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Psychological development of adolescents

Basically, the psychological development of a person passes through several stages. However, it is never entirely completed. It is, therefore, a lifelong dynamic process that. What does "dynamic" mean in this context?

Developement of cognitive abilities during the stage of adolescence
Developement of cognitive abilities during the stage of adolescence
©: klickerminth - Fotolia

We call the process of psychological development as a dynamic one because it is in on-going interaction with several influences from the person’s environment. The development of a human being, psychologically speaking, therefore always reflects the environment with all its influences.

In addition to the individual, psychological development of a child or youth there are several phases with so-called development features. Those features, however, cannot be seen schematically because they are subjected to various influencing factors.

What do we actually mean when we speak about the time of “adolescence”? As a rule of the thumb, it refers to the period of puberty, which - according to sex - ranges approximately between 12 to 18 years of age. In the field of youth research, however, we talk about adolescence. Following a scientific definition, this period encompasses 10 (11-21) years. This time divides again between early adolescence (11 – 14 years), the mid-adolescence (15-17 years) and late adolescence (18 – 21 years).

Changes and developments during adolescence

Generally, the so-called developmental tasks during adolescence are in a context of tension. This means the individual needs of young people are always in opposition to society’s demands and expectations. Let us have a look at these developmental tasks belonging to adolescence:

Accepting of physical changes

During puberty, extensive physical changes occur. The growing person needs to deal with them appropriately. That too is a developmental task.

Letting go of the parental home

One of the most important processes during adolescence is the detachment from the parental home, accompanied by usually diverse problems and tensions in the family. Suddenly the young person wants to go out at night with friends. He doesn’t want to go on holidays with his parents but wants to stay over at a friend’s place. For parents, this process of letting go is just as painful as it is for the young person. Above all, the importance here is to find reasonable compromises for everybody involved.

Building an own circle of friends

Before adolescence, the child’s friends are usually determined by school and parental influences. Now the young person wants to deliberately choose their own friends. The frequent change of friends or even a whole group of friends is part of the process and therefore perfectly reasonable. Parents must learn to come to terms with the fact that they no longer know all their child’s contacts.

First intimate experiences and relationships

Discovering one's own sexuality is a crucial factor in the stage of adolescence. It is closely associated with the aforementioned physical changes. This gives a reason for arising problems. Especially if the young person has not yet fully accepted the changes of his body and his appearance, and none the less experienced intimate relationships.

Developing your own world view

The world view of a child is mostly determined by the opinions and habits of the parents. When young people and adolescents start to form their own opinions and worldview, many factors come into play, such as politics, religion and many more.

Thoughts of a professional career

In children, views of a profession are still diffuse and changing at short intervals. Young people, however, start to develop the first concrete ideas about their career and the training they would need. These ideas, however, are still subject to change during puberty.

Development of a future perspective

Building a professional perspective for young people means they are also developing an overall vision for the future. For example a concrete way of living, family, children, where to life and other goals he would like to achieve in life.

Psychological problems that result from changes

These and other developmental tasks here are not easy to master for most children or young people. It is therefore not uncommon to trigger various psychological problems.

Inferiority complex and instability

One of those problems is the missing or often poorly developed self-awareness, particularly at the beginning of puberty. This self-awareness develops only over time and starts at about 10 years of age. This means the young person begins to take notice of himself, he creates an image of who he is. This is called a self-image. This self-image leads to the development of a self-esteem as the young person begins to see himself in relation to others. This in turn leads to an assessment of his worth. If this is not sufficiently developed yet or maybe the young person shows signs of mental instability, he is liable to develop a contorted personality. This means the individual is more susceptible to external influences such as cliques or gangs, maybe even by marginalized groups like politics, religion or the occult.

The lack of clearly defined self-awareness can have other drastic, sometimes far-reaching consequences:


Basically, depressive feelings and moods are not uncommon during adolescence and are on the uprise in times like now. Partly they are triggered by extensive hormonal changes that take place during this period. However, the already mentioned feelings of inferiority, arguments with the parents, the performance pressure from school, being “the one” among his peers only contribute to the mood swings. If that is not enough, many young people also have to deal with the insecurity of finding their own sexual orientation, respectively, how do I find a suitable girl or boyfriend?

Pathological behaviour

If a child feels overwhelmed by all those developmental tasks of growing up it is not uncommon for the young person to develop pathological responses. Those behaviours serve to compensate for perceived pressures and failures. Some of those pathological reactions are anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, attention deficit, just to mention a few.

How are physical and psychological changes connected during adolescence?

If we want to understand and describe the changes to young people during puberty, one has to consider the physical development and its corresponding changes.

Physical changes

For girls, the physical changes begin at age 11; in boys about two years later. Both genders experience a growth spurt during this time. Unfortunately for the young person, not all parts of the body grow at the same time or at the same speed. This is recognisable in the sometimes jarring, not proportional looking movements. With this growth spurt, in both, girls and boys, the hormonal balance changes as well, which is closely related to sexual maturity. This development, the process in which a person becomes sexually mature, is for girls between 14 – 15 years, in boys between 16-17 years. The primary signs of sexual maturity in boys is the first ejaculation and in girls her first menstruation.

Physical changes - uncertainties and shame

It is important to recognise those physical changes as they are reflected in the psychological makeup of the growing person. It is those changes which may lead to the corresponding changes. It is precisely this reflection of physical changes which lead to increased insecurities in some young people. This can be seen for example in a distinct sense of shame. We all know that: during puberty many teens become obvious in their behaviour resulting from their feelings of shame. For example, some don’t want to be seen, while others want to show off their perceived physical advantages and that in any way possible and at any time.

Developing self-image

The problem during puberty is that the young person needs a certain maturity (which is not yet fully developed) that would allow him to see himself through the eyes of others. This process is required for developing a clear self-image, respectively, a defined understanding of who he is. However, as a rule of the thumb, it is not until about 14 years of age, that the young person is able to tie the past and desired future together to arrive at this self-image, this description of self. If this process is a little advanced, we talk about the so-called harmonisation phase in which the inhibitions of adolescents slowly dissolve or can be reconciled by the youth himself.

Changing relationships during adolescence

During childhood until the beginning of adolescence friends are people, who are able to do something with the child. With the onset of puberty, however, the reciprocity of relationships gains importance. The adolescent comes to understand that friendships are much more than purpose communities. This realisation in turn gives friendships a new depth. A unique feeling of friendship arises. Throughout adolescence friendships within the clique or the circle of friends gain of importance, other, individual friendships deepen. Even though, already during childhood the young person talks about this “best friend” it is only now, that the youth is indeed able to form this special friendship.

It is at this stage of adolescence the youth shows interest in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex. Again, this has far-reaching psychological effects. It is crucial at this stage that the young person receives ample of confirmation for their physical appearance, for their barely existing mental balance. If this process, for some reason, is interrupted or none existence; if the young person is scorned and ridiculed for physical disadvantages, severe psychological consequences can arise, dictating the future life of this person.

Changes regarding schooling & learning

With regard to school and learning, it is not uncommon for the growing person to develop an ambivalent behaviour. On one hand, the growing person develops a fist idea of his later career while on the other hand they develop and stabilize personal interests. With this in many young people their motivation to learn usually drops. That’s the time when friends, hobbies and other interests take up more importance and the pursuit of schooling and career becomes secondary.

Changes in cognitive abilities during adolescence

Adolescence is a crucial period in which the so-called cognitive abilities evolve and deepen. This refers to the whole process of thinking, as well as the capacity to form hypotheses. Equally, the ability of abstract thought develops and the young person starts to realize the meaning and importance of relations and this in different dimensions. This is also the time, where the growing person becomes aware of his own thoughts in a sense of that his ideas become the subject of his thinking. We recognize this in youth when they withdraw and ponder on things.

At the same time, the sharpening of cognitive skills is also accompanied by an improvement in the quality of recording and processing of information. In this regard, the ability to concentrate plays a significant role, which during puberty improves considerably. Until the beginning of adolescence, children are very easily distracted by various factors. For young people, however, it is possible to concentrate on a particular task for extended periods which enables them to continually working on it.

Cognitive skills - the „art of thinking“ - develop during the period of adolescence and continues to develop in many other areas. It is striking that generally young people from age 14 – 15 develop their own methodology in thinking. They are now able to carry out tasks by following a plan, which previously, they were unable to do. This becomes apparent, if given a particular question, the young person will first come up with several answers, evaluate them through thinking before deciding on the best possible solution.

During puberty, the ability to think and the cognitive abilities become more and more sophisticated. This state is also called the transition to formal operational thinking. It includes the ability to think theoretical possibilities and to draw appropriate conclusions. In summary this is represented as follows:

From childhood to the onset of puberty the young person, in regard to reality, is only concerned about its immediate impact. During adolescence, however, the young person learns to theorize how reality could be under certain circumstances.

Youth work with pubescent teenagers

As already described in some other articles, puberty presents a lot of problems for the young person regarding all the changes from the “sheltered child” to the “independent adult”. There is the search for identity, the development of self-awareness or self-image, the forming of an own opinion as well as reaching desired goals in life. This all weighs heavily on young people.

How can one succeed in youth work, particularly at this stage? How can the youth worker offer support to young people at this point?

  • Recognize and encourage strengths: each person has strengths and weaknesses. If a youth worker can identify these strengths and then helps the child or adolescent, then those strengths can develop well.

  • Mutual aid and assistance – balancing of individual weaknesses: as soon as you recognise any weaknesses in the individual you will offer help and support. Sometimes there is a lack of courage and support to eliminate these (supposed) weaknesses. Discouragement gets the better of the young person. If the youth worker has the skill and understands how to motivate and encourage the young person, he soon will see first successes which in turn will encourage the child not to give up. It would totally wrong, to laugh about those kids. Call them names, failures, weaklings and incompetent. This will only lead to further discouragement and reinforcing the feeling of inferiority.

  • Tasks to boost confidence: small tasks strengthen self-confidence and help to increase self-reliance and independence.

  • Create a sense of achievement: there is nothing worse than experiencing failures. It is, therefore, imperative that the games, programs and content of the group work convey a sense of achievement for everyone. A child will never remain long in the football club if it always has to sit on the bench and is never allowed to play. On game night, it is important that there is a game for everyone where he can experience success and recognition.

  • Gaining skills through games and crafts: coarse and fine motor skills alike can be practiced and improved through appropriate skill games, and deepen through crafting. When crafting, I would suggest that the task is not too complicated and that a first sense of success can be quickly achieved.

  • Promoting of social skills: transferring responsibility and social skills encourage, as already mentioned self-confidence.

  • Discussing social behaviour, togetherness and team or community spirit: with older teenagers it is possible to discuss their social behaviour in context with the wider community.

  • Discussing of particular topics: the older the kids are, the more specific questions can be, taken up for discussion. Those topics could be alcohol, girls or boys, bullying, possibly even political and religious issues. If the issue is prepared accordingly to their age and understanding, they will be happy to participate.

  • Identify uncertainties: it is always difficult when it comes to the own person. There comes the point in time, when the young people are not very forthcoming anymore. In particular, it is the boys who hide behind a façade of super cool inferiority. Nevertheless, young people do have questions and are often left alone with their troubles. It is important to look behind the facade and detect the issues and needs of youth. If you, as the youth worker, can gain the trust of the young people, then you have achieved significantly for the individual.

As you can see: youth work offers a vast opportunity to contribute support for the growing young person during this difficult time of change.

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