A guide to better understanding adolescence

13 Aug 2019
Not all young people behave or act in the same way, but by better understanding where they’re at you can support them more effectively.

It can be really challenging to understand how and why adolescents behave the way they do. Which is why we've created these tips on how to provide support to a young person.


What are the different changes adolescents go through?

Adolescents go through a variety of changes, and each individual can experience them in different ways. The uniqueness of adolescence means that changes will come at different rates and degrees, so it's best to be prepared for anything that a teenager can experience.

Understanding the different developments a young person experiences can help you be prepared for what to expect and how to support them appropriately.


Physical changes can be easy to spot, and are generally a good sign that other developments are happening at the same time. Every young person’s body develops physically at a different rate. Supporting them with these physical changes can be challenging, however it may simply involve you communicating that you’re there for them.

One of the physical changes that hasn't been so well understood is the biological changes that affect the need to sleep. The sleep hormone melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy, is produced later in adolescents compared to younger children or adults. This means they don't feel sleepy until about two hours later than others.


Young people can experience a wide range of psychological developments that manifest in different physical actions. For example, you may notice them start to get angry or keep to themselves more. As they grow, they may try to find out who they are by pushing boundaries.

Taking risks and not knowing the consequences of their actions can be common for adolescents.

It’s great if you can keep an eye out for signs of anxiety or nervous behaviour. You can give them the space they need to grow while also reminding an adolescent that you’re there when they need you.


Cognitive developments typically result in teenagers having a more complex and abstract thought process. This means that new skills start to develop, including:

  • Organising thoughts

  • Problem solving

  • Planning

  • Prioritising

  • Suppressing impulses.

This can be an exciting development. You can encourage an adolescent to make their own decisions and assist them in setting their goals, which can help build trust.


Young people can develop emotions they’ve never experienced before as they move into adolescence. You may experience them being irritable, showing moodiness, or getting frustrated at things you do and say.

These emotions can fluctuate in different ways and become hard to manage. Through time and support, adolescents can manage these emotions better, and learn how to communicate their feelings with you.


Social developments tend to occur during adolescence too, either quickly or over a longer period of time. Young people start to rely on their friends, with less reliance on parental and guardian support.

Another social development is the potential pursuit of intimate and sexual relationships. These developments can allow a teenager to develop their own identity and independence from adults, while they formulate morals and negotiate new relationships.


How can you respond and support these adolescent developments?

Give them space 

It can go against your every instinct, but one of the best ways to respond to the development of your young person is to give them time and space to grow.

If you try to double down on rules or enforce them more, you can put pressure on your relationship with the young person in your life. By having constructive conversations and listening to them, you can start to work out some reasonable boundaries.

As they get older, you will need to adjust those boundaries a little. Having open and honest conversations shows that you’re there for them.

Know that it’s OK to make mistakes

It’s OK for both you and your young person to make mistakes. Try to see them as an opportunity to grow and learn from, rather than something to get angry about. Sometimes a conversation with a teen can go badly, but you can give them some space and try again. It’s important to know that your interactions won’t always be perfect.

Learning from mistakes and working together is a great way for both parties to move forward in the future.

Show an interest in them

Showing a genuine interest in what your young person does or likes can be a great way to understand them. Treat it as a learning experience. This might include joining in with them to play video games, talking to them about their homework or even just asking how one of their friends is going. Don't be disheartened if they aren't interested to begin with; by continuing to express interest in their activities you're communicating a willingness to better understand them as individuals.  

By encouraging them to show you how to do things they’re into, you can build a stronger relationship.

Be compassionate

It’s important to show compassion to a young person – or anyone for that matter. You can do this by listening, being curious about their experience and showing that you understand where they’re coming from. Young people can feel really confused about themselves and the changes they’re going through as they grow up.

Sometimes, this confusion is translated as an attack on you, but remember it’s just their way of expressing their feelings. Often, when your young person is acting out, they just need your support.

If you want to find out more about how to understand adolescence, you can read our headspace group chat on supporting adolescents.