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Social and Emotional Changes in Adolescence


mom and teen daughter together


Adolescence is a time of big social and emotional development for your child. It helps to know what to expect and how to support your child through the changes.

Social changes and emotional changes: what to expect in adolescence

During adolescence, you’ll notice changes in the way your child interacts with family, friends and peers. Every teen’s social and emotional development is different. Your child’s unique combination of genes, brain development, environment, experiences with family and friends, and community and culture shape development.

Social changes and emotional changes show that your child is forming an independent identity and learning to be an adult.

Social changes
You might notice that your teen is:

  • searching for identity: young people are busy working out who they are and where they fit in the world. This search can be influenced by gender, peer group, cultural background, media, school and family expectations
  • seeking more independence: this is likely to influence the decisions your child makes and the relationships your child has with family and friends
  • seeking more responsibility, both at home and at school
  • looking for new experiences: the nature of teenage brain development means that teenagers are likely to seek out new experiences and engage in more risk-taking behaviour. But they’re still developing control over their impulses
  • thinking more about “right” and “wrong”: your child will start developing a stronger individual set of values and morals. Teenagers also learn that they’re responsible for their own actions, decisions and consequences. They question more things. Your words and actions shape your child’s sense of ‘‘right’’ and “wrong”
  • influenced more by friends, especially when it comes to behaviour, sense of self and self-esteem
  • starting to develop and explore a sexual identity: your child might start to have romantic relationships or go on “dates”. These are not necessarily intimate relationships. For some young people, intimate or sexual relationships don’t occur until later on in life
  • communicating in different ways: the internet, cell phones and social media can significantly influence how your child communicates with friends and learns about the world. 

Emotional changes
You might notice that your teen:

  • shows strong feelings and intense emotions at different times. Moods might seem unpredictable. These emotional ups and downs can lead to increased conflict. Your child’s brain is still learning how to control and express emotions in a grown-up way
  • is more sensitive to your emotions: young people get better at reading and processing other people’s emotions as they get older. While they’re developing these skills, they can sometimes misread facial expressions or body language
  • is more self-conscious, especially about physical appearance and changes. Teenage self-esteem is often affected by appearance - or by how teenagers think they look. As they develop, teens might compare their bodies with those of friends and peers
  • goes through a “invincible” stage of thinking and acting as if nothing bad could happen to him. Your child’s decision-making skills are still developing, and your child is still learning about the consequences of actions.

Changes in relationships
You might notice that your teen:

  • wants to spend less time with family and more time with friends
  • has more arguments with you: some conflict between parents and children during the teenage years is normal as teens seek more independence. It actually shows that your child is maturing. Conflict tends to peak in early adolescence. If you feel like you’re arguing with your child all the time, it might help to know that this isn’t likely to affect your long term relationship with your child
  • sees things differently from you: this isn’t because your child wants to upset you. It’s because your child is beginning to think more abstractly and to question different points of view. At the same time, some teens find it hard to understand the effects of their behaviour and comments on other people. These skills will develop with time.

Supporting social and emotional development

Here are some ideas to help you support your teen’s social and emotional development.

  • Be a role model for forming and maintaining positive relationships with your friends, children, partner and colleagues. Your child will learn from observing relationships where there is respect, empathy and positive ways of resolving conflict.
  • Get to know your child’s friends, and make them welcome in your home. This will help you keep in touch with your child’s social relationships. It also shows that you recognize how important your child’s friends are to your child’s sense of self.
  • Listen to your child’s feelings. If your child wants to talk, stop and give your child your full attention. If you’re in the middle of something, make a specific time when you can listen.
  • Be explicit and open about your feelings. In particular, tell your child how you feel when your child behaves in different ways. Be a role model for positive ways of dealing with difficult emotions and moods.
  • Talk with your child about relationships, sex and sexuality. Look for “teachable moments” - those everyday times when you can easily bring up these issues. Focus on the non-physical. Teenagers are often self-conscious and anxious about their bodies and appearance. So reinforce the positive aspects of your child’s social and emotional development. 

Staying connected with your teen can be an important part of supporting your child’s social and emotional development.

Children with special needs

It’s normal for parents to worry that their child with disability won’t make friends easily or be accepted into a peer group. It helps to remember that the rate of social and emotional development varies widely for young people.

Teens who miss a lot of school because of a physical or mental illness, or who have a visible physical disability, might find it harder to make and keep friendships. This doesn’t mean that friendships won’t happen. There might be other ways for your child to form friendships, such as joining community groups and online networks. Give your child lots of love and support at home. Boost confidence and self-esteem by focusing on your child’s strengths and interests.

Tip: Your child’s relationships with family and peers will undergo dramatic changes and shifts. Strong relationships with both family and friends are vital for healthy social and emotional development. Parents tend to influence a young person’s long-term decisions, such as career choices, values and morals. Friends are more likely to influence short-term choices, such as appearance and interests.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

HealthLink BC: Growth and Development, Ages 11 to 14
HealthLink BC: Emotional and Social Development, Ages 15 to 18 
HealthLink BC: Growth and Development, Ages 15 to 18 
HealthLink BC: Emotional and Social Development, Ages 11 to 14

Last Updated: November 30, 2014