As childhood fades and adulthood approaches, young teens go through many significant and sometimes dramatic changes in their psychology and physical development. Adolescence is very much a formative time. The cognitive and physical changes teens undergo can shape the way they transform into adults.


Adolescence is a time of increased awareness of their personal identity and individual characteristics. Parents or carers may experience this as a challenging time in which the young person pushes back at any restrictions set by the family. While this is an uncomfortable and sometimes frightening time, the impulse behind increased arguments may be down to the teen’s awareness of the transitions they are experiencing. For example, transitioning from school to work requires a teen to learn different role behaviours.

Elder (1968) identified 2 types of role change: those that effect a teen’s existing roles because of other’s expectations, and new roles that need to be integrated.  Part of adolescence involves balancing out the different roles a teen must manage in different circumstances.

One of the more mysterious phenomena in human development is the loss of self-esteem in some teens (particularly females) during puberty. Several changes occur at this time, including physical developments, changing hormonal levels, sudden intense attractions to others, a new awareness of appearance and popularity as factors influencing their position with their peers, and self-confidence or self-esteem plummets.


During middle childhood, a young person develops a capacity for:

  • abstract thought
  • altruistic behaviour
  • some skill at verbalising thoughts and feelings in conflict situations.

    Teens continue to develop these skills even further, and use them to help develop a sense of identity. A crucial aspect of this personal identity is a search for acceptable moral principles.

    Moral thinking is complicated at this stage by the conflict between the urge to create a strong sense of personal identify, a tendency to question or rebel against previously held ideas as they turn inward for meaning, and the conflicting feelings caused by physical changes.

    Adolescents need to achieve ego identity and avoid role confusion. Ego identity means knowing who they are and how they fit into the rest of society.   Teens must mould themselves into unified self-images that are meaningful to their communities.  Good adult role models, open lines of communication and a mainstream adult culture that the adolescent respects are important during this process.  

    A society should also provide rites of passage, accomplishments and rituals that allow us to distinguish between a child and an adult. In some societies, an adolescent boy may be required to leave his village for a while to seek an inspirational vision. In other societies, there may be symbolic ceremonies or educational events, such as graduation ceremonies.   Without this, a teen may experience role confusion about their place in society and the world.  

    An overflow of ego identity can mean that a person is so involved with a particular role that there is no room left for tolerance. Erikson calls this the maladaptive tendency of fanaticism.  A fanatic will think their way is the only way.  A lack of personal identity may exacerbate the situation. Erikson called this the malignant tendency repudiation. The adolescent will repudiate their membership in the adult world or the need for an identity. They may join groups that are eager to provide identity details. These groups could include religious cults, militaristic organisations, groups founded on hate or intolerance. The adolescent may become involved in destructive or risk-taking activities, such as taking drugs or alcohol or withdraw into psychotic fantasies.

    Successful negotiation of this stage gives people a sense of fidelity. Fidelity means the ability to live by the standards set by society and loyalty. Fidelity doesn’t mean blind loyalty but loving the community you live in and wanting that community to grow and flourish. Fidelity also means becoming aware of your place and your contribution to that community.


    Some theories have emphasised the ‘storm and stress’ of adolescence. However, Bandura (1972) investigated ‘normal’ adolescents and their families and found that for many teens, there was no particular opposition to their parents' values, nor were they rebellious or hostile.  Many actually developed greater trust and a better relationship with their parents during the teen years. Where stress is prevalent, other factors could be at play. These factors could include

  • the adolescent’s developing personal morality, which might conflict with their parents’ values,
  • family disharmony
  • the adolescent’s refusal to contribute to discussion or to accept adult perspectives.
  • Substance abuse can also be a major cause of strained relationships with family, causing even the most goodnatured adolescent to behave out of character.


Lifespan psychology suggests that we need to see people in terms of their social and personal contexts in order to understand them.  A multi-disciplinary framework is employed to study changes in adolescence. Coleman (1974) adopted a ‘focal theory’ of adolescence which considered the variations of experiences and expectations in adolescence.  Coleman stated that as individuals pass through adolescence they have their attention focused on different aspects of change at different times.  The transitions into and out of adolescence are not sequential, so a teen may be juggling several problems which are not equally important at all times.   


Learn more about psychology, counselling or adolescent development with ACS. Contact our course counselling services for further information.