5 Characteristics of Adolescent Social and Emotional Development

by Anna Green Google

    Adolescence -- the period lasting from approximately age 11 to 21 -- covers many social and emotional changes. This transition between childhood and adulthood leads to rapidly changing behaviors, identity disturbances and strong emotions. Although these characteristics can frustrate or confuse parents, they are developmentally normal and a natural part of an adolescent’s growth.

    Labile Emotions

    Adolescents can shift moods rapidly, vacillating between happiness and distress and self-confidence and worry. Some of these mood changes stem from biological sources. Increased hormones and changes to the brain structure arise from normal physical growth. Also, complex social interactions such as conflicts with friends, school pressures and experimentation with romantic relationships can exacerbate the labile emotional state of adolescents.

    Personal Identity

    Adolescence is a time when teenagers begin to explore and assert their personal identities. During this developmental period, teenagers engage in a process of searching for where they fit in with peers and society at large. It is common for adolescents to have an unstable sense of self and try out new personal labels and associate with various peer groups. Additionally, adolescents might struggle to define their sexual and gender identity during the teenage years. While these unstable identity issues are a common part of early adolescence, they tend to stabilize between the ages of 19 and 21, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent’s “Facts for Families," as cited by the Early Head Start National Resource Center.

    Peer Relationships

    During adolescence, relationships with peers begin to take precedence over relationships with the family. Although family interactions are still important and essential for a teen’s development, adolescents often place a stronger emphasis on their friends’ perceptions and values. Likewise, during the adolescent years, teens might be strongly influenced by their peers’ beliefs and behaviors. Paired with adolescents' limited life experience and under-developed decision-making skills, teenagers are often vulnerable to negative peer pressure.

    Independence and Testing Boundaries

    Adolescents often test parents’ and teachers’ rules and boundaries. Although this rebellious behavior might seem oppositional to parents, in most cases, this behavior is driven by the adolescent’s need to develop autonomy, experience new activities and earn more independence, explains the American Psychological Association. Even though teenagers can benefit from testing boundaries during adolescence, they still require rules and boundaries if they are to avoid negative influences and achieve their potential.

    Self-centered Attitudes

    It is often difficult for adolescents to look at circumstances from other people’s perspectives. This is due, in part, to their still-developing brain structures. Thus, adolescents might come off as self-centered and focused on their own needs without considering how those needs affect others. This apparent lack of empathy is normal and typically resolves itself once a teen reaches the end of adolescence. However, a complete lack of empathy in adolescents could mean a more significant underlying mental health issue exists. If that's the case, consult a mental health worker.

    About the Author

    Anna Green spent seven years as a self-employed legal writer before becoming a therapist for children and adolescents. After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school and then pursued a degree in mental health counseling. In addition to her writing work, she is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group.

    Photo Credits

    • Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images