Adolescent social and emotional changes
By Hilary Nobilo, Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
There are big changes going on in the lives of rangatahi — not only physical changes, but also important changes in their social and emotional development as they move from being a child to becoming an adult. Sometimes we expect them to think and behave like an adult, but their brain is very different to an adult’s brain and won’t be fully developed until they’re in their 20s.
Adolescence has often been talked about as a time of challenges; a time of difficult and sometimes impulsive behaviours. Most adults who spend time with rangatahi will know that this isn’t mostly who they are. While there are likely to be some bumps along the way (and some may be big bumps), rangatahi can be amazing. Among many other qualities, they can be funny, creative, curious and adventurous. Some rangatahi who become parents will do really well in this role.
All of us have heard talk of rangatahi and their ‘raging hormones’. However, it’s time to rethink. There’s a lot of research telling us that while hormone levels do increase from early puberty, they play little part in the stronger feelings that rangatahi may sometimes experience.[i] Many of the changes during adolescence are linked with changes in the development of the brain.
Adolescent brain development doesn’t happen all at once; different areas develop and mature at different times. For example, during adolescence, the limbic system (where feelings are processed) matures before the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that manages strong feelings[ii]). This is partly why rangatahi can be more emotional and sensitive and why they may sometimes find it hard to cope with their feelings.[iii]
Rangatahi who become parents may still need advice and guidance from their whānau and support people. The role of whānau as ‘advisors’ and ‘limit-setters’ isn’t over; it’s just changing. Whānau support is still really important. However, sometimes it’s other people outside of the whānau that are the main providers of this much needed support. But no matter where it’s coming from, rangatahi need guidance as well as some space to learn and practise the new skills they’re developing.
Just like babies and children, rangatahi have milestones or capabilities they need to achieve before they can move on to more mature stages of development. These include forming an identity, planning and preparing for a job, preparing to become a partner and parent, behaving in socially responsible ways and gaining some emotional independence from their own parents.[iv] Working through and achieving them helps rangatahi move towards young adulthood.
Rangatahi who become parents are not only learning about their own developmental needs, they are also tending to the development of their pēpi. Many will suddenly be thrust into the world of a young adult before they’ve successfully completed their adolescent milestones.[v] If these capabilities are not completed before rangatahi move into young adulthood, they may have a less steady foundation on which to build the skills they need to become well-adjusted adults.[vi]
Forming an identity
Rangatahi are forming a sense of their own identity: who they are, who they want to be, what they need to do to get there and how they fit in the world. Changes in the brain mean they can think in more abstract ways.[vii] They can think about future training they’d like to do. They can explore their beliefs and morals; they may decide to become vegetarian or join a protest group to save the environment.
Some rangatahi ‘try on’ different personalities.[viii] They experiment with how they look and how they behave, particularly in romantic situations where they may want to impress! While this behaviour may seem false to adults, it can be a normal part of adolescent development. By about 18 years, most rangatahi have developed a sense of who they are.[ix]
Identity formation for rangatahi who become parents may follow a different path. A focus on developing a sense of themselves may have to shift as they step into their new parenting role with a young pēpi to include in their hopes, plans and goals. However, planning a future for their pēpi can be a motivator for some rangatahi to work harder at school.[x]
Whānau and support people can help rangatahi to form a strong sense of who they are by providing them with stable relationships and a feeling that ‘someone’s got their back’. With this support and sense of safety, rangatahi are in a better position to explore their options for their future and develop their own personal values and beliefs.
From puberty, rangatahi may experience their feelings more strongly and may be more emotionally sensitive.[xi] Their highs may seem higher and their lows, lower. How they react one day may be quite different to how they react another day. Not only can their feelings be stronger, but they are still learning how to manage intense feelings and express them in mature ways. As the brain regions that manage feelings mature and rangatahi gain practice at managing their emotions, they’re more likely to step back and think before they react to a situation.[xii]
Parenting can be rewarding, joyful and exciting. It can also be exhausting, challenging and frustrating — at any age. Rangatahi who are parents may experience these feelings more strongly at times than older parents. They can also experience more stress and frustration.[xiii] Some may respond to their pēpi with less sensitivity or, at times, more harshly than an older parent might.[xiv] Whānau and support people who understand these changes during adolescence are in a stronger position to provide good support.
Rangatahi can be very self-conscious and highly sensitive to how they think other people see them and what other people might be thinking and feeling.[xv] They may sometimes think that their behaviour is the focus of everyone’s attention, even though other people aren’t showing any interest in what they’re doing. This has sometimes been called the ‘imaginary audience’.[xvi] They may be beside themselves with happiness or feel absolutely miserable as close friendships or romantic relationships come and go.[xvii] Usually, their feelings become less intense around mid-adolescence.
Young people who are pregnant or have a pēpi may be especially sensitive to what others might be thinking about them. It’s important that support people and other adults caring for them are non-judgemental. Supporting rangatahi with their own feelings may help them to respond to their pēpi in more thoughtful and sensitive ways.
While stronger emotional reactions are to be expected at times during adolescence, if these are extreme, ongoing, or whānau are concerned about them, rangatahi need to access help, perhaps by talking with their doctor for a start. For some rangatahi, their strong emotional reactions may be an early sign of mental health concerns. It’s important that these concerns are addressed quickly, both for their own sake, and because of the impact it can have on their tamariki.
Rangatahi who become parents may be unprepared for the demands and responsibilities of parenthood. They’re not only learning to manage their own feelings, but now have the responsibility to support their pēpi. This may mean it’s harder for them to cope in some situations, such as when their pēpi is unwell or crying in the middle of the night. Adolescent parents need a strong and stable support system that goes above and beyond the support that all parents need.
Whānau and support people can provide support by helping rangatahi with healthy and practical ways to manage stress and to deal with struggles. The way that adults respond to an emotional rangatahi makes a difference. If a young person is highly stressed and anxious, their feelings can overwhelm the thinking part of their brain and they may find it hard to calm down and think rationally. A calm response from a supportive adult is more likely to help settle a situation or resolve conflict. Tamariki are tuned in to their parents’ emotions. If a young parent feels stressed, their pēpi may also become stressed.
Capacity to see others’ perspectives
Rangatahi become better at understanding the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people and the fact that these may be different from their own.[xviii] This capacity, called mentalisation, plays an important role in how rangatahi interact with others. Being able to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’ can help them communicate more effectively. With a better understanding of how other people feel, they may be more sensitive and show more empathy. Being able to see from someone else’s perspective may also build their tolerance of other people who have opinions and interests different to their own.
While rangatahi are still developing the skill of seeing another person’s perspective, it may still be hard sometimes for them to ‘put themselves in their baby’s shoes’. They may have more trouble understanding and responding to the feelings their pēpi is expressing than an older parent would.[xix] Again, guidance from whānau and support people can help them to better understand the needs of their pēpi. Like all parents, rangatahi need someone they can trust to care for their pēpi at times so they can have a break.
Reading others’ emotions and social cues
From soon after birth, pēpi can read basic expressions of emotion on other people’s faces. This ability develops further throughout childhood and adolescence. Through adolescence, rangatahi are able to read and process more complex feelings and can pick up on subtle non-verbal cues, such as a coy smile when someone is flirting with them.[xx] These are important skills for rangatahi. They tend to want to spend more time with friends as they become less emotionally dependent on parents. To have successful relationships, they need to know what others think of them. This means knowing if their friends are signalling approval and acceptance or picking up on social cues that suggest they’re not ‘fitting in’. If they sense this, they may change their behaviour and responses to gain their friends’ approval.[xxi]
Rangatahi are still learning to read more complex expressions of feelings and non-verbal cues, and may be less able to read the cues from their pēpi for comfort, food or play than an older or more experienced parent.[xxii] They may need help from whānau and support people to understand what their pēpi needs from them.
The bigger picture
Adolescence involves big social and emotional changes as rangatahi learn more about themselves and prepare for adulthood. What has already happened in their lives plays a big part in how they move through these years. Their relationships and experiences from the past shape the way their brain is developing, their health and the way they learn and behave. Young parents have even more change to cope with, as they have two major transitions happening at the same time. The way they were parented will greatly influence how they care for their own pēpi.
Development is happening whenever and wherever rangatahi spend their time — with whānau, friends and teachers; at home; at school; and all the other places they go. Support people play such an important part in the lives of rangatahi who become parents. There are opportunities with each of these people and within each of these areas to promote healthy social and emotional outcomes for all rangatahi and their tamariki.
The role of adults
Understanding the changes that are typical of rangatahi development is an important step towards adults providing positive relationships and contexts that support healthy social and emotional development. Rangatahi who become parents need extra support and understanding from the adults in their lives. They need supporters who are genuinely interested in them, can spend time with them and treat them in respectful ways. (See Adolescent parents and their relationships with parents and peers.)
- Adolescence is a time of change: physical, social and emotional.
- Changes in the developing brain can see an increase in emotional sensitivity.
- Support makes a huge difference as to how change is coped with.
- The social and emotional health of young parents impacts on the social and emotional health of their pēpi.
- An insight into adolescence
http://www.brainwave.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/insight_to_adolescence.pdfOpens in new window
- Teenagers: it’s not their hormones, it’s their brains
http://www.brainwave.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Teens_its-their-Brain_A4_WEB.pdfOpens in new window
- Explaining social and emotional changes in adolescence
http://www.brainwave.org.nz/explaining-the-social-and-emotional-changes-in-adolescence/Opens in new window
Choudhury, S., Blakemore, S. J., & Charman, I. (2006). Social cognitive development during adolescence. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1(3), 165–174.
Dhayanandhan, B., & Bohr, Y. (2016). The role of identity development in moderating stress and promoting dyadic sensitivity in adolescent mothers. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 48(1), 39–48.
Duke, S. A., Balzer, B. W., & Steinbeck, K. S. (2014). Testosterone and its effects on male adolescent mood and behaviour: A systematic review. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55, 315–322.
Guyer, A. E., Monk, C. S., McClure-Tone, E. B., Nelson, E. E., Roberson-Nay, R., Adler, A. D., . . . Ernst, M. (2008). A developmental examination of amygdala response to facial expressions. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(9), 1565–1582.
Hans, S. L., & Thullen, M. J. (2009). The relational context of adolescent motherhood. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of Infant Mental Health (3rd ed., pp. 214-230). New York: The Guilford Press.
Kragel, P. A., Zucker, N. L., Covington, V. E., & LaBar, K. S. (2015). Developmental trajectories of cortical-subcortical interactions underlying the evaluation of trust in adolescence. SCAN, 10, 240–247. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsu050Opens in new window
Kuther, T. L. (2017). Lifespan development: Lives in context.Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Motta-Mena, N. V., & Scherf, K. S. (2016). Pubertal development shapes perception of complex facial expressions. Developmental Science,20(4). https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12451Opens in new window
Steinberg, L. (2016).Adolescence(11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
[i] Duke, Balzer, & Steinbeck, 2014
[ii] Steinberg, 2016
[iii] Steinberg, 2016
[iv] Dhayanandhan & Bohr, 2016
[v] Dhayanandhan & Bohr, 2016
[vi] Seiffge-Krenke & Gelhaar, 2008, cited by Dhayanandhan & Bohr, 2016
[vii] Steinberg, 2016
[viii] Steinberg, 2016
[ix] Cote, 2009, cited by Steinberg, 2016
[x] Lashley, 2007, cited by Hans & Thullen, 2007
[xi] Kuther, 2017
[xii] Steinberg, 2016
[xiii] Dhayanandhan & Bohr, 2016
[xiv] Hans & Thullen, 2007
[xv] Guyer et al., 2008
[xvi] Choudhury, Blakemore, & Charman, 2006
[xvii] Steinberg, 2016
[xviii] Steinberg, 2016
[xix] Hans & Thullen, 2007
[xx] Kragel et al., 2015
[xxi] Steinberg, 2016
[xxii] Hans & Thullen, 2007