understanding adolescence – supporting a young person

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Adolescence is a time when young people try out new things and build a sense of who they are in the world. While your relationship with your young person might change at this time, it remains extremely important. Read on to learn more.


What is ‘adolescence’?

Adolescence is the phase of life between childhood and adulthood. It is often said that adolescence begins with the start of puberty and ends around the mid-20s, although this definition might not fit for all cultures. While people talk about the stages of adolescent development, the fact is that development varies from person to person; there is no right way to ‘do’ adolescence.  

The support young people need and the role you play will evolve as the young person moves from early adolescence through to adulthood. 

In early adolescence, many young people in Australia are adapting to the secondary school environment. There might also be changing expectations and demands from family and community at this time. Peers become a big influence on a young person’s social and emotional development as they build relationships, skills, self-awareness and independence.  

As they move closer to adulthood, young people might be starting to think beyond home and school towards the future. This might include work, further study or activities within the community. They need opportunities to ‘stand on their own two feet’, make decisions and learn from their successes and mistakes.  

Adolescent development doesn’t happen in isolation; it takes place in a social and cultural context. This can include customs and beliefs, areas of interest (such as gaming and sports), media and gender and sexuality influences. Multicultural young people might be navigating their identity within the influence of their cultural background. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions, adolescence can be a time when young people establish their place in their communities and in relation to family, clans, nations, ancestors and country. This might involve initiation practices where sacred cultural knowledge is passed on to them. It can also involve taking on leadership roles within the community.  

Physical development

Physical changes during adolescence include rapid growth, brain development and sexual development. Many young people are acutely aware of the physical changes to their bodies and it is common for them to compare themselves to others. They might: 

  • be concerned that their bodies are not changing at the same rate, or in the same ways, as their peers  
  • feel pleased about changes such as growth in height, building of body shape or muscle, maturing of voice 
  • spend a lot of time curating their own online presence 
  • notice unwanted changes that make them feel self-conscious or unhappy about their bodies. 


Changes in thinking

The capacity for complex thinking grows during adolescence. Young people become better at grappling with social issues, ethics and different views. They may be questioning their values and beliefs, exploring their passions and testing ideas about what gives life meaning and purpose.

Adolescent brains are ‘under construction’. The parts of the brain that support impulse control, thinking about consequences and problem solving are still developing into the mid-20s. This helps explains why young people might: 

  • act impulsively or aggressively 
  • try adventurous activities  
  • explore new relationships, both in-person and online 
  • misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions  
  • engage in dangerous or risky behaviour.


Young people can still be thoughtful and considerate, make rational decisions, tell the difference between right and wrong and be held responsible for their actions. However, it does help to understand that learning to ‘apply the brakes’, or think before acting, is an acquired skill that builds over time.  


Emotional development

Adolescence can be a time when emotions are intensely felt. Disagreements, being left out by friends, relationship break-ups, missing out on a job or doing badly in an exam can feel like the end of the world to a young person. 

It can be hard watching them struggle with strong emotions like anger, sadness or shame. Learn more about how you can support your young person to manage and regulate their emotions below.  


Building identity 

Young people in adolescence are often working out who they are, what they love doing and what is important to them in life. Many will explore novel ways of being and doing that may set them apart from their family. Instead, they might look to their peers to guide them, including those they meet online. 

Young people who experience bullying and discrimination (both subtle and overt) because of who they are or how they express themselves may need extra support at this time. This can include love and care from family, friends and community, and professional support. Access to role models and safe spaces (in-person and online) where they can be themselves are also important.  

Understandings of ‘adolescence’ and expectations of the roles of young people vary from culture to culture. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, identity is tied to land, community and culture. Opportunities for connection to these are important during this time of rapid change. 

Being exposed to different cultures and authentic ways of expressing identity can be positive and allow for new perspectives. However, it can also lead to conflict if the hopes, expectations and experience of the young person do not fit with more traditional views held by family and community (e.g., dress, sexuality or gender expression, fasting during Ramadan). This can be hard for both family and for young people. It can help to remember that exploration is an important part of building independence and selfhood. 

Risk taking

Increased activity in the reward and pleasure parts of the brain is linked to young people seeking out stimulating experiences and being excited or stressed when making decisions, especially when peers are around. Testing limits and taking risks goes with the territory of adolescence. This is part of learning and becoming independent. Young people’s drive to push against the status quo and explore possibilities can benefit everyone in the community when it leads to social advancement and innovation. This same willingness can sometimes result in harm.  
In this context, it’s common for parents and family to worry about young peoples’ increasing access a wider range of activities (including online). See below for more about how you can help support the healthy development of your young person.



Note: Young people who have experienced trauma might feel deep distress, fear, grief and shame as a result. This can show up in different ways, such as having trouble concentrating and remembering things, not wanting to attend school, using alcohol or other drugs to feel better and other risk-taking behaviour. It’s important to be aware of each young person’s unique situation and not to misunderstand these reactions as being ‘bad’ or wilfully ‘difficult’.  


Independence and connection  

Building social skills and learning to navigate relationships are important aspects of adolescent development.

Friendships matter a great deal. If not going well, they can be a source of anxiety and stress for a young person. Companionship, understanding and advice from friends can make a big difference to a young person’s wellbeing.  

Family relationships (whether biological, extended or chosen family, kin etc) remain crucial to young people during adolescence. While it’s not unusual for them to push back against family, adolescents’ brains are ‘hard wired’ for connection to the people who care for them. It’s this connection that allows them to feel safe and supported enough to branch out and explore the world around them. Your relationship is likely to change as your young person chooses to spend more time alone or with friends. This can be challenging for family. It can help to see this as a transition towards your new relationship between adults. 

Community, such as ethnic or religious communities, mob, the LGBTIQA+ community and subcultures, can play a key role for young people during their adolescent years. Connection to others with a shared identity can provide acceptance, belonging, understanding, guidance and purpose. This can be especially important if the young person feels misunderstood or excluded within other spheres of life, such as their school, workplace or family.  

Social media is in essence another ‘gathering place’ where people meet, form relationships and exchange ideas. It is a preferred way for many young people to keep connected. When used safely, it can open up opportunities for young people to explore, learn and test themselves in new ways.  


How you can support healthy adolescent development

  • Learning about adolescent development is a great first step. Watch this video about adolescence here: Dan Siegel - "The Adolescent Brain"  

  • Encourage your young person as they try new things and pursue their passions

  • Support connections with peers and communities that are important to them

  • Invite your young person to participate in opportunities to connect with their culture if they choose (e.g. family storytelling, celebrations, cultural practices)

  • Be curious about your young person and what is going on in their lives. Listen with the aim of truly understanding them, even when you don’t agree with their position or course of action

  • Try not to judge, or to jump in with ‘solutions’ to their problems. Often young people are not seeking your advice; they might just want you to acknowledge their feelings and show empathy and care

  • Recognise that pushing boundaries is a part of normal development. While you can’t control the outcomes, you might be able to help minimise risks. Let them know your main concern is that they are safe. Encourage your young person to reach out to you or a trusted adult if they are ever in danger or need help

  • If you have concerns for your young person, try to find solutions together. Ask your young person what they think is reasonable and come to an agreement you can both live with

  • As in any relationship, there might be times when you need to be clear about your expectations and personal boundaries. Share your reasons with the young person eg “I need to know when you intend to be back so I know whether to include you in dinner plans or not.” “When you use that tone, it comes across as really rude.” “When you shout at me, I feel intimidated.” Seek help if your young person is acting in violent or abusive ways

  • Don’t shy away from talking about the ‘big’ issues with your young person if you want them to know they can come to you whenever they need

  • Be informed: seek out information from reliable sources on topics that are important to your young person (e.g. technology use, alcohol and other drugs, gender identity and sexuality)

  • Manage your own emotions so they don’t get in the way of you being able to offer support. By doing this, you are role modelling self-regulation to your young person, who is still learning this skill

  • Talk with other parents or community leaders who can offer you understanding and support. It helps to connect with people whose experiences are similar to yours


There are many positives that come with your young person building the skills and experience to take their place in the adult world – embrace it and enjoy the ride! 



Need more help?

If you or your young person need more support, visit eheadspace (online and phone support) or your nearest headspace centre.  

headspace hosts online group chat discussions for family on a range of topics. You can register to join or view past professional-led group chat transcripts here. You can also register for our weekly group chat led by other adults supporting  young people.  

headspace also offers work and study support

Parentline is a confidential and free telephone counselling and advice service.

Raising Children Network offers online tips and tools for parents and of children and young people. They have a great resource on supporting young trans and gender diverse young people during puberty, and other related articles here.

ReachOut has resources to help under 25s and their parents through tough times. 

View headspace Take a Step resources for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and family.

Call a Parent helpline in your state if your young person is acting in violent or abusive ways. 



The headspace Content Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.  

Last reviewed: 12 December 2023 

Fatima et al 2022, Cultural Identity and Social and Emotional Wellbeing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children, in Baxter et al (eds), Family Dynamics Over the Life Course. ARCCECF, UQ 

Centre for Multicultural Youth: Migrant and Refugee young people negotiating adolescence in Australia  

Gubhaju, L., Banks, E., Ward, J., D’Este, C., Ivers, R., Roseby, R., Azzopardi, P., Williamson, A., Chamberlain, C., Liu, B., Hotu, C., Boyle, J., McNamara, B. and Eades, S.J. 2019 (p 2), ‘Next generation Youth Wellbeing Study’: understanding the health and social well-being trajectories of Australian Aboriginal adolescents aged 10 -24 years: study protocol. BMJ Open 2019;9:e028734. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028734 

Joshi, A. & Truong, M. 2023 What influences supportive peer relationships in the middle years. Australian Institute of Family Studies 

LGBTIQ+ Health Australia 

Qld Government, Child Safety Practice Manual: Specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people  

Newcomb, M.E., LaSala, M.C., Bouris, A. Mustanski, B. Pradfo, G., Schrager, S.M. and Huebner, D.M. 2019. The Influence of Families on LGBTQ Youth Health: A Call to Action for Innovation in Research and Intervention Development, LGBT Health 6:4 

Anderson, P. 1995. Priorities in Aboriginal health. Aboriginal health, social and cultural transitions. Northern Territory University, Darwin, NTU Press. 

Siegal, Dan, 2014. Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. NY. TarcherPerigee 

Wilson, C. & Cariola, L.A. 2019. LGBTQI+ Youth and Mental Health: A Systemic Review of Qualitative Research. Adolescent Research Review (2020) 5:187-21 

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