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Introduction to Problems in Adolescents

By Sharon Levy, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Harvard Medical School; Director, Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, Boston Children's Hospital

For most children, adolescence is a period of good physical health. The most common problems during adolescence relate to

  • Growth and development

  • Childhood illnesses that continue into adolescence

  • Consequences of risky or illegal behaviors (including injury, legal consequences, pregnancy, and infectious diseases)

Leading causes of death and disability among adolescents are

  • Unintentional injuries resulting from motor vehicle crashes

  • Injuries resulting from interpersonal violence

During this phase of development, adolescents begin to transition from childhood to adulthood. Issues of independence, identity, sexuality, and relationships define this developmental stage. Mental health problems, such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and thought disorders (such as schizophrenia) as well as psychosocial disorders, may develop or first become apparent during adolescence. Suicide is a major cause of death for this age group. Other causes of death include accidents, unintentional injuries, and homicide.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, most commonly develop during adolescence and are more common among girls. Many unhealthy behaviors that start during adolescence, such as consuming a poor diet (see Obesity in Adolescents), smoking, substance use, and violence, can lead to immediate health problems, long-term disorders, or poor health later in life.