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Adolescent Changes: Physical, Cognitive, Social Research Paper


Adolescence is defined as a period between 13 and 18 years of age, effectively covering the time when a person transforms from a child into a young adult. Despite taking relatively large amounts of time, it is considered the fastest phase in terms of human development due to a great number of changes that transform a person on a physical, cognitive, emotional, and social level. In adolescence, physiological maturity often precedes psychosocial readiness to share the rights and responsibilities of adults, which often generates conflict between family members and peers. Many psychologists consider this stage to be the defining one in terms of personal development. Recognizing the unique set of needs and challenges that adolescents face requires a solid theoretical framework supported by evidence-based practice and scholarly resources. The purpose of this paper is to define the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs in adolescents based on the latest findings, and reviewing them through the lens of Erickson’s psychosocial theory.

Physical Developments in Adolescence

Physical development in adolescence is defined, first and foremost, by puberty. Puberty is a time during which the body of a child undergoes rapid growth and the beginning of sexual maturity. It continues for a period of 6 to 7 years, with all the major changes occurring in the span of the first 3-4 years (Edelman, 2014). Hormones are the primary tools that stimulate the development of reproductive organs in a child and prepare them for future life as adults. In addition, adolescents experience growth in both size and weight of their bodies, which typically ends by the age 16.

Sexual changes are followed by secretion of fluids in both boys and girls. Girls experience their first cycles of menstruation, while boys experience wet dreams and involuntary release of small amounts of semen in their sleep (Edelman, 2014). Breast growth is typical to girls, who start their maturation cycle earlier than boys, who develop a sturdier frame and musculature, as nature prepares both genders for their naturally intended roles.

Physical changes have a huge impact on all aspects of changes in adolescents, but primarily affect the emotional state (through hormones) and social perceptions and standing among their peers. Because there is no standard for hormonal-driven growth and physical development in adolescents, every person develops at their own distinctive rates (Edelman, 2014). Nevertheless, an overly quick or delayed spurt of growth has the potential of affecting adolescents on many levels, leading to decreased academic performance, social stigmas, and emotional myopia.

Cognitive Changes in Adolescence

Adolescence is considered to be the gateway from childhood to adulthood, which is followed by changes in cognitive development and self-perception. As a person matures, their patterns of thinking changes from that of a child to that of an adult. Cognitive developments happen in three crucial areas, which are as follows (Sanders, 2013):

  • Reasoning. Adolescents develop stronger reasoning skills, which allow them to analyze a greater range of possibilities in any given situations, acquire the ability of hypothetical thought, and become capable of using logic in order to solve problems.
  • Abstract thinking. Adolescents have an increased ability for abstract thought. This marks a difference between adults and children, as children are often concrete thinkers who operate within the realm of personal experiences and hands-on knowledge. Adolescents, on the other hand, have a broader imagination, which reflects on their capacity to love, spiritual development, and participation in advanced fields of science like chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Adolescents who do not transition from concrete to abstract may have trouble in academics, which needs to be addressed by clinicians.
  • Meta-cognition. This is the last formal operational characteristic of teenagers and adolescents. Meta-cognition is responsible for feelings and other peoples’ perceptions. It is the primary characteristic that defines peer influence and peer pressure. It influences an individual’s thinking patterns by introducing an imaginary audience, which, coupled with rapid emotional and physical changes, may be detrimental to their confidence in personal abilities and appearances. Adolescents may develop a feeling of shame of their bodies, which would experience drastic changes, and judge their own actions based not on personal perceptions, but on the perceptions of the perceived audience. Such developments may lead to complexes and psychological disorders, which would need to be addressed by psychologists.

All of these factors, in combination, have the capabilities to shape a future young adult in a way that would largely determine their success or failure in further stages of life. Therefore, clinicians must be extremely careful and vigilant when working with adolescents, especially in school settings, as that environment has the potential to encapsulate all three areas of cognitive development, for better or worse.

Emotional and Social Development

During the transition from adolescence to adulthood, a person develops emotional and social competence. Emotional competence is defined by the ability to manage one’s personal mood as well as deal with emotions – something is not often seen in young children, who tend to express their emotions instantly and follow them despite better judgment (Sanders, 2013). Social competence, on the other hand, involves identifying other peoples’ emotions as well as relating to them and act accordingly. According to several studies, the rate of social and emotional maturation does not develop in parallel to physical growth. In addition, social and emotional development does not perfectly correlate with cognitive improvements. The difference lies in the limbic area of the brain, responsible for emotion when compared to the prefrontal cortex, which defines judgment and reasoning (Sanders, 2013). While feeling strong emotions, such as fear, prefrontal cortex typically remains inactive (Sanders, 2013). This discrepancy often leads to teens misinterpreting other peoples’ emotions a lack and emotional-physical synchronization.

Social development in adolescents is largely connected to their physical maturation rates. Depending on how fast a person matures, they may be treated differently than their emotional-cognitive level suggests (Sanders, 2013). Early rapid puberty greatly affects boys and girls, in different manners. The adults, as well as other peers, perceive boys who mature early and develop the appearance of a young adult as older and more responsible. They also show greater athletic and physical prowess, which may contribute to their image, earning them popularity and class leadership. However, it may also represent a problem in the later stages of adolescence, when all of the other peers reach their levels of physical maturation and begin to contest these positions. In girls, early maturation is associated with social disadvantages as well as various risks, such as depression, conduct problems, early sexual activity, teen pregnancy, substance use, and alcoholism (Sanders, 2013).

This shows the importance of balance between body maturation as well as emotional and social developments. Self-regulation and management of emotion are paramount. Healthcare professionals are expected to help teenagers recognize what triggers negative and positive emotions as well as teach them to utilize the reasoning part of the brain in order to consider any long-term consequences of their emotional behavior.

Evaluation of Physical, Cognitive, Emotional, and Social Environments

Environments serve a very important role in the formation of an adolescent and its development through all four stages of psychosocial development. Due to their distinction, each environment has a major influence in their own field as well as a limited influence in others. The researchers are still trying to determine the value of each of these environments in the context of adolescent development. Van Hecke et al. (2016) conducted a large comparative study, where the connection and difference between physical and social environments were analyzed. The physical environment was determined by the living conditions of every individual, the presence or absence of social and recreational facilities such as schools, parks, gaming rooms, etc. Social environment was determined by the presence of friends and peers within the immediate vicinity as well as the social environment in school – a place where the majority of adolescents spend most of their days in.

According to Van Hecke et al. (2016), social environment plays a greater role than physical environment, as the presence of peers and friends nearby encouraged POS to perform social and physical activities as well as contributing to emotional awareness and conscience, thus resulting in better outcomes. Physical environments, on the other hand, were found to have a greater impact on the nature of activities performed in the social context of adolescent development. The presence of parks and recreational facilities contributed to a healthier set of activities chosen by the POS and their peers, such as sports, hiking, and spending time outside. Detrimental physical environments are lacking the basic social and recreational facilities, on the other hand, were associated with gang activity, delinquent behavior, emotional destabilization, and healthcare risks, such as obesity and substance abuse.

The primary environment for emotional and cognitive development in adolescents is the school and family (Malin, Reilly, Quinn, & Moran, 2014). While school facilitates the development of cognitive abilities in an adolescent as well as serves as an environment for developing social and emotional awareness, the family serves as a primary emotional anchor for the growing child. According to Chorpita, Brown, and Barlow (2016), the family serves as a place where an adolescent seeks to find emotional acceptance, first and foremost. If it is not found, then the search shifts towards other environments, such as the school. Teachers and peers are being seen as surrogate parents, which they are not. Complications may derive from such pursuits. Thus, emotional and cognitive environments are closely related, to the point where they start influencing one another. Balancing these issues and helping to manage them is one of the primary duties of child psychologists and other healthcare providers.

Assessment of Developmental Needs in Adolescents

Based on the material presented above, it is possible to highlight developmental and environmental needs for adolescents by synthesizing the information and seeking ways of facilitating timely and healthy growth and development while avoiding potential pitfalls associated with their age. The list of needs is as follows (Rathus, 2013):

  • Physical activity. This need connects with the need for an empowering environment coupled with physical and social development. Physical activity would ensure healthy development as well as the build-up in confidence among peers.
  • Academic prowess and achievement. This need includes the requirements for a healthy cognitive environment as well as means of cognitive and social growth through success in academic fields.
  • Self-definition and creative expression. This need encompasses several aspects of social, cognitive, and emotional development, as it highlights the necessity to develop abilities as well as express thoughts and emotions.
  • Positive social interaction. Primarily concerned with social and emotional development, this need highlights the importance of being able to interact and understand other peers as well as their emotions in a positive environment.
  • Structure and limits. These are required to learn the essential societal norms and rules as well as transform into a young adult by understanding and sharing personal responsibilities.
  • Meaningful participation. This need involves the presence of enabling environments in order to utilize talents, thoughts, and abilities to contribute to the society in a meaningful way.

Three major environments which these actions can be performed in include the school, the family, and the neighborhood in general. The necessity of having them address all of the needs of adolescent presented above needs to be considered as well.

Adolescence Development Stage as Perceived by Erickson

Erickson’s psychosocial development model, as its name suggests, is largely focused on emotional and social perceptions of adolescent development. According to Edelman (2014), adolescents aged between 12 and 18 are concerned with their identity and a sense of self. They engage in a meaningful exploration of their own values, goals, and beliefs. These objectives largely revolve around interaction with family and peers. Erickson defines the primary goal of an adolescent as the need to fit and be accepted by the society, develop talents to pursue a future career and potentially establish a family. The aimed result is a reintegrated sense of self, with solid and defined social, gender, and sexual roles. These three are the most important ones, according to the psychosocial development model. Role confusion and identity crisis, consequently, are the main negative events that an adolescent may discover during this stage of development (Edelman, 2014).

Shortcomings of Erickson’s Theory and Potential Solutions

As evidenced by the summary presented above, Erickson’s model is primarily concerned with the psychosocial factors of adolescent development, namely with social and emotional aspects, with an acknowledgment of cognitive development. Physical development, however, is mentioned only briefly, and not in a meaningful way. Erickson’s model does not make a great distinction between male and female development both in terms of physiology and other developmental factors. In order to overcome this limitation, Erickson’s theory could be used in conjunction with other theories, such as Piaget’s theory (Burman, 2016), which focused on the cognitive stage of development, as well as Freud’s, which views adolescence through the lens of psychosexuality (Thurschwell, 2014).

Ethical Considerations for Research and Practice

There are several ethical considerations when researching adolescents in the scope of their development areas and treating them from any negative abnormalities discovered in practice. Many adolescents that are reviewed in the scope of psychological and developmental studies are still minors, meaning that it is parents who usually make the decisions for them. Other factors that affect decision-making include the necessity to attend school, community agencies involvement, adult authority figures, and the role of the therapist in general (Hoagwood, Jensen, & Fisher, 2014). In all cases, the research must be discreet and have a strictly positive connotation in case of discovery. Matters of treatment modality, clinical competence, and confidentiality are all to be governed by the first principle of medicine – not to cause harm. In adolescence, the mere mention of a child participating in a psychological and behavioral study as a subject may cause long-term negative effects on the participants and their families.


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Edelman, C. (2014). Health promotion throughout the life span. New York, NY: Elsevier.

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Van Hecke, L., Deforche, B., Van Dyck, D., De Bourdeaudhuij, I., Veitch, J., & Van Cauwenberg J. (2016). Social and physical environmental factors influencing adolescents’ physical activity in urban public open spaces: A qualitative study using walk-along interviews. PLoS One, 11(5), 1-24.

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