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understanding your adolescent

  • The challenges teenagers face
  • Things you should know about physical changes
  • How teenagers think and feel
  • The influence of teenager's friends
  • Why family squabbling is inevitable
  • Why they need their parents now more than ever

Adolescence is a time of rapid and dramatic change. You can see these changes in the way teenagers behave, express their feelings and in the way they interact with their families. Parents need to adapt their parenting style to suit the changing needs of their children. Knowing about the changes that adolescents experience will help you to understand and manage your teenager more effectively.

Children entering adolescence face three big challenges:
1.  Biological(physical changes)
2.  Psychological(changes in thinking and feeling)
3.  Social(changes in relationships)


The biological challenge
With the exception of infancy, the amount and speed of physical growth and change in adolescence is greater than in any other time in a person's life. The first indication of changes to physical appearance varies from individual to individual. Often referred to as 'puberty', these changes can start in children as young as 8 or 9 years of age, but will generally occur between the ages of 11 and 15 years. In general, girls start growing rapidly up to 18 months before boys. On average, girls can expect to gain 17 kg and grow 24 cm. Boys can expect to gain 19 kg and grow 25 cm on average during puberty. Most of the growth usually happens in short but rapid bursts called 'growth spurts'.

Unfortunately for adolescents, growth patterns are often uneven and unpredictable, and the process can be most unkind. The extremities of adolescent bodies start growing first. Arms,legs, feet and hands reach adult size before the trunk does, making adolescents look gangly and out of proportion for a time.

This uneven pattern of growth also occurs in facial features; the nose and ears grow before the head reaches full adult size. A young person can't even rely on both sides of their body growing at the same rate: one foot, breast, testicle or ear may be noticeably bigger than the other one. These changes in physical appearance can make adolescents feel a little insecure and unsure of themselves. Our society places a high value on physical attractiveness, so it's not surprising that teenagers can become preoccupied with how they look.

Uneven growth can also affect an adolescent's capacity for physical work and exercise. The adolescent's heart and lungs grow with the trunk, which lags behind growth in the limbs. So while longer arms and legs may make adolescents look more athletic and capable of longer periods of physical exertion, they may not have the stamina to match their physical appearance. So adolescents are not just being lazy, they do need to rest more than adults.

Adolescent bodies also undergo other kinds of physical changes that are not visible. For example, there is a huge increase in the production of hormones associated with sexual development. For boys, testosterone levels increase to 15 times higher than before puberty. For girls, oestrogen levels increase eight-fold compared with pre-puberty. These changes in hormone levels affect the growing adolescent in many ways. Glands in the skin become more active and this can lead to oily skin, sweating, body odour and acne. Hormonal changes lead to sexual growth, including changes in body shape, the full development of sex organs, growth of pubic hair and voice changes in boys. A major development is that girls begin to menstruate and boys experience their first ejaculation. Hormones are often blamed for changes in adolescent behaviour. Whilst hormonal changes can make emotions more unpredictable, the picture is much more complex. There are other important factors that influence adolescent behaviour that we need to consider. Let's look at these factors now.

The psychological challenge
Adolescents think in increasingly sophisticated ways. They are able to reason and think more logically. Adolescents become more critical and questioning. They can see new possibilities, and are less likely to accept things the way they are or to believe in something just because an adult says so. Adolescents do a lot of moralising. As a result, they often become more interested in current affairs and political issues.

However, despite enormous developments in thinking ability, adolescents can make inaccurate and unhelpful assumptions. For instance, adolescents can make the mistake of over estimating the amount of influence they have on what happens around them. As a result, they can take things too personally and blame themselves unnecessarily when things do not go according to plan.
Adolescents may also fall into the trap of 'mind-reading'. Innocent actions of others may be taken as personal criticisms as the adolescent jumps to conclusions about what others are thinking and feeling.

This does not work in reverse, however, and adolescents often refuse to believe that anybody, particularly their parents, can understand the new and intense feelings they are experiencing.

Adolescents also assume that they are invincible and that nothing bad will happen to them. This is one reason why adolescents engage in risk taking. They might know about the consequences of risky behaviour, but will assume that these consequences will not happen to them. Adolescents are capable of making good decisions. At times they can pleasantly surprise their parents by showing sound judgement and mature behaviour. However, adolescents tend to give more weight to immediate rather than long-term consequences. Take the issue of smoking as an example. An adolescent is more likely to be impressed by the possibility of looking cool, than the possibility of getting cancer. Immediate negative outcomes, such as having less money to spend on CDs, or their teeth becoming yellow, exert a greater influence an adolescent's choice not to smoke. Adolescents need help from their parents to make decisions that have long term implications and risks.

The psychological challenge also involves adolescents trying to work out what kind of person they will be, and how they will fit into the world. Adolescence is a time when children are working out their beliefs and values. In our society, adolescents also have to make big decisions, like what they will study and what kind of employment they will prepare themselves for. As they notice the changes in themselves, adolescents tend to question whether they are like everyone else and whether others will accept them. It is very important to adolescents to be seen as normal and to fit in. It has been said that being an adolescent is like living with a constant imaginary audience. This intense self-consciousness and critical self-evaluation means that children in the early stages of adolescence are very vulnerable to feelings of low self-esteem. Finally, adolescents aspire to be more independent. They are driven to have more say in what they do, and to make more of their own decisions. This is a natural part of growing up into a responsible and independent adult. At the same time, parents have to weigh up the amount of freedom they give their adolescent with their adolescent's level of maturity. Conflict can occur when adolescents press for more freedom --than parents are willing to give. To make it even more confusing for parents, the demand for independence can seesaw. Adolescents can go from demanding autonomy at one moment to being very needy the next.

The social challenge
Adolescence is a time when relationships with families and peers also undergo significant change. One of the most common concerns for parents is the influence of the peer group. It's unfortunate that peer groups have been given a lot of 'bad press'. The term 'peer' has negative associations, and the role of friends in an adolescent's life tends to be viewed with suspicion. Contrary to popular opinion, however, friends provide a lot of positives for adolescents; they act as a kind of self-help group and provide important social support. Being part of a group of friends also helps a young person form a clearer sense of who they are and what kind of person they want to become.

Generally speaking, the negative power of peers is greatly exaggerated. Despite the common belief that peers can corrupt a teenager, friends do not have the power to force teenagers to do things that they really do not want to do. In any case, adolescents tend to select friends who are like themselves. It is unlikely that a young person, particularly one with a trouble-free past, will develop persistent social problems purely from being in contact with friends who do have problems. What influence peers have is strongest in early adolescence, that is, up until around 14 years of age. After this period, peer influence begins to diminish considerably.
Despite children becoming more focussed on their friends during adolescence, families remain an important influence. Ultimately, adolescents tend to follow their parent's lead, and end up being more similar than dissimilar to parents in their values, beliefs and behaviour. For example, adolescents tend to copy their parents' attitudes and behaviour in relation to alcohol and drug use.
Most teenagers report a positive relationship with their families. This is in contrast to the widely held picture of adolescents having major conflict with parents over issues such as drugs and sex. Although there is an increase in the amount of squabbling that occurs at this time, most arguments in families with adolescents are over relatively minor issues like homework, chores and television. They may be wearing, but arguments are a sign that the adolescent is doing their job of growing up, seeking independence, developing confidence and taking responsibility. After all, arguing in a family situation teaches young people how to express and assert themselves in a safe environment, before they assert themselves in the outside world.

So you can expect more bickering in your household as your child enters adolescence. But how much conflict is too much and when should parents be concerned? This is a difficult question to answer. According to research, the average amount of conflict ranges between three to four disputes a week. Squabbling peaks at around 13 years of age, and declines by the age of 16. However, if you or your teenager are feeling distressed or upset from constant fighting, or if you are struggling with serious problems such as drug abuse, depression, truancy, violence or inappropriate sexual behaviour, then consider seeking professional advice.

The good news for parents is that you and your adolescent will survive this stage of development. While there may be increased arguing, periods of confusion, doubt, worry and higher stress levels, most families come through adolescence intact. Listed below are ideas on how to make the most from what you've learned from reading this sheet.

  1. Think about life with your teenager over the past two weeks. Have you noticed any of the physical changes described in this sheet? How is your teenager feeling about these changes? Think of some positive comments that you can make to help your teenager feel good about the changes that you've noticed.
  2. The next time you find yourself in conflict with your teenager, ask yourself "What is this really about?" Is this argument really about homework, or is it about the adolescent asserting their independence and their need to have more say in what they do? If you see things from an adolescent perspective you are less likely to take things personally and more likely to respond calmly and constructively to issues that will inevitably arise.
  3. If the methods you're currently using aren't working, find other ways of dealing with the problems and conflicts. You might find it useful to read the other sheets in this information series, or to participate in an ABCD parenting group.
  4. Finally, raising an adolescent is not always easy. Do not hesitate to seek advice or support. Talking with other parents can be helpful. However, if you cannot get the help you need from family or friends, seek professional advice rather than worry and do nothing.


Berger, K.S. & Thompson, R.A. (1995). The developing person: Through childhood and adolescence. New York: Worth Publishers.
Feek, W. (Ed). (1990). On-Line: The drugs learning package. London: The Commonwealth Secretariat.
Fuller, A. (2000). Raising real people: A guide for parents of teenagers. Melbourne, Australia: The Australian Council for Educational Research.
Patterson, G., & Forgatch, M. (1987). Parents and adolescents living together, part 1: The basics. Eugene: Castalia.