Teen Emotional Development
Adolescence is an exciting and unique time of growth. It is a time when teens go through intense emotional development and maturation. They may be questioning themselves — asking, “Am I normal?” “Do I fit in?” and “Who Am I?” Along with developing bodies, they may also experience more extreme emotional highs and lows. This may be in part because they face more responsibilities and challenges at school or at home. As teens grow older and mature, they develop the skills needed to handle new challenges. However, they still need support and guidance from parents and trusted adults in their journey towards adulthood.
Your Role as Parent/Guardian
Parents are a key support for teens during this time of growth and reflection. Be aware of the stages of emotional development, and provide clear guidance at each phase. Acknowledge when to give space and independence to teens. Help guide teens to feel good about themselves. Provide coaching about sleep, nutrition, and exercise. All of these things affect teen emotional and physical health.
Teen Brain Development and Emotions
Teens often experience stronger emotions during puberty. This is because the part of their brain that experiences emotions develops rapidly during adolescence. They are also wired to take some risks to maximize their exposures and experiences. This is a period where they are super learners, and being wired this way enables them to learn as much as they possibly can as they stretch to experience and learn more. As parents, our job is to be sure they do this safely. To learn more about how parents can support healthy brain development, read our piece on Nurturing the Amazing Teen Brain.
Emotional Development by Age
Generally, teens develop in stages according to their ages. Although some teens will develop faster or slower. And in some environments, young people may be exposed to situations at earlier ages. You know your child and community best and can determine which level matches their current emotional state.
Teens in this age group are going through the first changes of puberty. As tweens begin to acknowledge their developing bodies, they may feel awkward or self-conscious. They tend to focus on themselves and compare themselves to peers. They are also more likely to think about their behaviors in present terms (concrete thinking), as opposed to being able to think about the longer-term consequences of their actions (abstract thought). Common emotional concerns in this age range include worrying about rapid physical changes and fitting in with friends.
Supporting 11-12 Year-Olds
Parents can help address self-consciousness. We shouldn’t assume tweens and teens will learn the facts at school or among peers. Reassure them that everyone is going through changes and feels self-conscious and emotional at times. Discuss your own adolescence and some of the similar changes that you may have experienced. If your teen still has concerns, guide them to seek help from a counselor or health professional.
Teens in this age range may begin to feel more sensitive to social stress or exclusion from friends and peers. Parents sometimes note there is more door slamming, screaming, distancing from adults and greater need for privacy during this time. As unsettled as we may feel when these things happen, we must recognize they are an important part of our teens need to establish their independence.
Supporting 13-14 Year-Olds
Spend time listening to your teens in order to understand how they fit into their peer group. Acknowledge that they may need more time alone and with their peers. Support them to look for social cues and understand what they mean in different situations. Model what healthy relationships look like. Although it may not seem obvious, family support is a big buffer for many of the emotional issues experienced during this time!
Teens in this age group may begin to engage in some thrill seeking. Some teens may try using alcohol, drugs or begin having sex. During this time, teens may also become increasingly stressed about grades, relationships, and setting high expectations for themselves. They may continue to be very concerned about their appearance. As teens begin to develop a sense of self, they may struggle emotionally, questioning who they are as individuals. They may go back and forth from a know-it-all attitude or being rebellious, to feeling very unsure about themselves. They will also move from concrete thinking to thinking more abstractly, and understand the longer-term consequences of their actions. For example, “I know if I drink and drive, I may get into an accident.”
Supporting 15-16 Year-Olds
This is an important time to maintain open communication and be aware of who your teens’ friends are and what they are doing. Teens who maintain close relationships with parents at this age are less likely to engage in high risk-taking. We must be prepared to set safe boundaries and provide information to keep them safe. We must also remain calm (even when addressing emotional issues) and talk in a way that is developmentally appropriate. This means not lecturing, and allowing teens more time to process and to come up with their own solutions. We must move beyond telling young people what not to do, and remind them of the high expectations we hold for them to be their best selves.
At this age, most young people are fully physically developed. Teens can also more easily put the brakes on emotional risk-taking and plan ahead with creative strategies and problem-solving. Individual relationships may become more important than the peer group. Attaining future goals such as working or getting into college may become a priority. However, some teens may continue to engage in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sexual activity or binge drinking. Remember, the teen brain continues to develop through the mid-20’s! They still seek and need parental guidance during this time period.
Supporting 17-21 Year-Olds
Our goal as parents of teens in this age group is to address the ongoing risk-taking and encourage wise decision-making. Provide teens with the tools to try new things within safe boundaries. Encourage them to learn from their mistakes. Remind them of your presence and help if needed as they work to recover from their missteps. Help them continue preparing for challenges they’ll face in the future.
Teens do their best thinking when they feel calm rather than heated. Many also do their best thinking when in an adult, rather than peer, presence. We can do our best parenting when we remain calm and create spaces for them to think things through.
Supporting Positive Emotional Development in Teens
Parents play an important role in supporting teens as they develop emotionally. Here are some tips for making this time of emotional growth a positive experience!
Be a Role Model
Use every opportunity to be a healthy and mature role model for teens. Make it ok to share and express feelings in the home.
Encourage teens to think about their unique strengths -- those qualities that are not related to their appearance. Suggest activities that foster positive self-esteem including sports, the arts, or community service efforts.
Encourage teens to face emotions, solve emotional problems, and bounce back from missteps. Don’t minimize what they are feeling. Try to understand and empathize.
Stay Steady and Calm
Good decision-making requires a sense of calm. Help teens understand that we all have difficulty making decision while emotional. Encourage them to take a time-out and regroup.
Know and Support Your Teen
Similar to the way our brains and bodies develop, our emotions also develop at different rates. Some teens are quite independent by middle to late adolescence. They’re able to manage many responsibilities in school, work, and home on their own. Other adolescents have a harder time handling demands and can barely complete assignments or get to school on time without support. Know your teen, be their advocate and work alongside them!
Adolescence is an exhilarating time full of emotional lows and highs. Parents can play an important part in supporting and guiding teens to feel good about themselves as they deal with heightened emotions. When we understand what teens are experiencing from an emotional standpoint, we can better prepare them to become emotionally healthy adults.
Precisely because adolescents’ emotions can be so strong, and vary widely from joy to worry, parents’ steady, unwavering presence is critically important.
This article was contributed by Anisha Abraham, M.D.