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January 25, 2014
by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

Development Part 3: The Teen Years

January 25, 2014 04:55 by LuAnn Pierce, LCSW  [About the Author]

Adolescence is a time for learning new things, questioning what you have been taught by parents and authority figures and exploring a wide range of possibilities.

By age 12, most kids are in the full throes of puberty. Changes in physical and sexual development take center stage for the first few teen years. Simultaneously, teens are  learning to relate to peers and love interests, struggling for more independence from their parents and coping with peer pressure to try new things. Cognitive, social and emotional development continues throughout adolescence and young adulthood.

12 – 16 years

Teens are beginning to use abstract reasoning skills to think about things conceptually at this stage. This may lead to deep discussions about existential issues and interests in things philosophical in nature. Adolescence is a time for learning new things, questioning what you have been taught by parents and authority figures and exploring a wide range of possibilities.

During this time, it is not unusual for teens to be more easily influenced by their peers and popular culture than their families. They often shun or challenge beliefs and values previously accepted without question, like religion. This is part of the process of becoming an individual, the primary task of adolescence.

Many go through this stage only to return to the religious teaching or values they learned earlier in life, but others do not. Parents who lived with the illusion that they can control their children often learn differently during adolescence.

One of the hallmarks of the teen years is a tendency to live in the now without much thought for the future. This is difficult to watch, as there are many decisions to be made in high school that have far reaching effects. These include taking the right classes to get into college, using good judgment to avoid behaviors that can seriously impact your life (pregnancy, drugs, breaking the law) and others.

A parent’s greatest challenge during this time is to allow just enough independence for their teen to learn reasonable life lessons while protecting them from things that may have devastating results. Teens should earn independence that is on par with their level of responsibility. Consequences for bad choices or rule-breaking should be logical and fit the offense.

A teen that violated curfew may lose the privilege to go out the following weekend. For colossal misdeeds, the consequences should be much more severe. A teen who takes the car without permission (or a license) may need more time to mature before having driving privileges.

Of course, you don’t want to fall into the trap of making consequences so dire that your teen sees no way out. Being grounded indefinitely is not effective. Consequences needs to be immediate and fair. The purpose is to teach, not exert power over your teen. Power struggles are generally a no-win situation. Don’t allow your frustrations to get in the way of your job – teaching and protecting.    

16 – 18 years

Hormonal changes impact more than the sex organs. Boys and girls may experience mood changes, problems sleeping, awkwardness, weight fluctuations and more. The stereotype of the brooding adolescent does not apply to all teens. However, those who have a tendency toward moodiness and emotional sensitivity are likely to experience an increase during adolescence. It is important to keep an eye out for signs that your teen might be depressed.

If you note any combination of the following that are present most days for more than two weeks, a trip to the pediatrician is in order.

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite,
  • Sadness or agitation (teens are often agitated and irritable when depressed),
  • Loss of interest in things previously enjoyable,
  • Fatigue,
  • Problems concentrating aka mental fogginess,
  • Isolation and withdrawal,
  • Complaints of headache/stomachache/body pain,
  • Thoughts of suicide, ie. not wanting to live, hints of not being around long*

*  In the case of suicidal thoughts, seek immediate medical assistance.

Erikson believed that teens establish their identities during adolescence by exploring many questions: Who am I? Where do I belong in society? How do I fit in? How do I stand out? He thought it was important to allow teens to explore these many possibilities in order to find themselves. His theory suggests that teens are developing an identity for both their gender and occupation at this stage. By successfully navigating adolescence, teens develop the virtue of fidelity, the ability to commit oneself to others even if they have different ideologies. Failure to successfully complete this task results in role confusion – being unsure of one’s place in the world or what to do with one’s life.

So what does it look like when teens are trying on different identities? You might expect different clothing styles, odd haircuts or colors, following bands and taking on the traits of their fans. Some teens explore their sexuality by checking out those of the same sex. This may or may not last, but your reaction to it could have a big impact on how long it takes to resolve. Often teens who are forbidden to do specific things get caught up in rebellion and it takes even longer to work through the exploration stage. Expect extremes and respond thoughtfully.

With regard to managing teen behavior, this period is critical. Teens may be experimenting with sex, drugs and drinking. This is when the work you have done in the earlier years really pays off. If you have a trusting relationship with your teen, ideally s/he will talk to you about these important choices. Hopefully, you have discussed safe sex, STDs, birth control and unplanned pregnancy before now. If your child does not talk to you about these things, ask if they would like to talk with their doctor or a counselor who can provide unbiased information.

One last thing to remember

While many choices and actions made as a teen can make life more difficult as an adult, most can be overcome. If your teen blows it, like doing poorly in school, it doesn’t mean s/he can’t correct that. Sometimes getting a GED and going to community college for a year or two is not the end of the world. It may seem like it if you planned for Harvard, but consider it an indicator that your teen is not ready for the pressures of a four-year college.

Likewise, a teen who gets pregnant will certainly have a more difficult time finishing high school and/or going to college. But, it is not impossible with the right support. If this happens, encourage your teen to look for support and get creative with their plans rather than giving up. Your reaction to these unexpected challenges will impact how your teen copes.

If what seems like the worst case scenario happens, try to find alternatives and make the best of it. If you need support or guidance in coping with unplanned twists and turns in your teen’s life, talk to a counselor, minister or friend. If your teen is struggling and/or making poor choices, take him/her to a counselor before things get too bad.

Learn more about the previous development stage here.


"Facts for Families: Normal Adolescent Development." Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 2013.

McLeod, Saul. "Erik Erikson." Simply Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Aug. 201

About the Author

LuAnn Pierce, LCSW LuAnn Pierce, LCSW

I am a clinical social worker, therapist and writer. Currently, I offer online therapy and coaching services to people in Colorado and Wyoming. As a provider for the CO Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and the National MS Society, my expertise in counseling people who have disabilities and chronic illness is considerable. I have written for,,,, and contribute to several other online health and mental health sites.

Office Location:
19th & Dahlia
Denver, Colorado
United States
Phone: 303-910-2425
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