Adolescent Growth and Development

Stacy Zeiger
Girl pointing at pimple

During the teen years, adolescent growth and development can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, teens are getting older and developing independence. On the other hand, puberty and other stages of adolescent growth can be awkward and embarrassing. While it is fun to watch your children grow, the changes they go through can be awfully trying at times.

Physical Changes

Along with adolescence comes puberty and a host of other physical changes. Many of these changes can cause your child to become awkward and self-conscious. Teens must learn to understand their new bodies while also going through changes in their brains.

Height and Weight Changes

When your child was an infant and toddler, you regularly check his height and weight against norms for his age. During the teenage years, you must throw the norms out the window. During adolescence, it could seem like your teen grows a foot a day or he could seem to not grow at all in comparison to his peers. In addition to growing in height, your teen's muscles will start to change shape and the body may start to gain weight in new areas. As a parent, you need to handle these changes with sensitivity:

  • Do not make negative comments about your teen's weight gain.
  • Try not to make fun of your teen's awkwardness.
  • If your teen is not getting taller, especially if your teen is male, avoid calling attention to that fact.
  • Remind your teen that everyone goes through these changes.
  • Be prepared for irritability and let minor issues slide.
  • Be patient with your teen.

Sexual Changes

The sexual changes an adolescent goes through are some of the most confusing. While the sexual changes a teen goes through include a host of visible changes, the most difficult changes are the hormones and the new attraction to the opposite sex or, in some cases, the same sex. According to TeensHealth, adolescents will begin to figure out their sexual orientation. They must also learn how to manage their new hormones and feelings appropriately. As a parent, the most important thing you can do is talk to your teen. When you talk to your adolescent:

  • Avoid passing judgment on sexual preferences
  • Let your teen know that everything she tells you will remain confidential
  • Provide information on how to make healthy sexual choices
  • Explain that disappointment and unrequited feelings come with the territory

Brain Changes

A teen's brain is continuing to develop as well. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, adolescents have a high volume of gray matter in their brains at the beginning of adolescence and that gray matter goes through a significant decline near the end of adolescence. As the amount of gray matter declines, teens experience a host of other mental changes, including:

  • Changes in emotional responses, causing teens to experience heightened emotions or react more intensely
  • Changes in social behavior, including who a teen chooses to interact with, sometimes making poor choices in friends and activities
  • Problems regulating sleep, resulting in a lack of sleep or sleeping at odd hours
  • A heightened ability to absorb information
  • Acting more on impulse

Patience is the most important quality a parent can have when it comes to dealing with these changes in a teen's brain. In most cases, it can be difficult to reason with your teen or even have a calm discussion. Unless your teen is making dangerous choices, such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, let him explore his new brain and be there to catch him when his impulses lead him astray.

Psycho-Social Changes

Many psychologists have undertaken the task of trying to figure out teenagers and explain what you may be going through. For example, psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that teenagers are going through a state of identity vs. role confusion. From ages 12 to 18, teens struggle with wanting to fit in and find their place in the world, but also wanting to stand out and express themselves as individuals. Peers become more important than parents, and opinions and future goals can change on a daily basis.

In order to figure out where they fit into the world and learn how to take on more responsibilities while still being a kid, the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence at Cornell University suggests adolescents may:

  • Test limits and break rules
  • Follow the crowd and embrace fads in fashion, music and pop culture
  • Push parents aside
  • Reflect in a blog or diary
  • Think a lot about what they want to be in the future
  • Get frustrated when their parents do not let them exert their independence
  • Do things to try to stand out from the crowd

As a parent, the worst thing you can do is try to force your teen to fit a mold. Unless your child's health and safety is in danger, embrace this stage and support your child in whatever identity she chooses to adopt at the moment. Accept her new friends. Give her opportunities to build your trust and let her take on some responsibility. It can be difficult to know you are no longer the most important influence in your child's life, but you must remember it is not a reflection of your child's love; it is just a stage of growth.

Cognitive Changes

As adolescents begin to change and figure out their new identities, they also have a desire to figure out the world around them. They begin to think abstractly, start to reason, and begin to develop their own opinions about the world. Because of the changes their brains are going through, their reasoning and opinions may not always be rational and they may change opinions on a daily basis. According to the American Psychological Association, cognitive changes in adolescents may lead them to:

  • Rebel against or disagree with adults
  • Argue just to argue
  • Make poor, rash decisions
  • Focus solely on their own perspective
  • Make everything a big deal
  • Sticking to activities that make them feel confident

Even though parents do not have as much influence as peers during adolescence you still can play a role in helping your child handle the cognitive changes. By playing devil's advocate with your teen, you can help him make rational decisions and help him learn to weigh his options. You can also help him make good moral decisions by asking questions such as "how would you react if this happened?" or "what would you do in this situation?" Most importantly, you can provide your teen with support, encourage him to take risks and work on boosting his confidence in himself and his ability to make positive decisions.

Toughing It Out

Growing and developing is as rough for parents as it is for adolescents. It's hard to understand the changes going on in your teen's body and cope with changes in mood and relationships as they try to figure out their place in the world. As a parent, the best thing you can do is be patient and understanding. Be there to support your child, talk with your child, and guide her as much as she will allow so she can make the best possible decisions. The purpose of puberty and other developmental changes is to give your child a chance to figure out who she is and help her build the confidence she will need to become a successful, responsible adult, so embrace them.

Adolescent Growth and Development