We know a lot more about how the teenage mind changes and develops between childhood and adulthood than we did even a decade ago.
What’s striking is the contrast between our focus on our infants as they learn to crawl, babble, walk and talk. We, as doctors and parents, track closely each step and syllable. These cute and fun milestones are some of the most rewarding joys of parenthood.
But when parents and doctors face the next major time of change – the teenage years – the milestones of development tend to be less cute. They are not things you necessarily share with friends and family, like the first period, first time they experiment with alcohol or drugs, or that first time they decide they’d rather spend time with friends than with mom and dad.
Since advancements in technology allow us to measure brain growth as well as what areas of the brain are active during different thought processes, we understand the teenage brain much better.
The brain continues to “fine tune” its growth and maturity up to age 25 in most people. Put simply, the milestones of adolescence – first time driving, voting, smoking or drinking alcohol – all happen as our brains are still growing.
Adolescent mental development is generally divided into three stages, but those ages are general guidelines as some pass through them earlier or later:
Early, ages 10-13: Kids think in concrete terms, and they are egocentric, certain that “the world is about them.” They have difficulty with long-range planning; things five years away just don’t register. Parents will notice increasing independence as they tend to have less interest in your advice. They also begin to recognize that parents are not perfect.
Kids begin to seek out peer groups for companionship more so than parents and they “try on” different groups to see where they fit, while their bodies change quickly during this stage.
Middle, ages 14-16: You will see more conflict with authority as it peaks at this stage, and teens are beginning to develop more abstract thinking and handle more complex challenges. When they are stressed, they revert to that early-stage concrete thinking.
This is when independence becomes most apparent, and when peer groups and fitting in are important. It’s the peak time for feelings of invincibility, too. Kids are the “main character” in the movie of their lives, and just like James Bond, they assume they too will never die. That’s why the peak of risk-taking — driving accidents, unsafe sexual behaviors and alcohol/drug experimentation – happens in this stage. Praise from peers often outweighs logical thinking, and while peer pressure can lead to some bad behaviors, that’s not always the case. Peers in church groups, band and sports are all good examples of peers supporting good behaviors in their groups.
It’s quite a scary time for parents, but it’s also normal. This time is shaping teenage learning and intelligence.
Late, ages 17-21: At this point, kids have an increased ability for abstract thinking; they begin to make independent decisions and plans. Parents may notice they start to separate from the family directly, but show a better appreciation for mom and dad’s values. Improved reasoning allows better problem solving and less risky choices. Since puberty has mostly ended, their body image and understanding of personal identities and value is stronger than ever.
At this age, the once (somewhat) annoying teenager shows adjustments that resemble early respectable adult traits.
A close supportive family can be one of the biggest factors in how safely a teenager passes through these stages, but we all know the family we have is not something we control. Some families split apart or lack parental guidance, and in those times, the support of the community and peer groups can make a significant difference in the healthy development of our children turning into young, healthy, productive adults.
“Adolescents often mature into people who reflect their parents, and that can be positive or negative, and it’s a strong reminder,” Barondeau said. “It reminds every parent to model behaviors they hope to someday see in their grown children.”