Parental Readiness for 4 Stages of Adolescent Growth

By anticipating common changes, parents are less likely to overreact.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

To stay connected with their daughter or son as adolescence increasingly pulls them apart (which it is meant to do), parents must keep their expectations ahead of the growth curve to be ready for developments likely to come next. 

This way, they can anticipate common teenage changes, they are less likely to overreact in surprise when the latest development occurs, and they are ready to have tough talks about hard issues that necessarily arise. 

What follows is just one way (not the only way) to think about the progression of growing up as four developmental stages of adolescence unfold. Each one opens up more freedom of individual expression and independent action, but also comes at a cost the young person must pay. 

Stage One: The Separation from Childhood

In Early Adolescence (around ages 9-13), the young person decides they no longer want to be defined and treated like just a little child anymore.

Common changes to expect are:

  • Personal disorganization — the simple self-management system that worked for childhood is now insufficient to cope with the growing complexity of adolescence; hence, there is more distractibility, inattention, impulsivity, forgetting, losing track, messiness, and other signs of experiential disorder. 
  • A negative attitude — increased dissatisfaction from no longer being content to be directed, less interest in traditional childhood activities, boredom and restlessness from not knowing what to do, carrying more grievance about unfair demands and limits that adults in life impose.
  • Active and passive resistance — more questioning of authority, arguing with rules, delaying compliance with parental requests, letting fulfillment of normal home and school responsibilities go.
  • Early experimentation — adventuring with peers, testing social rules and limits, sometimes including such outlaw activities as pranking, tagging, shoplifting, and vandalizing, often less valuing of academic effort.

The cost: Growing up requires giving up, creating the loss of what is sorely missed. Now, the adolescent can never go back “home” to that simpler, sheltered, more secure world of childhood again. 

Stage Two: Forming a Family of Friends

In Mid Adolescence (around ages 13-15), the young person decides they need the company of peers to hang out with for social support and identity.

Common changes to expect are:

  • More intense conflict with parents over social freedom with peers.
  • More dishonesty to avoid consequences or to conceal what has been forbidden.
  • More self-consciousness from puberty about bodily change and public image.
  • More need for privacy to keep personal concerns and insecurities to themselves.
  • More peer pressure to go along with to belong, social competition causing increased social cruelty (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, ganging up).

The cost: Relationships with adolescent peers become more pressured than with childhood playmates. Now jockeying for popularity and membership, and the demands of social conformity to fit in, can all restrict individual expression and action. 

Stage Three: Acting More Grown-Up 

In Late Adolescence (around ages 15-18), the young person decides they should become older, experienced, and worldly-wise.

Common changes to expect are:

  • More interest in doing grown-up activities — like part-time employment, driving a car, dating, partying, and recreational substance use in social company. 
  • More significant emotional (and often sexual) involvement in romantic relationships.
  • More need for money to afford lifestyle expenses to keep up with the spending of friends who materially have more. 
  • More worry about unreadiness to undertake the next step for increased worldly independence. 

The cost: Many older choices become tempting, but these are also riskier when they miscarry. Experimenting with adult-age activities comes with the possibility of more life-endangering consequences. 

Stage Four: Stepping Off on One’s Own

In Trial Independence (around ages 18-23), the young person decides they are ready to move out of the family home and begin living on more self-sufficient terms.

Common changes to expect are:

  • Lower self-esteem from not being able to adequately manage increased demands, procrastination, falling behind, breaking commitments. 
  • Increased anxiety from fear of future, stress, and lack of direction in life.
  • High distraction from a cohort of peers who are uncertain and confused, too, denying more to escape reality, as the stage of highest substance use begins. 
  • Inability to catch hold as many young people “boomerang” home after losing independent footing, to recover, to try again.

The cost: Living away from home and on one’s own feels liberated from parental rules and supervision. However, governing one’s life independently comes with the burden of assuming adult responsibility.

The Hard Reality

Adolescent growth is a gathering of self-determination and social freedom that feels exciting and rewarding in many ways. However, at each stage of the way, the young person is continually taught how more freedom is never free.

It turns out that for every choice you make, there are always consequences that follow. In this way, life is an unending chain of choices and consequences, of experiential education from which there is no escape. 

By instruction and example, parents can encourage their adolescent:

  • To own personal choices.
  • To face the positive and negative outcomes that occur.
  • To learn to make similar or different decisions growing forward.