” While working through peer pressure, we want our adolescents to act as independent, free-thinking individuals while learning their own strength as part of a group. It’s important to remember that we are also positioned to apply “peer pressure” as family — something our adolescents will also need to consider.

In Later Adolescence, the individual now moves toward “young adult” status, while continuing to struggle with competing individual and group demands. This individual builds greater autonomy from their parents through individuation (establishing individual patterns or routines in their lives) and differentiation (accepting the similarities and differences they have with their parents). They explore gender identity or gender roles in society and in relationships more freely. They commit to an internalized set of morals and values. All these pieces lead them to solidify career or professional goals.

During this period, individuals move from apparent confusion about their lives (such as happens in early college years) to a strong sense of identity and role conviction based on insights into themselves and commitment to core values.

Physiology of Adolescence

Brains and hormones are the two main elements that play into the maturity of mind and body for adolescents, and which significantly contribute to the overall developmental picture.

  1. The brain develops and changes throughout childhood and adolescence

    Recent research finds that parts of the brain continue to mature well past the age of 18, leading us to better understand why Erickson identified the long developmental period he defined as Later Adolescence: Everything is still evolving!

    Changes in the brain initiate the physiological changes in puberty. Hormonal surges during these brain changes ignite the questions raised during Early Adolescence. The brain takes the lead on “jump-starting” several processes at this time including cognitive development, emotional reasoning, and physiological adaptation. No wonder our young teens are so overwhelmed and, at times, confused!

  1. Hormonal changes guide the body through puberty, resulting in sexual maturity

    It is not uncommon to explain adolescent behavior as “It’s the hormones.” In actuality as noted above, hormonal changes are only one of many changes initiated by brain development. Hormonal changes add to the confusion but are not the reason for confusion and behavioral changes.

  1. Brain maturation and adolescence

    So what exactly is the brain doing in its maturation process to “cause” all these changes? In this brain development stage, the brain works faster through the increased efficiency of neurons (message conductors) while the frontal cortex develops at a slower rate. Think of it as a traffic jam of information as both speed to access the brain while trying to join together. By no means is the adolescent impaired, but there is just so much going on up there!

    We see this manifested by the increase in excitement or risk-taking behaviors, by decreased ability to plan or organize, by heightened emotional responses, and a focus on self to the exclusion of others. Recall the 3-year-old’s behavior: sounds familiar? Like the 3-year-old, the adolescent is inundated with new information, experiences, social contacts, and new skills — not necessarily in an ordered or productive fashion. The brain function is running faster than the current brain capacity.

So What Do We Do?

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just thinking about the frustration embedded in adolescent emotions, what the brain is trying to do, and how the lack of understanding or words just makes it more difficult to explain one’s self! So, that’s where we start.

We start by understanding that this is a period of confusion and stimulation. The difference between the 3-year-old and the adolescent is that the adolescent has higher-order thinking and the ability to communicate with language that helps make sense of their world.


  • Listen without judgment and reaction. When your son or daughter says, “Mom, I met someone,” you may react by saying, “You’re too young to date.” That instinctual alarm prevented you from holding a meaningful discussion on relationships, emotions, or healthy sexuality. Instead, just listen. Use open-ended questions or minimal encouragers such as: “Oh yeah, tell me more.” Just listen. As parents we shift all too easily into “lecture-mode.” This is where adolescents’ quest for autonomous thinking is challenged head-on. Remember to listen, then ask how you might help.
  • Be a calming and rational presence. When our adolescents come to us with concerns, we want to be the safe space that enables them to figure things out. Our role may be as a sounding board, an advice-giver, or boundary-setter. Work to clarify what role will help your adolescent with their particular issue.
  • Empathize without joining. What this means is to be present in understanding their emotions without heightening their response. Remember, this is a time when the brain tries to accommodate new experiences or information at a fast-breaking pace. Things may feel catastrophic for the adolescent when they are actually manageable. Empathy allows us to connect with them while allowing them space to develop a more rational response.
  • Own your values and opinions. Most adolescents share a majority of their parents’ values and opinions, yet they are going through a period of figuring that out for themselves. When engaging in conversation where your values or opinions are important, state them as things you own for you rather than “pushing” them on the adolescent. Say, for example, “I appreciate that you are struggling to pass in that class. For me, doing my best work is often my measure.” The message communicates acceptance of their struggle and the importance they are placing on it while offering your own thoughts and perspectives as they apply to you.

Adolescence does not need to be the stage of development to dread. In fact, it can be one of the most exciting stages in which to participate. Remember your 2-, 3- or 4-year-old. Remember the joy in their faces when they mastered a new task, learned a new song or made you laugh: You gave them room, structure, emotional support, and encouragement. For an adolescent, the same holds true: They want room to roam, freedom to speak, openness to explore, and the direction and safety of a place called home.


Image: Pete on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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