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ACT for Youth

Adolescent Health and Development

Adolescence is a developmental stage of life that is shaped by changes in the body and mind, and by the environment [1]. Throughout the adolescent years, the body and brain grow and change, and while becoming accustomed to these changes, the adolescent must learn to negotiate new responsibilities, evolving relationships, and a new sense of self.

Adolescence is generally considered to be the period between the beginning of puberty and adulthood. There is no precise timetable for adolescent development; each young person will develop in his or her own way and time. Adolescent development is also famously non-linear, known for sudden growth spurts and new levels of maturity that seem to disappear and reappear.

Our ideas about adolescence, and our expectations of adolescents, change over time and across cultures. The age at which puberty typically begins has dropped over the last century, while the roles and responsibilities that signal adulthood, such as marriage, are occurring later in Western societies.

Changing Bodies, Brains, and Roles

Brain development in adolescence is complex. Throughout adolescence the brain becomes more connected, integrated, and efficient. The areas of the brain that control judgment, planning, the ability to imagine consequences, self-regulation, and emotional maturity are all in the process of developing during adolescence. Clearly all of this developmental activity has implications for how adolescents make decisions and manage risk given their new-found levels of independence. Recent research by Valerie Reyna and others suggests the need for new approaches to adolescents and risk (PDF; formatted for screen readers).

Hormone levels change dramatically during adolescence. Hormones do have a powerful effect on emotions and behavior, but their role in driving adolescent behavior may be overstated in American popular culture. Social factors such as relationships with parents and peers may outweigh the effects of hormones, while other factors such as stress, sex, and eating habits may in turn greatly affect the hormonal system [2].

Sexual development, including puberty, sexual attraction and behavior, sexual and gender identity, and negotiating intimate relationships, is a complex and critical aspect of adolescence.

Emotional development -- understanding, expressing, and regulating one's emotions with growing maturity -- is key to navigating relationships, functioning effectively in the world, and even recognizing meaning and purpose in life. Adolescents are often particularly receptive to emotion, and at the same time may be just beginning to understand the nature and effect of intense feeling.

Social development is a major focus of most adolescents as they begin to define their place in the world and learn to manage changing relationships, responsibilities, and roles. Parents are no longer seen as all-knowing, and peer relationships increase in importance.

Developmental Tasks

Adolescents have much to master! For a more detailed look, see the ACT for Youth Stages of Adolescent Development fact sheet (PDF; formatted for screen readers) and the Stages of Adolescent Development summary chart (PDF).

Positive Youth Development

Viewed another way, adolescents are hard at work developing the 5 Cs: confidence, character, connection, competence, and contribution [3]. As resiliency and asset development research have shown, adults can set the stage for successful adolescent development through services, opportunities, and supports: meeting basic needs; offering supportive, long-term relationships; and providing a range of challenging opportunities that engage youth in building on their strengths.


[1]   Content of this page is based in part on the ACT for Youth presentation Adolescent development: What's going on in there? by Janis Whitlock, and the ACT for Youth publication Stages of Adolescent Development by Sedra Spano.
[2]   Santrock, J. W. (2005). Adolescence (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
[3]   Pittman, K., Irby, M., Tolman, J., Yohalem, N., & Ferber, T. (2003). Preventing problems, promoting development, encouraging engagement. Forum for Youth Investment.