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Developmental Psychology 101: Development in Adolescence


The Developmental Psychology 101 series addresses the theories, periods, and implications of development in human life from conception all the way through to the stage of adolescence. Developmental psychology is a field that is studied by psychology students and academic researchers; its purpose is to understand individuals based on the biological and psychological changes they experience throughout their lifespan. Development is defined as modifications that momentarily or permanently change an organism in the journey from conception to death (Cole et al., 2005). This 101 series of articles will refer to development from a psychological perspective, discussing its social, emotional, cognitive, and physical areas. Moreover, the debate of nature versus nurture will be discussed in the development of the following four stages of life: prenatal period, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.

The Developmental Psychology 101 series is divided into six chapters:

6. Developmental Psychology 101: Development in Adolescence

Developmental Psychology 101: Development in Adolescence

This 101 series has finally reached the most turbulent stage of development, adolescence, which is the phase between childhood and adulthood, that begins around the age of 10 and ends around the age of 18. The focus falls not only on the nurturing given by parents but also on other adults, role models, teachers, classmates, friends, and even enemies in the life of an adolescent. Beginning with the changes from puberty, the dramatic freedom of teenagers everywhere comes with challenges in finding one’s identity, establishing social roles, and choosing a future life path. Nature influences these changes that develop into attitudes, individual characteristics, and personal choices. However, this paper will discuss how nurture is the most important factor in development, as adolescence comes with social statuses and role conflicts, as well as influences from others in the development of an adolescent.

Figure 1: A teenager's social life is most influential in development (Calën, n.d.)

Stanley G. Hall (1904) was a major figure in shaping developmental psychology, mostly in understanding the tumultuous emotions teenagers feel as well as the biological effects on the development of personality. Hall calls adolescence a time of storm, stress, and raging hormones, an idea that is present everywhere in the media even today. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, places great importance on adolescence, as this is the life stage in which humans receive the capacity to fulfill the biological imperative of reproduction (Freud, 1953). Adolescence, in Freud’s theory, represents the final stage of psychosexual development, the genital stage. Freud believed that the storm that Hall was talking about comes from the inner conflict generated by the id, the ego, and the superego. In Freud's theory, these three parts represent instincts, known as the primitive id; the self, known as the ego; and morals and values, known as the superego. Taking into consideration the fact that, biologically, adolescence is the time in which sexual development begins to form, the psychoanalyst sees a conflict between the id, that wishes to reproduce, and the superego, that has learned what is socially acceptable and moral. This is a conflict which needs to be settled by the ego, which is supposed to find the best way to compromise between the two (Freud, 1953). The family unit is the most important factor in this journey to finding one’s sexual identity that starts in the genital stage. The support and encouragement of the caregivers given and maintained in a safe environment significantly improve the teenage experience with love and sex that becomes wished-for soon after puberty emerges.

Puberty is the first stage of adolescence that begins after the first decade of life and ends around the age of 14. Puberty is defined by the series of biological developments that transform the immature human body into a mature body that can sexually reproduce. The growth sprout is one of the main characteristics of puberty, and it represents the period in which the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland to produce more growth hormones; thus, the height and weight of the body grow considerably during this stage (Traggiai & Stanhope, 2003). During puberty, the primary sex characteristics, or the reproductive organs or gonads, develop first. Following this change, the secondary sex characteristics emerge, further separating the male sex from the female sex with characteristics such as facial hair and breast growth respectively (Cole et al., 2005, p. 514). Most of the changes that are observed during puberty occur thanks to two hormones: estradiol, which is an estrogen, and testosterone, which is an androgen. These two sex hormones travel through the bloodstream announcing to the body that it has to mature, directly contributing to sex differences in the brain’s neural pathways (Cole et al., 2005, p. 521). One of the most important aspects of physical development is the major changes that occur in the brain. The prefrontal cortex starts developing, helping the individual to control and regulate thoughts, emotions, feelings, behaviors, and impulses (Luciana, 2010). Moreover, the emotional brain, or the limbic system, further expands, contributing to how individual experiences are perceived and shaping the brain’s capacity to adapt (Lenroot & Giedd, 2011). This is the stage in which the relationship with one’s body is formed and highly influenced by day-to-day life examples as well as social media. In adolescence, teenagers can develop eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia and feel more self-conscious about their looks. They are also focused on improving their social image (Cole et al., 2005, p. 589-590).

Figure 2: Physical development and sexual identity division (Degas, Puberty to adolescence, 1860)

In the area of cognitive development, Jean Piaget (2008), the writer of the cognitive development theory, affirms that adolescence is the stage of formal operations. This stage in cognitive development helps humans to solve problems systematically using logical relations. Furthermore, in this stage, abstract thinking is acquired, moving from operating with symbols to being able to create symbols and understand the world through one’s own filter designed by their own personal experiences (Piaget & Inhelder, 2008). Information-processing approaches emphasize that the development of systemic thinking increases the working memory’s capacity, making the problem-solving process more reliable (Markovits & Lortie-Forgues, 2011). Together with cognitive development, moral thinking emerges, and it involves formal operations in order to think simultaneously about the different variables that can lead to moral choices (Kohlberg, 1984). The most influential factor in moral development is the social aspect, in which the teenager follows the guidance of the caregivers and other people that are considered role models or knowledgeable in different aspects of life. This leads to prosocial reasoning which encourages moral behavior. The importance of developing this moral behavior is facilitated by the awareness that one should not harm another, thus further promoting a stable life in which adolescents grow to become individuals that do not engage in anti-social actions, such as harassment or stealing. This further emphasizes nurture’s role in adolescence development (Cole et al., 2005, p. 549).

Cognitive development further aids the journey of identity creation. As Erik Erikson, one of the most known developmental psychologists, postulates, adolescence is the period of identity formation or role confusion (Eagle, 1997). Erikson sums up identity in three aspects: a sense of self-continuity, uniqueness in relation to others, and psychosocial development that ensures healthy cognitive and physical development. The question 'who am I?' is answered throughout one's whole life, as it implies a philosophical aspect of existence. The continuity of the self, however, is an aspect that keeps this answer constant, thus offering the individual a cohesion of personality as well as stability of self-identification. The uniqueness in relation to others aspect of identity is first seen in toddlerhood, as egocentrism is developed in order for the individual to understand they are different from those around them. This characteristic of development remains consistent, as from the understanding of inter-individual diversity, one's identity is formed by comparison to "the other". Role confusion sparks uncertainty about one’s identity and place in society, which creates confusion and other negative emotions that need to be regulated, such as disappointment in self, sadness, and rejection. Solving this crisis and establishing one’s identity in relation to peers is linked to better mental health as well as to more stable relationships (Ragelienė, 2016).

Figure 3: Emotional identity formation (Caldwell, Adolescence, 2013).

On the emotional side of adolescent development, impulse control, inhibition, and persistence are some of the main features of emotion regulation. In adolescence, emotion regulation becomes one of the main characteristics that can either lead to a happy, stable adult life or to poor decisions and instability in adulthood (Cole et al., 2005, p. 554). It has been proven that teenagers who have difficulty regulating negative emotions are more likely to experience depression and anger management issues that later result in behavioral problems (Hughes, Gullone & Watson, 2011). Early adolescence is marked by emotional arousability, as hormones develop and the reproduction need is first encountered by the teenager. In late adolescence, the prefrontal cortex comes close to being fully matured, facilitating emotional regulation. Until that stage, the teenager experiences biological changes and is faced with new social environments and big life choices, such as the choice of attending university or not, and the teenager is very vulnerable to risk-taking while experiencing problems in emotional and behavioral regulation (Steinberg, 2005).

The close environment of families plays a very important role in the way in which adolescents manage their emotions. A negative attitude toward the expression of emotions, as well as violent behaviours a child sees in the familial environment, are imitated unconsciously during adolescence, contributing to social rejection and unstable friendships (Kim et al., 2001). As the circle of close people that the individual forms bonds and relationships expand, some modifications can be seen in adolescent development. Due to the fact that the influence of friends is impactful in identity creation, peer pressure and conformity to the group appear; the individual chooses to change their clothing and preferences for music, food, behaviour, and many other aspects of life in order to 'fit in' (Brown et al., 2008). The social environment seems to be the most important factor that changes the perception of the life of a teenager; therefore, the nurturing aspect is incredibly relevant in the development of teenagers into young adults.

Figure 4: Family's influence on development (Modern Family, 2012).


Adolescence is a time of change. The internet of today keeps pushing the idea that teenagers are not children but neither are they adults (Brizio et al., 2015). This in-between stage of life creates confusion, which pushes the individual to find their identity, whether the discussion revolves around gender, sexual orientation, culture, race, religion, values, morality, or other areas of life. The teenager finds these answers by expanding their relationship circle while developing both physically and emotionally as well as cognitively. The biocultural transition from childhood to adolescence involves dramatic transformations in all life aspects, which also creates the confusion and uncertainty that is often associated with this period. The importance of nurture comes from the fact that the closest relationships adolescent has with their caregivers and their friend groups have the highest influence on emotional and behavioural regulation. This can prevent high-risk behaviours and choices that could endanger the teenager’s life and affect their well-being. All adolescents go through major changes in their bodies, emotions, and thoughts on how they perceive the world and themselves. However, the ones that are taken care of and are understood, and have thought about how to positively manage themselves, have a smoother transition to adulthood. This is why nurture wins the fight against nature and is the most influential factor when it comes to development in adolescence.

Bibliographical References

Brizio, A., Gabbatore, I., Tirassa, M., & Bosco, F. M. (2015). “No more a child, not yet an adult”: studying social cognition in adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1011.

Brown, B. B., Bakken, J. P., Ameringer, S. W., & Mahon, S. D. (2008). A comprehensive conceptualization of the peer influence process in adolescence. Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents, 13, 17-44.

Cole, M., Cole, S. R., & Lightfoot, C. (2005). The development of children (7th Ed.). Worth Publishers, New York.

Eagle, M. (1997). Contributions of Erik Erikson. Psychoanalytic Review, 84(3), 337-347.

Freud, S. (1953). Three essays on the theory of sexuality (1905). In Strachey, J. (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, volume VII (1901-1905): A case of hysteria, three essays on sexuality and other works (pp. 123-246). Vintage Classics.

Hall, G. S. (1904). Adolescence in literature, biography, and history. In G. S. Hall (Ed.), Adolescence: Its psychology and its relations to physiology, anthropology, sociology, sex, crime, religion and education, vol. 1 (pp. 513–589). D Appleton & Company.

Hughes, E. K., Gullone, E., & Watson, S. D. (2011). Emotional functioning in children and adolescents with elevated depressive symptoms. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 33, 335-345.

Kim, K. J., Conger, R. D., Lorenz, F. O., & Elder Jr, G. H. (2001). Parent–adolescent reciprocity in negative affect and its relation to early adult social development. Developmental Psychology, 37(6), 775.

Kohlberg, L. (1984) The psychology of moral development: The nature and validity of moral stages. Vol. 2. New York: Harper & Row.

Lenroot, R. K., & Giedd, J. N. (2011). Annual research review: Developmental considerations of gene by environment interactions. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(4), 429-441.

Luciana, M. (2010). Adolescent brain development: Current themes and future directions: Introduction to the special issue. Brain and Cognition, 72(1), 1-5.

Markovits, H., & Lortie‐Forgues, H. (2011). Conditional reasoning with false premises facilitates the transition between familiar and abstract reasoning. Child Development, 82(2), 646-660.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (2008). The psychology of the child. Basic Books.

Ragelienė, T. (2016). Links of adolescents identity development and relationship with peers: A systematic literature review. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 25(2), 97.

Steinberg, L. (2005). Cognitive and affective development in adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 69-74.

Traggiai, C., & Stanhope, R. (2003). Disorders of pubertal development. Best practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 17(1), 41-56.

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Raluca Reinerth

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