Emotional Development

Teen boy looking contemplative

General Emotional Changes Adolescents Experience

Healthy emotional development is marked by a gradually increasing ability to perceive, assess, and manage emotions. This is a biological process driven by physical and cognitive changes and heavily influenced by context and environment. During adolescence young people generally become more aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others, but these perceptions may still be tenuous. Adults sometimes expect adolescents to keep their emotions from interfering with performance in school, work, and other activities, but doing so may be challenging in a complex environment. Some adolescents may be excited to take on new challenges as they become more independent, whereas others may need more support to build their confidence. The process of emotional development gives adolescents the opportunity to build skills, discover unique qualities, and develop strengths for optimal health. 

Factors that affect how well adolescents navigate this process include: 

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Hormones. These critical chemicals in the brain that bring about physical changes also affect adolescents’ moods and heighten their emotional responses. These characteristics together mean that teens are more easily swayed by emotion and have difficulty making decisions that adults find appropriate.1 Adolescence also is a time of rapid and sometimes stressful changes in peer relationships, school expectations, family dynamics, and safety concerns in communities. The body responds to stress by activating specific hormones and activities in the nervous system so that the person can respond quickly and perform well under pressure. The stress response kicks in more quickly for adolescents than it does for adults whose brains are fully developed and can moderate a stress response. Not all stressors are bad. Positive experiences such as landing a first job or getting a driver’s permit can trigger a stress response that enables adolescents to approach a challenge with alertness and focus.

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Self-management. By managing their own emotions, adolescents can establish positive goals and gain foresight into how their emotions can influence their goals and futures. To improve their ability to manage emotions, adolescents must first learn to recognize and describe strong, complex emotions. Although young people learn to describe basic emotions earlier in life, as they get older they develop an ability to truly grasp what emotions are and understand their impact. When adolescents can recognize how they feel, they can choose how they will react to a situation. They also learn to avoid the problems that strong emotions sometimes cause. However, because the brain’s frontal lobe–which is responsible for reasoning, planning, and problem-solving as well as emotions–doesn't fully develop until the mid-twenties, adolescents may find it difficult to manage their emotions and think through the consequences of their actions. Over time and with the support of parents and helpful adults, adolescents can develop the reasoning and abstract thinking skills that enable them to step back, examine their emotions, and consider consequences before acting rashly.

Teenage girl reading a book

Unique Issues in Emotional Development

Physical changes increase adolescents’ capacity for emotional awareness, self-management, and empathy, but emotional development is strongly influenced by context. This means that many aspects of adolescents’ lives can influence their emotional development. Among these aspects are:

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Self-esteem. How people feel about themselves–or the way they perceive their own talents, characteristics, and life experiences–can affect their sense of their own worth. An adolescent’s self-esteem can be influenced by approval from family, support from friends, and personal successes. Research shows that adolescents with a positive self-concept experience greater academic success than do adolescents who lack this quality. Concerns about body image also are common and can provide opportunities for parents, teachers, and other caring adults to teach self-care, offer encouragement, and reinforce a positive body image. For some adolescents, the concern for body image is extreme and–when combined with other warning signs–may indicate an eating disorder. Eating disorders are one type of mental health problem among adolescents. However, feeling good about oneself does not necessarily protect against risky behaviors. Therefore, it is still important to limit adolescents’ exposure to risky situations and empower young people to make healthy choices when they inevitably come across such a situation.

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Identity formation. There are many facets to identity formation, which includes developmental tasks such as becoming independent and achieving a sense of competence. Adolescents may question their passions and values, examine their relationships with family and peers, and think about their talents and definitions of success. Identity formation is an iterative process during which adolescents repeatedly experiment with different ideas, friends, and activities. This experimentation is normal and can provide adolescents opportunities to learn more about themselves and others, but it isn’t always balanced with thoughtfulness or a cognitive ability to consider the consequences of their actions. Although this path to finding one’s identity can prove challenging for some families, it also can motivate adolescents to learn about themselves and become more confident in their own, unique identities.

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Stress. Adolescents live in a variety of environments and experience a wide range of stressors that affect emotional development. Learning healthy responses to stressful situations is part of normal development, and some stress can even be positive. However, some adolescents face particularly traumatic events, such as experiencing or witnessing physical or sexual abuse, or school violence. Some of these events are prolonged or recurring, such as chronic neglect or being bullied. Some adolescents also have to deal with multiple types of traumatic stress. These more extreme forms of stress, often referred to as toxic stress, can weaken an adolescent’s immune system, resulting in chronic physical health problems and potentially leading to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Toxic stress also can lead to stress-related diseases and cognitive impairment in adulthood. Adolescents who experience this form of stress also are more likely to use harmful substances, engage in other risky behaviors,2 and experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition in which a person relives a traumatic event through persistent memories or flashbacks and experiences other symptoms such as insomnia, angry outbursts, or feeling tense. However, people respond to stress differently, and a strong support system can help protect adolescents from long-lasting negative effects and create an environment that enables youth to thrive. 

Mother smiles with her two teenage daughters

How Parents and Caring Adults Can Support Emotional Development

Parents and other adults can support positive emotional development and help youth thrive by modeling healthy behaviors. This means that it is important to:

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Make your own emotional well-being a priority. You may find it helpful to join a parent group where you can safely navigate your feelings with people who understand your point of view. Being mindful of emotional well-being is especially important for people working with adolescents who have experienced trauma. The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit can help victim services providers, law enforcement personnel, emergency responders, and other professionals address the emotional impact of their work.

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Practice healthy goal-setting. Let go of ideas of perfection for adolescents and yourself. Set realistic goals and break them into smaller tasks that are easier to manage. When you come up against an obstacle or experience a failure, focus on what you can control, and let go of the things that you cannot.

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Value every adolescent’s unique identity. Even when you don’t relate to an adolescent’s feelings or experiences, your understanding and respect as a parent or caring adult goes a long way. 

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Resolve conflicts with respect for others. When you disagree with someone, remember what you like about the person and focus on resolving the issue at hand instead of assigning blame. Take time to cool off and think things through when you start to feel overwhelmed. Family conflicts can be especially stressful given the intense emotions and relationship dynamics at play. 

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Manage your anger. Practicing relaxation exercises and using humor to diffuse a tense situation are a couple strategies you can use to manage your anger. Seek professional help if you are unsure of what to do.

Parents and other adults also can support the development of adolescents’ skills that facilitate emotional development by taking steps to:

Strengthen communication skills. Many lessons about relationships and emotions start with the parent-child relationship. Effective and open communication lies at the heart of this relationship. Strong communication skills include being an attentive listener, sharing your experiences instead of lecturing, and asking open-ended questions.

Build emotional vocabulary. State your feelings and discuss how other people may feel in a nonjudgmental way. Point out nonverbal cues such as body language when discussing emotions. Ask your teen, “How did you feel about that?” and “How do you think that made the other person feel?”

Promote stress management skills. Encourage adolescents to handle stress in healthy ways. Daily management strategies include getting adequate sleep, staying active with exercise and hobbies, practicing deep breathing, and eating regular meals. Teach adolescents to “mind their brain” by talking about adolescent brain development and letting them know how they can use the power of their brains to learn healthy behaviors.

Nurture self-regulation skills. Provide opportunities for adolescents to understand, express, and moderate their own feelings and behaviors. This step involves modeling self-regulation creating a warm and responsive environment, establishing consequences for poor decisions, and reducing the emotional intensity of conflicts.

Limit exposure to risky situations. When faced with a decision, emotions may intermingle with recollections of what might have happened in the past. Prepare adolescents for risky situations by talking about what they can do to anticipate, avoid, and process them. Help adolescents weigh their emotions and think through short-term and long-term consequences.

Help teens think carefully about risky situations. After a risky event, ask adolescents, “Why do you think this happened?” and “What could you do differently next time?” It may take them a long time to fully process their experiences so give them to time to think about the answers. 

Pay attention to warning signs. Adolescents may show signs of stress, anxiety, or depression such as increased irritability or anger, changing sleeping and eating habits, dropping favorite activities, or feelings of loneliness. Resources are available to those experiencing an emotional crisis. If you are concerned about an adolescent’s well-being, consult your healthcare provider or mental health professional. An adolescent may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. 

Cover image for Adolescent Development Explained guide

Adolescent Development Explained Guide

Additional information on adolescent development can be found in the Adolescent Development Explained guide – PDF, developed by the Office of Population Affairs.

Webinar Slides for "Emotional Changes"

Emotional Changes (Adolescent Development Explained Webinar Series)

In this webinar, experts discuss emotional development during adolescence. Watch the recording on YouTube or review the slides – PDF.

Footnotes

1 Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., …Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449-461. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/

2 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Trauma and violence. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence