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Understanding Young Adolescents. Handout for Parents, Caregivers and Educators

By Dr. Ester Cole • Published February 8, 2019 • 4 Min Read

Adolescence brings with it a lot of new, a gradual acceptance of one's physique and sexual role, attainment of emotional independence, preparation for choice making and the future, establishment of new friendships and social contacts, and building values and morals.

Young adolescents face a multiplicity of changes associated with this developmental stage. These changes include cognitive, physical, psychological and social growth. Each youngster has of course, unique characteristics. In general, however, during this phase of development, young adolescents tend to fluctuate between childhood and emerging maturity in several areas. As such, the transition into adolescence tends to bring about rapid changes and new capacities.

The first area of growth involves physical development with its gender specific characteristics. As children enter puberty, they may have concerns about how they are changing. They may have uneasy feelings about maturing too fast and looking different than many of their friends. Others may worry about the fact that their friends are growing up faster, and may feel that they are lagging behind in some way.

The second area of growth is associated with cognitive development. Young adolescents are gradually moving from more concrete thinking to more formal, abstract thought. Periods of growth and periods of plateau typify this stage. In earlier years, children are interested in facts and skills. With the development of higher order thinking capabilities, adolescents generally become more involved with values. They learn to hypothesize and try to relate issues to personal experiences; start to have a better understanding of the past; become more interested in social issues; begin to plan for the near future and become more self-conscious about their social position and how others react to them.

The third area of development relates to the social/emotional growth of adolescents. They may experience a range of powerful emotions and reactions to events and people as their sense of identity emerges. Adolescent self-awareness and self-absorption may be related to confusion and subjective descriptions of self. They may also experience conflicting feelings about the self, authority and independence. For example, feelings of discomfort related to physical growth may result in moodiness. Sensitivity to body image may be expressed at times as bragging about appearance. Negative comments may also result in exaggerated reactions which seem dramatic to the adults in their lives.

The developmental tasks facing adolescents include: (a) a gradual acceptance of one’s physique and sexual role, (b) attainment of emotional independence, (c) preparation for choice making and the future, (d) establishment of new friendships and social contacts, and (e) building values and morals. These tasks are a tall order for youngsters who broaden their understanding, knowledge, values and interests while coping with their own confusion, transitions, and expectations of others in their lives.

As a result, their developmental needs include: (a) freedom intellectually to explore, question and at times challenge, (b) positive communication, (c) supportive attitudes, (d) greater autonomy, (e) acceptance by peers and adults, (f) a clear value system, (g) psychological security and a sense of competence, and (h) opportunities to test their beliefs, exercise choices and new capacities.

When these types of needs are met consistently, adolescents tend to develop better coping skills, resiliency, and higher self-esteem. This means that they evaluate their qualities and attributes more positively and feel well integrated within their social reference group. Because self-esteem and validation are important within the home and school environments, educational goals across the curriculum aim to develop in students self reliance, adaptability, responsibility, problem-solving abilities, effective communication skills, realistic self-appraisal and esteem for others. Strong home/school ties are an important partnership in supporting the adults of tomorrow.

As parent(s), if you observe that your adolescent looks uncharacteristically withdrawn, or unusually preoccupied, know that many resources are available for consultation and follow-up. Consult with the mental health professionals at your child’s school, including the School Support Team. Online free resources developed with input from psychologists can provide you with support and guidance for interventions. See for example, The ABCs of Mental Health. It is a bi-lingual free resource for teachers, and parents addressing the needs of children and youth up to age 18. The Psychology Foundation of Canada has many free online resources, including


Ester Cole: Reprint with permission. Dr. Ester Cole is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto providing services to school-age children, youth, families and schools. She was the chair of The Psychology Foundation of Canada and the Parenting for Life program, and the past president of the Ontario Psychological Association and the Canadian Association of School Psychologists. She has published and lectured widely, and has been active on committees provincially, nationally and in the American Psychological Association. Follow The Psychology Foundation on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and visit to access various resources for parents to support the promotion of your child’s mental well-being.


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This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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