Adolescence is the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood that occurs between ages 13 and 19. The physical and psychological changes that take place in adolescence often start earlier, during the preteen or "tween" years: between ages 9 and 12.
Adolescence can be a time of both disorientation and discovery. The transitional period can raise questions of independence and identity; as adolescents cultivate their sense of self, they may face difficult choices about academics, friendship, sexuality, gender identity, drugs, and alcohol.
Most teens have a relatively egocentric perspective on life; a state of mind that usually abates with age. They often focus on themselves and believe that everyone else—from a best friend to a distant crush—is focused on them too. They may grapple with insecurities and feelings of being judged. Relationships with family members often take a backseat to peer groups, romantic interests, and appearance, which teens perceive as increasingly important during this time.
The transition can naturally lead to anxiety about physical development, evolving relationships with others, and one's place in the larger world. Mild anxiety and other challenges are typical, but serious mental health conditions also emerge during adolescence. Addressing a disorder early on can help ensure the best possible outcome.
The stages of adolescence include early adolescence from age 10 to 14, mid-adolescence from age 15 to 17, and late adolescence from age 18 to 24. Each stage encompasses different challenges for teens and necessitates different responses from parents.
The purpose of adolescence is for a child to psychologically and socially transform into a young adult. Breaking from their childhood attachment and security allows children to acquire freedom and responsibility to develop independence and to differentiate themselves from their parents and childhood to establish their own unique identity.
Puberty begins between ages 9 and 15, and it lasts between a year and a half to three years. The hormonal and biological changes that occur can lead adolescents to feel anxious and self-conscious and to require more privacy and become preoccupied with their appearance, which can influence how they are perceived and accepted.
Adolescent risk-taking is often blamed on hormonal changes, but relationships play a key role as well. The teenage years are devoted to creating friendships that can serve individuals for life. Along those lines, research suggests that adolescents are motivated by peer acceptance more than adult perceptions—for better or for worse.
The biological clock shifts during puberty, prompting teens to become sleepy later and therefore wake up later to get the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep. This is why later middle and high school start times are associated with improved attendance and grades as well as a lower likelihood of experiencing depression.
Speaking openly with adolescents about changes that they are experiencing can be a challenge for any parent, especially given the shift in the parent-child relationship during this time.
One important component of communicating with teens is helping them understand what lies ahead. Explaining how their bodies will change so that they aren’t caught by surprise can alleviate a child’s anxiety. Beyond physical changes, parents can begin a conversation about the social and lifestyle changes that accompany adolescence. Discussing the consequences of important decisions—like having sex or experimenting with drugs—can encourage a teen to reflect on their choices.
Listening is a powerful yet under-appreciated tool. Parents often orient toward directives and solutions. But setting aside those tendencies and simply listening to the teen can strengthen the relationship. Asking specific or prying questions can make the child feel judged and therefore hesitant to speak openly and honestly. Listening attentively shows interest, validation, and support. It also increases the chances that a teen will confide in a parent as needed. Active listening builds intimacy and trust—while simultaneously allowing the teen to process their experience.
Developing an independent identity during adolescence requires experimenting with new relationships and activities while gaining space from parents. But you can still maintain a close relationship despite that process. Express interest and ask questions about your teen’s new passions. Welcome their friends and provide family structure. In disciplinary situations, critique choices rather than character.
Convey that you are open to discuss anything, such as sexual health, porn, pleasure, and love. During these conversations, listen openly and non-judgmentally. Shutting down a vulnerable adolescent with negativity or judgment can lead to shame and fear. Being open encourages them to trust you with future questions and to develop a healthy relationship with sex.
Most teens will experiment with some combination of alcohol, drugs, and smoking. But parents can inform the choices they make with guidance, such as that the decision to use should be intentional, not automatic and a personal choice, not a socially-pressured one. Parents should discuss the topic openly, honestly, and continually.
Encourage them to share their feelings to ease the emotional burden, even if it’s not with you. Exploring the root of their unhappiness can also lead them to take action: If they’re bored, maybe they can find a new hobby or sport. Adolescence can be an emotional time, but these ideas and others can help.
Many of the mental health conditions people confront as adults begin to manifest in adolescence. In fact, one in five young adults has a diagnosable disorder, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
However, teens can also struggle with anxiety, depression, and other forms of distress that are developmentally appropriate and will not necessarily endure. It’s difficult to know when a problem merits clinical attention, but when in doubt, querying a school counselor or another mental professional is the best course of action.
Parents can help by learning how to identify early warning signs of the disorder they feel concerned about and by not being afraid to ask about their child’s thoughts and experiences. Confronting mental health conditions and accessing treatment early on can prevent a disorder from increasing in severity or duration. When addressed early, most conditions can be managed or treated effectively.
An American Psychological Association report revealed that 91 percent of Generation Z has felt physical or emotional symptoms of stress, such as depression or anxiety. This stress may be due to parental trends like overscheduling, effects of social media like negative social comparisons, and historical events like the great recession and mass shootings.
Parents can care for their teens by offering empathy and nonjudgmental support—focus on understanding them rather than judging them. Teens achieve more when not pressured to be perfect, so parents can avoid expressing the need for perfection. Maintaining a relationship and encouraging their relationships with other caring adults like teachers and mentors is also helpful.
At least one in three first-year college students meets the criteria for a mental health disorder, research suggests. An array of factors can contribute to the onset of mental illness during this time: the transition to college, childhood trauma, biological changes, financial stress, academic pressure, lack of sleep, social isolation, and uncertainty about the future.
Encourage your child to seek out university mental health services. If the university is unable to provide treatment due to high demand, your child can explore meeting with other health professionals on campus like a doctor or nurse practitioner, asking a campus case manager to help find care off-campus, and beginning teletherapy.
Pinning down the relationship between social media and mental health is notoriously difficult. Some recent research suggests that social media doesn’t fuel depression; rather, depression may lead to more social media use, at least among adolescent girls.