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Understanding Adolescent Development, Behaviors, and Influences

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

The adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, between the morality learned by the child and the ethics developed by the adult (Erikson, 1963).

Erikson's stages of development coined the stage of adolescents (12-18) as a time of Identity vs. Role Confusion. A time where your child is no longer a child but not quite an adult. It's a glorious stage that can frighten the most astute and rational parent. Who says a teen's moodiness and ongoing demands for money aren't the most fun moments for parents! Please, bring it on: more door slamming, late nights on the cell phone, poor eating habits, endless selfies, vaping, ignored curfews, and wardrobe decisions that make grandmas the world over cringe. Ah yes, the glorious teen years. Why are adolescents so challenging? And what can we do to lessen the frustration and perhaps glasses of wine.

Let's start with a basic understanding of what the mind or psychology of a teen is actually like.

In a study published in 2013, Brain Development During Adolescents - Neuroscientific Insights Into This Development Period, Konrad, Firk, and Uhlhaas discovered: that 'Adolescents make more risky decisions in groups than they do when alone. The reason is presumably that, at this age, the benefit of risky behavior—the social approval of peers—is rated much more highly than the risk itself.' The study proposed that the brain regions involved with risky behaviors are the prefrontal cortex (where executive functions such as attention and impulse control are housed) and the limbic system (where mood, instinct, and all ranges of emotions live). Because the prefrontal cortex does not fully mature until age 25, while the limbic matures by age 12, teens rely mostly on the limbic to make decisions via their emotions rather than through the use of rational thought processes of the prefrontal cortex.

Now that we have a glimpse into the ongoing zig-zags of the brain, let's proceed to what that looks like in practical terms:

  1. A persistent concern for their appearance -i.e. selfies.

  2. A great deal of energy is placed on sexual impulses -and what to do with them.

  3. Repeated hasty or rash decisions.

  4. Emotional instability such as: anger, tantrums, moodiness, impulsivity.

  5. Increase creativity that is expressed in various modalities, including day-dreaming.

  6. Shoplifting even though they have the money to pay for the item.

  7. Increased use or experimentation of alcohol and substances.

  8. Drunk driving even though they know getting caught may lead to disciplinary actions by parents or law enforcement, or worse, knowing that they risk severe injury or death.

  9. Ongoing questioning of their gender identity.

  10. Increased behaviors that imitate those of their peers: manner of speaking, clothing, hairstyles, gestures, even as far as mimicking laughter.

The behaviors listed may be attributed to Identity versus Confusion's biological and psychological processes. Who and where the teen looks for confirmation of who they are is a vital instrument to how the teen utilizes their time and ability to form decisions. Despite the teens' obsession with self/identity, including pre-occupation of what their peers think, the teens' most influential environment is inherently in the home and family dynamic. Although the teen has moved on from the school-age influence of mother and father to that of their peers, they continue to need and even want parental guidance, understanding, empathy, and structure. Yes, that is right, your teen wants to have rules and expectations, as rules and expectations provide a grounded sense of security and predictability, which they do not internally have during this stage.

Because this article aims to provide a broader understanding of development, the following questions will assist in further broadening an understanding of factors that may shift the home influence.

  • Teen feels supported by parental figures.

  • Parents and teens speak honestly with each other.

  • When someone makes a mistake, are they likely to get a lecture.

  • In the home, everyone's opinion is important.

  • Parental figures are open to negotiating and compromising during disagreements.

  • Teen feels their parents believe in them.

  • Family members praise one another regularly.

  • Teen does or does not feel stupid when they express their opinion.

  • The family holds regular family meetings.

  • Parents ask about teen's day and show interest.

  • All family members are involved in making important family decisions.

These questions are meant to encourage discussions, reflections, and insight into communication, family bonds, empathy, boundary setting, flexibility, compromise, and comfort in managing/balancing these elements while maintaining parental authority in the home. Navigating through the teen years often feels daunting and challenging to the well-intended parent. However, granting yourself the space for reflection and understanding of what areas of the family dynamic can be modified and modernized to the teens' over-stimulating world may assist in lessening the stress, emotional overwhelm, and helplessness parenting feels like.

So when it feels like the sky has planted itself on your shoulders and it just seems like too much of a hassle -remember that it's a temporary yet essential stage for your teen to develop into that amazing adult you know is somewhere.


1. Nurturing Parenting Program:

2. Eleven Major Characteristics of Adolescence/Child Development:

3. Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development:

4. Brain Development During Adolescents - Neuroscientific Insights Into This Development Period, Kerstin Konrad, Christine Firk and Peter J. Uhlhaas. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2013 Jun; 110(25): 425–431.

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