In early adolescence, a child begins to develop the capacity for abstract, logical thought. This increased sophistication leads to an enhanced awareness of self and the ability to reflect on one's own being. Because of the many noticeable physical changes of adolescence, this self-awareness often turns into self-consciousness, with an accompanying feeling of awkwardness. The adolescent also has a preoccupation with physical appearance and attractiveness and a heightened sensitivity to differences from peers.
In mid adolescence, the weight of making decisions about a future career gets increasingly heavy, and most adolescents do not have a clearly defined goal, although they gradually realize their areas of interest and talent. Parents must be aware of the adolescent's capabilities and help the adolescent set realistic goals. Parents also must be prepared to identify roadblocks to learning, such as learning disabilities, attention problems, or inappropriate learning environments, which need to be corrected.
Adolescents also apply their new reflective capabilities to moral issues. Pre-adolescents understand right and wrong as fixed and absolute. Older adolescents often question standards of behavior and may reject traditions—to the consternation of parents. Ideally, this reflection culminates in the development and internalization of the adolescent's own moral code.
Many adolescents begin to engage in risky behaviors, such as fast driving. Many adolescents begin to experiment sexually, and some may engage in risky sexual practices. Some adolescents may engage in illegal activities, such as theft and alcohol and drug use. Experts speculate that these behaviors occur in part because adolescents tend to overestimate their own abilities in preparation for leaving their home. Recent studies of the nervous system also have shown that the parts of the brain that suppress impulses are not fully mature until early adulthood.
Last full review/revision February 2009 by Sharon Levy, MD, MPH