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How to Recognize the Three Stages of Adolescence Every Child Experiences

Adolescence is a time of incredible physical and emotional changes when kids want to distinguish themselves from the parents who want to help.

The stages of adolescence begin with the onset of puberty; that liminal state where children develop sudden, ungainly growth (usually), and terrible odors (always). The stages of adolescence are filled with drastic physical, psychological, emotional, and social changes. A lot happens to kids in those years, and a lot happens to the parents trying to shepherd them.

“Although there are individual variations in the timeline for this growth, adolescence can generally be thought of in three phases with their own specific characteristics and tasks: early, middle, and late adolescence,” explains Dr. Leslie Kaplan, who specializes in adolescent and young adult medicine at the Calabasas Pediatrics Wellness Center in California.

Early Adolescence

“Early adolescence is a physically tumultuous time characterized by the onset of puberty,” explains Kaplan. It generally starts from 10 to 13 years of age, and possibly even earlier for girls. These physical changes include the appearance of body hair, the development of breasts for girls and larger genitals for boys, and the aforementioned terrible odors and growth spurts. In fact, this is the period of fastest human growth outside of infancy. So many changes at once – and gym class showers that make these changes obvious – often lead kids to become self-conscious and compare themselves to their peers.

This kind of self-centered thought is typical of the early adolescent developing brain. “They struggle with seeing an issue from someone else’s point of view or considering others’ feelings,” says Kaplan. This isn’t a character flaw; while they are more capable of abstract thought than before, their frontal cortexes are still developing. It can make them more susceptible to bad influences, though. “Young teens are not good at tasks requiring long-term planning and tend to engage in impulsive behaviors,” explains Kaplan. “[They] also begin the task of separation from their parents and family.”

“They have less interest in doing things with their parents and may start to rebuke parental adviceFriend groups become more important, and often quantity trumps quality when it comes to friends.”

Understanding the Stages of Adolescence

  • It’s more than physical – adolescence is a wildly transformative period that involves profound physical, psychological, emotional, and social growth.
  • It starts unexpectedly early – while adolescence starts with puberty, puberty itself can start before 10, and hormonal development can start as early as six or seven.  
  • It’s very personal – the specific stages of development vary from individual to individual. That variety in physical and emotional development can lead to self-consciousness and stress about identity.
  • They need to grow their own way – turning away from parents is a normal process, and this helps kids develop independent decision making. That doesn’t make it easy, though.
  • It ends unexpectedly late – brain development continues after physical maturity, and the prefrontal cortex (the source of good decision making, essentially) usually does not fully develop until the mid-twenties.

Middle Adolescence

Physical changes continue in middle adolescence, or approximately ages 14-16. Body composition and skeletal mass start to change, increasing lean body mass in males and decreasing it in females. In other words, boys start to “bulk up” and girls start to “fill out”.

The importance of friend groups that starts in early adolescence increases, to the chagrin of parents. “Conflicts with parents and caregivers are more prevalent, and teens spend increasingly more time with peers,” Kaplan says. “Social interactions expand to include romantic relationships and may lead to sexual experimentation and sexual activity.”

This can be a difficult time for parents and kids, because though middle adolescents can empathize, think and plan more abstractly than younger kids, they still have a child’s illusion of indestructibility. “This period is also characterized by feelings of omnipotence and immortality, leading to increased risk-taking,” clarifies Kaplan. “They are rewarded by social stimuli associated with peer groups and by taking exciting risks, and these rewards tend to outweigh logical thinking or delayed gratification.”

Late Adolescence

Late adolescence can span from ages 17 to 25 – well into adulthood, especially for males. Physically, many kids will be mature. But the brain is still developing the hallmarks of adulthood: the abilities to plan ahead, delay gratification, and compromise. “Full cognitive maturation continues into adulthood,” says Kaplan. “The prefrontal cortex does not develop until the mid-twenties.”

Since this stage coincides with the age of majority, teens have established their independence. Surprisingly, this makes them more likely to ask parents’ advice. “Peer groups become less important as a way of defining their identities,” explains Kaplan. That might be a comfort for parents who have watched their child distance themselves throughout adolescence, on the journey to adulthood. It’s a bittersweet irony that raising a successful adult means losing that adoring childhood dependence.