What is identity and social development like in adolescence?

2 people sitting together on the grass looking at their laptopsAdolescence is a period of personal and social identity formation, in which different roles, behaviors, and ideologies are explored. In the United States, adolescence is seen as a time to develop independence from parents while remaining connected to them. Some key points related to social development during adolescence include the following:

  • Adolescence is the period of life known for the formation of personal and social identity.
  • Adolescents must explore, test limits, become autonomous, and commit to an identity, or sense of self.
  • Erik Erikson referred to the task of the adolescent as one of identity versus role confusion. Thus, in Erikson’s view, an adolescent’s main questions are “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?”
  • Early in adolescence, cognitive developments result in greater self-awareness, the ability to think about abstract, future possibilities, and the ability to consider multiple possibilities and identities at once.
  • Changes in the levels of certain neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and serotonin) influence the way in which adolescents experience emotions, typically making them more emotional and more sensitive to stress.
  • When adolescents have advanced cognitive development and maturity, they tend to resolve identity issues more easily than peers who are less cognitively developed.
  • As adolescents work to form their identities, they pull away from their parents, and the peer group becomes very important; despite this, relationships with parents still play a significant role in identity formation.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe changes in self-concept and identity development during adolescence
  • Explain Marcia’s four identity statuses
  • Examine changes in family relationships during adolescence
  • Describe adolescent friendships and dating relationships as they apply to development
  • Explain the role that aggression, anxiety, and depression play in adolescent development

Identity Formation

Psychosocial Development

Identity Development

Young teenagers, most wearing school uniforms, smiling outside.
Figure 10. Adolescents simultaneously struggle to fit in with their peers and to form their own unique identities.

Identity development is a stage in the adolescent life cycle. For most, the search for identity begins in the adolescent years. During these years, adolescents are more open to ‘trying on’ different behaviors and appearances to discover who they are. In an attempt to find their identity and discover who they are, adolescents are likely to cycle through a number of identities to find one that suits them best. Developing and maintaining identity (in adolescent years) is a difficult task due to multiple factors such as family life, environment, and social status. Empirical studies suggest that this process might be more accurately described as identity development, rather than formation, but confirms a normative process of change in both content and structure of one’s thoughts about the self.


Two main aspects of identity development are self-concept and self-esteem. The idea of self-concept is the ability of a person to have opinions and beliefs that are defined confidently, consistently, and with stability. Early in adolescence, cognitive developments result in greater self-awareness, awareness of others and their thoughts and judgments, the ability to think about abstract, future possibilities, and the ability to consider multiple possibilities at once. As a result, adolescents experience a significant shift from the simple, concrete, and global self-descriptions typical of young children: as children, they defined themselves by physical traits whereas adolescents define themselves based on their values, thoughts, and opinions.

Adolescents can conceptualize multiple “possible selves” that they could become and the long-term possibilities and consequences of their choices. Exploring these possibilities may result in abrupt changes in self-presentation as the adolescent chooses or rejects qualities and behaviors, trying to guide the actual self toward the ideal self (who the adolescent wishes to be) and away from the feared self (who the adolescent does not want to be). For many, these distinctions are uncomfortable, but they also appear to motivate achievement through behavior consistent with the ideal and distinct from the feared possible selves.

Further distinctions in self-concept, called “differentiation,” occur as the adolescent recognizes the contextual influences on their own behavior and the perceptions of others, and begin to qualify their traits when asked to describe themselves. Differentiation appears fully developed by mid-adolescence. Peaking in the 7th-9th grades, the personality traits adolescents use to describe themselves refer to specific contexts, and therefore may contradict one another. The recognition of inconsistent content in the self-concept is a common source of distress in these years, but this distress may benefit adolescents by encouraging structural development.


Another aspect of identity formation is self-esteem. Self-esteem is defined as one’s thoughts and feelings about one’s self-concept and identity. Most theories on self-esteem state that there is a grand desire, across all genders and ages, to maintain, protect, and enhance their self-esteem. Contrary to popular belief, self-esteem does not appear to drop over the course of adolescence, it remains steady, and increases at around 15 through adulthood (Orth & Robins, 2019). Some studies found a drop in self-esteem from the exaggerated views in early childhood, to more realistic portrayals in middle childhood, and to the dramatic physical, cognitive, and social changes in puberty. However, a meta-analysis of longitudinal research did not find any drop. Individual adolescents don’t always follow the averages, and their unique paths may experience declines “due to pubertal changes, conflicts with parents, and mood disruptions in this developmental period” (Orth et al., 2018, p. 1063).

Moment-by moment (or “barometric”) self-esteem fluctuates rapidly and can cause severe distress and anxiety, but baseline self-esteem remains highly stable across adolescence. The validity of global self-esteem scales has been questioned, and many suggest that more specific scales might reveal more about the adolescent experience. Girls are most likely to enjoy high self-esteem when engaged in supportive relationships with friends. The most important function of friendship for females is having someone who can provide social and moral support. When they fail to win friends’ approval or can’t find someone with whom to share common activities and common interests, girls suffer from low self-esteem.

In contrast, boys are more concerned with establishing and asserting their independence and defining their relation to authority. As such, they are more likely to derive high self-esteem from their ability to successfully influence their friends; on the other hand, the lack of romantic competence, for example, failure to win or maintain the affection of the opposite or same-sex (depending on sexual orientation), is the major contributor to low self-esteem in adolescent boys.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Development: Identity vs. Role Confusion

Table 2. Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development
Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions

Adolescents continue to refine their sense of self as they relate to others. Erik Erikson referred to life’s fifth psychosocial task as one of identity versus role confusion when adolescents must work through the complexities of finding one’s own identity. Individuals are influenced by how they resolved all of the previous childhood psychosocial crises and this adolescent stage is a bridge between the past and the future, between childhood and adulthood. Thus, in Erikson’s view, an adolescent’s main questions are “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” Identity formation was highlighted as the primary indicator of successful development during adolescence (in contrast to role confusion, which would be an indicator of not successfully meeting the task of adolescence). This crisis is resolved positively with identity achievement and the gain of fidelity (ability to be faithful) as a new virtue when adolescents have reconsidered the goals and values of their parents and culture. Some adolescents adopt the values and roles that their parents expect for them. Other teens develop identities that are in opposition to their parents but align with a peer group. This is common as peer relationships become a central focus in adolescents’ lives.

Along the way, most adolescents try on many different selves to see which ones fit; they explore various roles and ideas, set goals, and attempt to discover their adult selves. Adolescents who are successful at this stage have a strong sense of identity and are able to remain true to their beliefs and values in the face of problems and other people’s perspectives. When adolescents are apathetic, do not make a conscious search for identity, or are pressured to conform to their parents’ ideas for the future, they may develop a weak sense of self and experience role confusion. They will be unsure of their identity and confused about the future. Teenagers who struggle to adopt a positive role will likely struggle to find themselves as adults.

Identity Formation: Who am I?

Expanding on Erikson’s theory, Marcia (1966) described identity formation during adolescence as involving both decision points and commitments with respect to ideologies (e.g., religion, politics) and occupations. Foreclosure occurs when an individual commits to an identity without exploring options. Identity confusion/diffusion occurs when adolescents neither explore nor commit to any identities. Moratorium is a state in which adolescents are actively exploring options but have not yet made commitments. As mentioned earlier, individuals who have explored different options, discovered their purpose, and have made identity commitments are in a state of identity achievement.

Developmental psychologists have researched several different areas of identity development and some of the main areas include:

  • Religious identity: The religious views of teens are often similar to those of their families (Kim-Spoon, Longo, & McCullough, 2012). Most teens may question specific customs, practices, or ideas in the faith of their parents, but few completely reject the religion of their families.
  • Political identity: An adolescent’s political identity is also influenced by their parents’ political beliefs. A new trend in the 21st century is a decrease in party affiliation among adults. Many adults do not align themselves with either the democratic or republican party and their teenage children reflect their parents’ lack of party affiliation. Although adolescents do tend to be more liberal than their elders, especially on social issues (Taylor, 2014), like other aspects of identity formation, adolescents’ interest in politics is predicted by their parents’ involvement and by current events (Stattin et al., 2017).
  • Vocational identity: While adolescents in earlier generations envisioned themselves as working in a particular job, and often worked as an apprentice or part-time in such occupations as teenagers, this is rarely the case today. Vocational identity takes longer to develop, as most of today’s occupations require specific skills and knowledge that will require additional education or are acquired on the job itself. In addition, many of the jobs held by teens are not in occupations that most teens will seek as adults.
    Identity spectrum showing a continuum between female and male for sex, another continuum for gender identity between woman and man, a continuum for gender expression, and another continuum for sexual orientation.
    Figure 11. This identity spectrum shows the fluidity between sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
  • Ethnic identity: Ethnic identity refers to how people come to terms with who they are based on their ethnic or racial ancestry. According to the U.S. Census (2012) more than 40% of Americans under the age of 18 are from ethnic minorities. For many ethnic minority teens, discovering one’s ethnic identity is an important part of identity formation. Phinney (1989) proposed a model of ethnic identity development that included stages of unexplored ethnic identity, ethnic identity search, and achieved ethnic identity.
  • Gender identity: A person’s sex, as determined by his or her biology, does not always correspond with his or her gender. Sex refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences. Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships between groups of women and men. Many adolescents use their analytic, hypothetical thinking to question traditional gender roles and expression. If their genetically assigned sex does not line up with their gender identity, they may refer to themselves as transgender, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming.
    • Gender identity refers to a person’s self-perception as male, female, both, genderqueer, or neither. Cisgender is an umbrella term used to describe people whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex, while transgender is a term used to describe people whose sense of personal identity does not correspond with their birth sex. Gender expression, or how one demonstrates gender (based on traditional gender role norms related to clothing, behavior, and interactions) can be feminine, masculine, androgynous, or somewhere along a spectrum.
    • Fluidity and uncertainty regarding sex and gender are especially common during early adolescence when hormones increase and fluctuate creating difficulty of self-acceptance and identity achievement (Reisner et al., 2016). Gender identity, like vocational identity, is becoming an increasingly prolonged task as attitudes and norms regarding gender keep changing. The roles appropriate for males and females are evolving and some adolescents may foreclose on a gender identity as a way of dealing with this uncertainty by adopting more stereotypic male or female roles (Sinclair & Carlsson, 2013). Those that identify as transgender may face even bigger challenges.

Gender Identity and Transgender Individuals

Individuals who identify with a role that is different from their biological sex are called transgender. Approximately 1.4 million U.S. adults or .6 percent of the population are transgender according to a 2016 report.

Transgender individuals may choose to alter their bodies through medical interventions such as surgery and hormonal therapy so that their physical being is better aligned with gender identity. Not all transgender individuals choose to alter their bodies; many will maintain their original anatomy but may present themselves to society as another gender. This is typically done by adopting the dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, or other characteristics typically assigned to another gender. It is important to note that people who cross-dress or wear clothing that is traditionally assigned to a different gender is not the same as identifying as trans. Cross-dressing is typically a form of self-expression, entertainment, or personal style, and it is not necessarily an expression against one’s assigned gender (APA 2008).

After years of controversy over the treatment of sex and gender in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (Drescher 2010), the most recent edition, DSM-5, responds to allegations that the term “gender identity disorder” is stigmatizing by replacing it with “gender dysphoria.” Gender identity disorder as a diagnostic category stigmatized the patient by implying there was something “disordered” about them. Gender dysphoria, on the other hand, removes some of that stigma by taking the word “disorder” out while maintaining a category that will protect patient access to care, including hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. In the DSM-5, gender dysphoria is a condition of people whose gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with. For a person to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, there must be a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months. In children, the desire to be of the other gender must be present and verbalized (APA 2013).

Changing the clinical description may contribute to a larger acceptance of transgender people in society. A 2017 poll showed that 54 percent of Americans believe gender is determined by sex at birth and 32 percent say society has “gone too far” in accepting transgender people; views are sharply divided along political and religious lines.

Studies show that people who identify as transgender are twice as likely to experience assault or discrimination as non-transgender individuals; they are also one and a half times more likely to experience intimidation (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 2010; Giovanniello 2013). Trans women of color are most likely be to victims of abuse. A practice called “deadnaming” by the American Civil Liberties Union, whereby trans people who are murdered are referred to by their birth name and gender is a discriminatory tool that effectively erases a person’s trans identity and also prevents investigations into their deaths and knowledge of their deaths. Organizations such as the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs and Global Action for Trans Equality work to prevent, respond to, and end all types of violence against transgender and homosexual individuals. These organizations hope that by educating the public about gender identity and empowering transgender individuals, this violence will end.

Freud’s Psychosexual Development: The Genital Stage

Table 3. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development
Stage Age (years) Erogenous Zone Major Conflict Adult Fixation Example
Oral 0–1 Mouth Weaning off breast or bottle Smoking, overeating
Anal 1–3 Anus Toilet training Neatness, messiness
Phallic 3–6 Genitals Oedipus/Electra complex Vanity, overambition
Latency 6–12 None None None
Genital 12+ Genitals None None

According to Freud’s psychosexual theory, the final stage is referred to as the genital stage. From adolescence throughout adulthood, a person is preoccupied with sex and reproduction. The adolescent experiences rising hormone levels and the sex drive and hunger drives become very strong. Ideally, the adolescent will rely on the ego to help think logically through these urges without taking actions that might be damaging. An adolescent might learn to redirect their sexual urges into a safer activity such as running, for example. Quieting the id with the superego can lead to feeling overly self-conscious and guilty about these urges. Hopefully, it is the ego that is strengthened during this stage and the adolescent uses reason to manage urges. According to Freud, the genital stage is similar to the phallic stage, in that its main concern is the genitalia; however, this concern is now conscious. The genital stage comes about when the sexual and aggressive drives have returned, but the source of sexual pleasure expands outside of the mother and father (as in the Oedipus or Electra complex).

During the genital stage, the ego and superego have become more developed. This allows the individual to have a more realistic way of thinking and to establish an assortment of social relations apart from the family. The genital stage is the last stage and is considered the highest level of maturity. In this stage, a person’s concern shifts from primary-drive gratification (instinct) to applying secondary process-thinking to gratify desire symbolically and intellectually by means of friendships, intimate relationships, and family and adult responsibilities.

Social Development during Adolescence


It appears that most teens do not experience adolescent “storm and stress” to the degree once famously suggested by G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the study of adolescent development. Only small numbers of teens have major conflicts with their parents (Steinberg & Morris, 2001), and most disagreements are minor. For example, in a study of over 1,800 parents of adolescents from various cultural and ethnic groups, Barber (1994) found that conflicts occurred over day-to-day issues such as homework, money, curfews, clothing, chores, and friends. These disputes occur because an adolescent’s drive for independence and autonomy conflicts with the parent’s supervision and control. These types of arguments tend to decrease as teens develop (Galambos & Almeida, 1992).

As adolescents work to form their identities, they pull away from their parents, and the peer group becomes very important (Shanahan et al., 2007). Despite spending less time with their parents, most teens report positive feelings toward them (Moore et al., 2004). Warm and healthy parent-child relationships have been associated with positive child outcomes, such as better grades and fewer school behavior problems, in the United States as well as in other countries (Hair et al., 2005).

Although peers take on greater importance during adolescence, family relationships remain important too. One of the key changes during adolescence involves a renegotiation of parent-child relationships. As adolescents strive for more independence and autonomy during this time, different aspects of parenting become more salient. For example, parents’ distal supervision and monitoring become more important as adolescents spend more time away from parents and in the presence of peers. Parental monitoring encompasses a wide range of behaviors such as parents’ attempts to set rules and know their adolescents’ friends, activities, and whereabouts, in addition to adolescents’ willingness to disclose information to their parents. (Stattin & Kerr, 2000). Psychological control, which involves manipulation and intrusion into adolescents’ emotional and cognitive world through invalidating adolescents’ feelings and pressuring them to think in particular ways is another aspect of parenting that becomes more salient during adolescence and is related to more problematic adolescent adjustment.


Two groups of teenage girls, most of whom are wearing head scarves, sitting and chatting on some steps.
Figure 12. Crowds refer to different collections of people, like the “theater kids” or the “environmentalists.” In a way, they are kind of like clothing brands that label the people associated with that crowd. [Image: Garry Knight]

As children become adolescents, they usually begin spending more time with their peers and less time with their families, and these peer interactions are increasingly unsupervised by adults. Children’s notions of friendship often focus on shared activities, whereas adolescents’ notions of friendship increasingly focus on intimate exchanges of thoughts and feelings.

During adolescence, peer groups evolve from primarily single-sex to mixed-sex. Adolescents within a peer group tend to be similar to one another in behavior and attitudes, which has been explained as being a function of homophily (adolescents who are similar to one another choose to spend time together in a “birds of a feather flock together” way) and influence (adolescents who spend time together shape each other’s behavior and attitudes). Peer pressure is usually depicted as peers pushing a teenager to do something that adults disapprove of, such as breaking laws or using drugs. One of the most widely studied aspects of adolescent peer influence is known as deviant peer contagion (Dishion & Tipsord, 2011), which is the process by which peers reinforce problem behavior by laughing or showing other signs of approval that then increase the likelihood of future problem behavior. Although deviant peer contagion is more extreme, regular peer pressure is not always harmful. Peers can serve both positive and negative functions during adolescence. Negative peer pressure can lead adolescents to make riskier decisions or engage in more problematic behavior than they would alone or in the presence of their family. For example, adolescents are much more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs, and commit crimes when they are with their friends than when they are alone or with their family. However, peers also serve as an important source of social support and companionship during adolescence, and adolescents with positive peer relationships are happier and better adjusted than those who are socially isolated or who have conflictual peer relationships.

Crowds are an emerging level of peer relationships in adolescence. In contrast to friendships (which are reciprocal dyadic relationships) and cliques (which refer to groups of individuals who interact frequently), crowds are characterized more by shared reputations or images than actual interactions (Brown & Larson, 2009). These crowds reflect different prototypic identities (such as jocks or brains) and are often linked with adolescents’ social status and peers’ perceptions of their values or behaviors.

Link to Learning: Gender Roles

It is interesting to note that even in today’s progressive social climate and with advances in gender equality, there are still considerable differences in the ways teenage boys and girls spend their time, as shown in 2019 research by the Pew Research Center. During the school year, teenage boys spend an average of 24 minutes a day helping around the house and 12 minutes preparing food, while teenage girls spend an average of 38 minutes a day helping around the house and 29 minutes preparing food. Both boys and girls spend more equal amounts of time on maintenance chores and lawn care. Girls also spend an average of 23 more minutes on grooming each day, which is perhaps explained by the fact that 35% of girls say they feel pressure to look good (compared with 23% of boys). Read the article “The Way U.S. Teens Spend Their Time is Changing, but Differences Between Boys and Girls Persist” to learn more.

Romantic Relationships

Adolescence is the developmental period during which romantic relationships typically first emerge. Initially, same-sex peer groups that were common during childhood expand into mixed-sex peer groups that are more characteristic of adolescence. Romantic relationships often form in the context of these mixed-sex peer groups (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000). Although romantic relationships during adolescence are often short-lived rather than long-term committed partnerships, their importance should not be minimized. Adolescents spend a great deal of time focused on romantic relationships, and their positive and negative emotions are more tied to romantic relationships (or lack thereof) than to friendships, family relationships, or school (Furman & Shaffer, 2003). Romantic relationships contribute to adolescents’ identity formation, changes in family and peer relationships, and adolescents’ emotional and behavioral adjustment.

Furthermore, romantic relationships are centrally connected to adolescents’ emerging sexuality. Parents, policymakers, and researchers have devoted a great deal of attention to adolescents’ sexuality, in large part because of concerns related to sexual intercourse, contraception, and preventing teen pregnancies. However, sexuality involves more than this narrow focus. Sexual orientation refers to whether a person is sexually and romantically attracted to others of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. For example, adolescence is often when individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender come to perceive themselves as such (Russell, Clarke, & Clary, 2009). Thus, romantic relationships are a domain in which adolescents experiment with new behaviors and identities.

Many adolescents may choose to come out during this period of their life once an identity has been formed; many others may go through a period of questioning or denial, which can include experimentation with both homosexual and heterosexual experiences. A study of 194 lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths under the age of 21 found that having an awareness of one’s sexual orientation occurred, on average, around age 10, but the process of coming out to peers and adults occurred around age 16 and 17, respectively. Coming to terms with and creating a positive LGBT identity can be difficult for some youth for a variety of reasons. Peer pressure is a large factor when youth who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity are surrounded by heteronormative peers and can cause great distress due to a feeling of being different from everyone else. While coming out can also foster better psychological adjustment, the risks associated are real. Indeed, coming out in the midst of a heteronormative peer environment often comes with the risk of ostracism, hurtful jokes, and even violence. Because of this, statistically, the suicide rate amongst LGBT adolescents is up to four times higher than that of their heterosexual peers due to bullying and rejection from peers or family members.

DIG DEEPER: Stress and Discrimination

Being the recipient of prejudice and discrimination is associated with a number of negative outcomes. Many studies have shown how perceived discrimination is a significant stressor for marginalized groups (Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009). Discrimination negatively impacts both the physical and mental health of individuals in stigmatized groups. As you’ll learn when you study social psychology, various social identities (such as gender, age, religion, sexuality, ethnicity) often lead people to simultaneously be exposed to multiple forms of discrimination, which can have even stronger negative effects on mental and physical health (Vines, Ward, Cordoba, & Black, 2017). For example, the amplified levels of discrimination faced by Latinx transgender women may have related effects, leading to high-stress levels and poor mental and physical health outcomes.

Perceived control and the general adaptation syndrome help explain the process by which discrimination affects mental and physical health. Discrimination can be conceptualized as an uncontrollable, persistent, and unpredictable stressor. When a discriminatory event occurs, the target of the event initially experiences an acute stress response (alarm stage). This acute reaction alone does not typically have a great impact on health. However, discrimination tends to be a chronic stressor. As people in marginalized groups experience repeated discrimination, they develop a heightened reactivity as their bodies prepare to act quickly (resistance stage). This long-term accumulation of stress responses can eventually lead to increases in negative emotion and wear on physical health (exhaustion stage). This explains why a history of perceived discrimination is associated with a host of mental and physical health problems including depression, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009).

Protecting stigmatized groups from the negative impact of discrimination-induced stress may involve reducing the incidence of discriminatory behaviors in conjunction with protective strategies that reduce the impact of discriminatory events when they occur. Civil rights legislation has protected some stigmatized groups by making discrimination a prosecutable offense in many social contexts. However, some groups (e.g., transgender people) often lack important legal recourse when discrimination occurs. Moreover, most modern discrimination comes in subtle forms that fall below the radar of the law. For example, discrimination may be experienced as selective inhospitality that the target perceives as race-based discrimination, but little is done in response since it would be easy to attribute the behavior to other causes. Although some cultural changes are increasingly helping people to recognize and control subtle discrimination, such shifts may take a long time.

Similar to other stressors, buffers like social support and healthy coping strategies appear to be effective in lowering the impact of perceived discrimination. For example, one study (Ajrouch, Reisine, Lim, Sohn, & Ismail, 2010) showed that discrimination predicted high psychological distress among African American mothers living in Detroit. However, the women who had readily available emotional support from friends and family experienced less distress than those with fewer social resources. While coping strategies and social support may buffer the effects of discrimination, they fail to erase all of the negative impacts. Vigilant anti-discrimination efforts, including the development of legal protections for vulnerable groups, are needed to reduce discrimination, stress, and the resulting physical and mental health effects.


Adolescent development does not necessarily follow the same pathway for all individuals. Certain features of adolescence, particularly with respect to biological changes associated with puberty and cognitive changes associated with brain development, are relatively universal. But other features of adolescence depend largely on circumstances that are more environmentally variable. For example, adolescents growing up in one country might have different opportunities for risk-taking than adolescents in another country, and supports and sanctions for different behaviors in adolescence depend on laws and values that might be specific to where adolescents live. Likewise, different cultural norms regarding family and peer relationships shape adolescents’ experiences in these domains. For example, in some countries, adolescents’ parents are expected to retain control over major decisions, whereas, in other countries, adolescents are expected to begin sharing in or taking control of decision making.

Even within the same country, adolescents’ gender, ethnicity, immigrant status, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and personality can shape both how adolescents behave and how others respond to them, creating diverse developmental contexts for different adolescents. For example, early puberty (that occurs before most other peers have experienced puberty) appears to be associated with worse outcomes for girls than boys, likely in part because girls who enter puberty early tend to associate with older boys, which in turn is associated with early sexual behavior and substance use. For adolescents who are ethnic or sexual minorities, discrimination sometimes presents a set of challenges that non-minorities do not face.

Finally, genetic variations contribute an additional source of diversity in adolescence. Current approaches emphasize gene X environment interactions, which often follow a differential susceptibility model (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). That is, particular genetic variations are considered riskier than others, but genetic variations also can make adolescents more or less susceptible to environmental factors. For example, the association between the CHRM2 genotype and adolescent externalizing behavior (aggression and delinquency) has been found in adolescents whose parents are low in monitoring behaviors (Dick et al., 2011). Thus, it is important to bear in mind that individual differences play an important role in adolescent development.

Behavioral and Psychological Adjustment

Young teenager holding his fists out ready to punch the photographer.
Figure 13. Early antisocial behavior leads to befriending others who also engage in antisocial behavior, which only perpetuates the downward cycle of aggression and wrongful acts. [Image: Philippe Put]

Aggression and Antisocial Behavior

Several major theories of the development of antisocial behavior treat adolescence as an important period. Patterson’s (1982) nearly versus late starter model of the development of aggressive and antisocial behavior distinguishes youths whose antisocial behavior begins during childhood (early starters) versus adolescence (late starters). According to the theory, early starters are at greater risk for long-term antisocial behavior that extends into adulthood than are late starters. Late starters who become antisocial during adolescence are theorized to experience poor parental monitoring and supervision, aspects of parenting that become more salient during adolescence. Poor monitoring and lack of supervision contribute to increasing involvement with deviant peers, which in turn promotes adolescents’ own antisocial behavior. Late starters desist from antisocial behavior when changes in the environment make other options more appealing.

Similarly, Moffitt’s (1993) life-course persistent versus adolescent-limited model distinguishes between antisocial behavior that begins in childhood versus adolescence. Moffitt regards adolescent-limited antisocial behavior as resulting from a “maturity gap” between adolescents’ dependence on and control by adults and their desire to demonstrate their freedom from adult constraint. However, as they continue to develop, and legitimate adult roles and privileges become available to them, there are fewer incentives to engage in antisocial behavior, leading to resistance in these antisocial behaviors.

Anxiety and Depression

Developmental models of anxiety and depression also treat adolescence as an important period, especially in terms of the emergence of gender differences in prevalence rates that persist through adulthood (Rudolph, 2009). Starting in early adolescence, compared with males, females have rates of anxiety that are about twice as high and rates of depression that are 1.5 to 3 times as high (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Although the rates vary across specific anxiety and depression diagnoses, rates for some disorders are markedly higher in adolescence than in childhood or adulthood. For example, prevalence rates for specific phobias are about 5% in children and 3%–5% in adults but 16% in adolescents. Additionally, some adolescents sink into a major depression, a deep sadness, and hopelessness that disrupts all normal, regular activities. Causes include many factors such as genetics and early childhood experiences that predate adolescence, but puberty may push vulnerable children, especially girls into despair.

During puberty, the rate of major depression more than doubles to an estimated 15%, affecting about one in five girls and one in ten boys. The gender difference occurs for many reasons, biological and cultural (Uddin et al., 2010). Anxiety and depression are particularly concerning because suicide is one of the leading causes of death during adolescence. Some adolescents experience suicidal ideation (distressing thoughts about killing oneself) which becomes most common at about age 15 (Berger, 2019) and can lead to parasuicide, also called attempted suicide or failed suicide. Suicidal ideation and parasuicide should be taken seriously and serve as a warning that emotions may be overwhelming.

Developmental models focus on interpersonal contexts in both childhood and adolescence that foster depression and anxiety (e.g., Rudolph, 2009). Family adversity, such as abuse and parental psychopathology, during childhood, sets the stage for social and behavioral problems during adolescence. Adolescents with such problems generate stress in their relationships (e.g., by resolving conflict poorly and excessively seeking reassurance) and select into more maladaptive social contexts (e.g., “misery loves company” scenarios in which depressed youths select other depressed youths as friends and then frequently co-ruminate as they discuss their problems, exacerbating negative affect and stress). These processes are intensified for girls compared with boys because girls have more relationship-oriented goals related to intimacy and social approval, leaving them more vulnerable to disruption in these relationships. Anxiety and depression then exacerbate problems in social relationships, which in turn contribute to the stability of anxiety and depression over time.A group of people facing the sunrise with their arms in the air


Adolescent development is characterized by significant biological, cognitive, and psychosocial changes. Physical changes associated with puberty are triggered by hormones and changes in the brain in which reward-processing centers develop more rapidly than cognitive control systems, making adolescents more sensitive to rewards than to possible negative consequences. Cognitive changes include improvements in complex and abstract thought and moral reasoning. Psychosocial changes are particularly notable as adolescents become more autonomous from their parents, spend more time with peers, and begin exploring romantic relationships and sexuality.

Adjustment during adolescence is reflected in identity formation, which often involves a period of exploration followed by commitments to particular identities. Adolescents’ relationships with parents go through a period of redefinition in which adolescents become more autonomous, and aspects of parenting, such as monitoring and psychological control, become more salient. Peer relationships are important sources of support and companionship during adolescence, yet can also promote problem behaviors. Same-sex peer groups evolve into mixed-sex peer groups, and adolescents’ romantic relationships tend to emerge from these groups. Identity formation occurs as adolescents explore and commit to different roles and ideological positions. Despite these generalizations, factors such as country of residence, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation shape development in ways that lead to a diversity of experiences across adolescence.

Additional Supplemental Resources


  • The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know

    • As you learn about brain development during adolescence, consider these six facts from the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • National Sleep Foundation 
    • As research reveals the importance of sleep for teenagers, many people advocate for later high school start times. Read about some of the research at the National Sleep Foundation on school start times.
  • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) 
    • Visit the National Eating Disorders Association to learn more about eating disorders.
  • Sexual Risk Behaviors Can Lead to HIV, STDs, & Teen Pregnancy 
    • Visit the CDC website to learn more about sexual behavior in adolescence.
  • Center for Parent and Teen Communication
    • Parenting has the largest impact on adolescent moral development. Read more here in this article, “Building Character: Moral Development in Adolescence”
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’re committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide prevention by empowering individuals, advancing professional best practices, and building awareness. 1-800-273-8255


  • Why Schools Should Start Later for Teens- TEDx 
    • Teens don’t get enough sleep, and it’s not because of Snapchat, social lives, or hormones — it’s because of public policy, says Wendy Troxel. Drawing from her experience as a sleep researcher, clinician, and mother of a teenager, Troxel discusses how early school start times deprive adolescents of sleep during the time of their lives when they need it most.
  • Formal operational stage
    • This video summarizes Piaget’s stage of Formal Operations.
  • Crash Course Video #20 – Adolescence
    • This video on adolescence includes information on topics such as Erikson’s stages and fluid and crystallized intelligence. Closed captioning available.
  • Let’s Talk About Sex: Crash Course Psychology #27 
    • Sex is complicated for different reasons in different cultures. But, it’s the entire purpose of life, so there’s no reason to blush. In this episode of Crash Course Psychology, Hank talks about Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, Sexuality, Gender Identity, Hormones, and even looks into the idea of why we have sex. There’s a lot to go through here.
  • James Marcia’s Ego Identity Statuses Explained 
    • Marcia’s identity statuses: Diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement
  • The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain: TED talk
    • Why do teenagers seem so much more impulsive, so much less self-aware than grown-ups? Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore compares the prefrontal cortex in adolescents to that of adults, to show us how typically “teenage” behavior is caused by the growing and developing brain.
  • Piaget – Stage 4 – Formal – Deductive Reasoning 
    • Which child is still in the concrete operational stage and which has moved to the formal operations stage?


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Human Growth and Development Copyright © 2022 by Ryan Newton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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