Social Development

Two teenage girls hanging out


General Social Changes Adolescents Experience

The process of social development moves adolescents from the limited roles of childhood to the broader roles of adulthood. For young people, this transition includes:



Expanding their social circles. Young children mostly spend time with their family. Their social circle expands slightly as they enter school. By the time they reach adolescence, their networks also can include people from team sports, student organizations, jobs, and other activities. As their social circles expand, adolescents spend less time with their families and may focus more on their peers. Young people also develop a greater capacity to form stronger relationships with adults outside of their families who may function as mentors.


Expanding their social roles. The changes adolescents experience in their brain, emotions, and bodies prime them to take on more complex social roles. Cognitive and emotional development work together to help adolescents have deeper conversations and express their emotions better. Physical development signals that adolescents are becoming adults and that they may become entrusted with greater responsibility. Adolescents may assume new roles, such as taking on a leadership position in school, on a team, or at church; serving as a confidante; or being a romantic partner.

Building new connections and establishing identities outside of the context of the family is a normal part of healthy development. Interacting with people outside of the family circle can teach adolescents how to maintain healthy relationships in different contexts and identify roles they can play in the broader community. Still, adolescents will need support as they experience these new roles. Engaging in role-playing and rehearsing strategies modeled by peer and adult mentors may help adolescents practice cooperation, communication, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, as well as tactics to resist peer pressure.1

One aspect of social development that promotes having a broad social network is the tendency of adolescents to become more aware of how other people feel. The ability to empathize and to appreciate the unique differences among people increases in adolescence. Adolescents often learn to take other people’s feelings into account, be compassionate about the suffering of others, listen actively, and interpret nonverbal cues. Although youth typically begin to express some complex emotions early in life,2 adolescents start to examine their inner experiences and express their emotions verbally. However, because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until early adulthood, adolescents often find it challenging to interpret body language and facial expressions. As the prefrontal cortex develops and the capacity for abstract thinking grows, adolescents will be able to empathize more deeply with others.

A group of four older teens pose for a picture outside

Unique Issues in Social Development

The way adolescents develop socially largely depends on their environment. For example, some youth live in neighborhoods and attend schools where violence is relatively common. These adolescents must develop different coping strategies than do those who live in neighborhoods with more physical security. Some adolescents also experience trauma. These experiences can evoke stress reactions across all developmental areas. Some survivors of trauma have difficulty regulating emotions, sleeping, eating, and acting on or making decisions.3 In any case, all adolescents need caring adults in their lives who offer them support, provide opportunities for them to test their new skills, and offer guidance on how to be successful. The key role that environment plays in adolescent development means that adolescents of the same age will differ in their ability to handle diverse social situations.

Here are some other factors that differ among adolescents and can affect their social development:


Varying rates of physical development. Adolescents’ bodies change and develop at different rates, and this process is not always coordinated with other areas of development. For instance, those who develop physically at a relatively young age may be seen and treated more like adults or they may end up spending more time with older youth because of how they look, a pattern that increases their potential for engaging in sexual relationships. However, these more mature-looking adolescents may not be emotionally and cognitively ready to handle those new roles.4 On the other hand, adolescents who develop later may be seen and treated more like young children.


Evolving groups of friends. Acceptance by a peer group is crucial to adolescents, especially those who are younger. Seeking acceptance might spur them to change the way they think, speak, dress, and behave to make them feel they belong to the group. As a result, younger adolescents tend to hang out with peers who are like them (e.g., same race, ethnicity, family income, religion, or class schedule). Older adolescents may branch out to other groups as their social worlds diversify and expand.


Differing types of peer pressure. Peer pressure sometimes gets a bad reputation. The stereotype about this pressure stems from perceptions of delinquent and risky behaviors, including sexual activity and substance abuse, which some adolescents think will earn them greater acceptance among their peers. However, peer pressure can be beneficial, and peer relationships can be positive. Positive peer groups practice behaviors such as cooperating, sharing, resolving conflicts, and supporting others. The accepted standards, or norms, of positive peer groups can help adolescents build relationship skills, hold favorable views of themselves, and have the confidence to take positive risks.


Changing ways to interact. As with all technologies, using social media carries both potential risks and potential benefits for adolescents. Text messaging, social networking platforms, blogs, email, and instant messaging can help adolescents stay connected to each other and express who they are to the world. Today’s adolescents have such large social networks that it is common to have virtual friendships with peers they have never met face-to-face. This digital interaction may curtail nonverbal communication and cues that occur in person that are important for developing social skills; but these interactions are still social and meaningful to the adolescents who participate in them.5 At the same time, technology and social media have also provided a new forum for harassment. In addition to the 20 percent of high school students who reported being bullied in school the previous year (2015), another 16 percent reported being bullied online.6

Mom takes a selfie with her daughter on one side, and teenager with earbuds in smiles at a friend across a table.

How Parents and Caring Adults Can Support Social Development

Although adolescence is a time when young people try to manage their lives on their own, they still depend on their families and caring adults for primary support, affection, and decision-making, as well as for help establishing their identities and learning about skills and values. Here are some ways parents and other adults can support youth thriving in social development.


Set examples of healthy relationships. Relationships can be strong when you are aware of your own feelings as well as aware of other’s emotions. In healthy relationships, both partners should treat each other with respect, give each other space, talk through problems, and communicate honestly. Modeling positive friendships and relationships with co-workers and neighbors also is valuable.


Monitor and get to know adolescents’ friends and dating partners. Find out whom they spend time with, what they are doing, and where they are going. Ask about how the adolescent picks their friends and what they enjoy about the people with whom they spend their time.


Encourage participation in activities adolescents care about. Help adolescents make friends by getting them involved in activities that match their interests (e.g., art, music, computer science, sports).


Exhibit empathetic behavior. Show empathy by acting on concern for other people, using statements that describe how people might feel, and talking about being compassionate toward diverse groups of people. Adults and adolescents also can work together on community service projects.


Build connections by talking to adolescents about your interests and learn about theirs. Take the time to learn about your adolescent’s hobbies and interests and expose them to new activities to help you find mutual interests and have more meaningful interactions.


Teach adolescents how to deal with peer pressure. Help adolescents understand which risks will enable them to test their skills and which risks may have harmful consequences, even if their peers encourage those behaviors.

Talking with Adolescents

Parents and other adults can help answer young people’s questions about their changing social worlds and relationships. Have open and honest conversations with adolescents to help them make healthy decisions about their social development.

Acknowledge what adolescents have to say. Not every disagreement is a conflict. Be available to listen to any concerns adolescents disclose. Meaningful conversations may happen informally and spontaneously.

Let adolescents know when it is important to share sensitive information with you. Make sure teens know they can come to you with information that affects their safety or the safety of their peers without fear of being judged or punished.

Discuss boundaries and expectations in relationships with friends and romantic partners. Stress the importance of having personal space, setting limits, and respecting privacy in any relationship. Discuss what true friendships and romantic relationships are (respectful, supportive, encouraging, and caring) as well as what they are not (disrespectful, abusive, controlling, and violent). Acknowledge that friends and romantic partners can remain close and intimate even if they say “no” to each other.

Set online boundaries. A large part of social development now occurs while adolescents are online. Whether social media acts as a risk or a tool for adolescent health largely depends on how adolescents use the media and how parents talk with teens about online safety. Talk to adolescents about behaving responsibly online, both in how they treat others and how they can keep themselves safe.

Teach and model good communication skills. Having a conversation, especially on sensitive topics, can be challenging. Respectful communication is a learned skill. Showing adolescents how to listen and share their thoughts and feelings respectfully, even amid conflict, can help them socially, romantically, and professionally.

Adolescent waving to a video call on her mobile phone

Adolescent Development Explained Guide

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

Social Connections (Adolescent Development Explained Webinar Series)

In this webinar, experts explore the social roles, networks, and relationships of adolescents. Watch the recording on YouTube or review the slides.


1 Spence, S. H. (2003). Social skills training with children and young people: Theory, evidence and practice. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 8(2), 84-96. back to top

2 California Department of Education. (2016).California Infant/Toddler Learning and Development Foundations. back to top

3 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Understanding the impact of trauma. In TIP 57: Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services (3). back to top

4 Mendle, J., Turkheimer, E., & Emery, R. E. (2007). Detrimental psychological outcomes associated with early pubertal timing in adolescent girls. Developmental Review, 27(2), 151-171. back to top

5 Giedd, J. N. (2012). The digital revolution and adolescent brain evolution. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(2), 101-105. back to top

6 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Preventing Bullying. Washington, DC: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. back to top