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Child development: 12-15 years

child; development; adolescence; teenager; puberty; 12; 13; 14; 15; twelve; thirteen; fourteen; fifteen; emotional; physical; social; adolescent; moodiness; peer; sex; language; hormones; body ;

The early adolescent years are a time of rapid change physically, socially and emotionally. In all areas of life it is the beginning of your child's transition from childhood to adulthood and probably a bit of wandering in nobody's-land on the way.

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It can be a most challenging and anxiety-provoking time for a parent. No matter how unreceptive or even downright hostile your teenager appears, it is important to remember that they need you as much or more than they ever did. It is just that it is harder for them to show they need you or to accept your help or guidance!

Developing understanding

At around twelve or thirteen your child begins to develop a capacity to think in much broader terms, to 'conceptualise' broad issues and begin to see how things are connected to each other - even difficult abstract ideas. This change in thinking is reflected in the different way they are taught at school; they are expected to take much more responsibility for their own learning and gone are the pictures and project type work of primary school.

By 14 and 15 your child can 'see' many things in the world from a new perspective - for instance that parents are ordinary mortals who have problems and failings of their own. Institutions like school and the government no longer seem so faultless or dependable. 

A little overwhelmed by the faults they see for the first time, adolescents can be scathing in their criticism. This does not always mean that they don't accept your view point, it still has an important influence even if they don't say so. It is also about showing the world that they are growing up to be separate individuals and this involves disagreeing.

Physical development

The changes in your child’s body at this age are rapid and can be dramatic. Around 12, 13 and 14 girls will develop breasts and fat deposits around their hips and thighs. They begin to menstruate (have periods), they may suffer cramping and find all the hygienic responsibilities that go with menstruation a burden, particularly if they have started early. They grow pubic hair and many will mature radically in their facial features. These powerful signs of sexual maturing can be milestones to be proud of for some, but for others they are frightening signs of adulthood for which they feel unprepared.

These dramatic physical changes come for boys more around 14, 15, and even 16 years, although nocturnal emissions (wet dreams) often begin at about 12 years old. They will have a period of pronounced and rapid growth [the ‘growth spurt’] when they seem to grow centimetres in their sleep. They develop pubic hair and later facial hair; their voices deepen [sometimes with embarrassing irregularity] and they experience a massive boost of testosterone.

Boys and girls alike often feel awkward and uncomfortable inhabiting these almost foreign bodies, and can, not surprisingly, be privately absorbed by whether the breasts/penis and arms/hips are too big or too small. Walking styles and posture can change to hide or underline some aspect of their physical development that they feel self-conscious about, although there is very little that the adolescent doesn’t feel self-conscious about when it comes to his or her body.

This can also be a time of great strength, energy and achievement in sport and remaining involved in sporting activities assists the developing relationship between your teenager and his or her body as well as offering an acceptable outlet for aggressive or competitive feelings.

Social/emotional development

All adolescents feel some grief at the passing of their childhood and some anxiety about the approaching challenges of adulthood. As we all know too, it’s often more of a worry before you really get there. This plus the fact that they and their bodies may be relative strangers to each other is enough to cause, at best, some occasional moodiness.

They are also moving away from their family emotionally - for some this may be gradual and imperceptible but for many it is a stormy and painful process of separation, particularly for girls. Boys tend to go about their separating in a quieter way - they are more likely to withdraw to their rooms at 14 or 15 and speak in monosyllables to achieve the required distance.

Girls on the other hand may unerringly choose every possible way of challenging or irritating their parents, particularly their mothers. They want to test out their difference of opinions, particularly on exactly what time they should be allowed to come home as well as their clothes and music taste.

Don’t be surprised if your adolescent reminds you of your two year old because some of the same issues of identity, of "who am I?" are being worked out all over again. No longer children, not yet adults, not happy to be defined by family members, adolescence can be a lonely time for some.

Peer group relationships become extremely powerful and important and ‘belonging’ to a group or gang can compensate to some extent for lost closeness in other areas of their lives. Close friendships develop, particularly for girls, who can spend the entire evening talking on the phone to the girl they have spent the day at school with. In spite of this an adolescent's family is still the most effective buffer they have between them and the wider world, and their most important support. There is more information in the topic 'Peer pressure'.

Language

Adolescents may seem to be losing words from their vocabulary, or gaining words you would prefer they didn’t. Language does reflect emotional life and the desire of teenagers to be accepted by their peer group will result in them speaking more like the kids at school and less like you do at home.

As at all other times in your child's growing up it is very important to model respectful language to your teenager. You need to be polite to them if you want them to be polite to you.

There is more in the topic 'Swearing'.

What you can do

  • Negotiate fair rules based on safety, good health and the realities of your bank account. Don’t dictate but expect that they will stick to the agreements they make.
  • If you truly think it is dangerous don’t give in ("But Mum everyone is going to the all night party").
  • Don’t criticise their hair/clothes/personal possessions but make suggestions based on real outcomes for them eg, "I know you like your nose ring but it will be easier to get the job if you take it out for the interview".
  • Keep talking to them even if you are getting one word answers.
  • Do things with them and keep inviting them to do things with you. Go for a walk, go to the footy, go shopping - whatever.
  • Be as positive and encouraging as you can possibly be and stay honest. Notice the small achievements.

There is more information in the topics

What to watch for

  • Prolonged withdrawn behaviour.
  • Prolonged disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Extremely faddy eating or strict dieting, particularly from girls.
  • Severely fluctuating mood swings.
  • High levels of anger over a long period.
  • Loss of interest in past pursuits.

Adolescence can be a difficult time for your child and for you. It can also be a dangerous time, so if you are worried about your teenager’s behaviour or some aspect of their development, seek advice from a health professional.

Summary

Developing Understanding

  • Adolescents are now capable of conceptualising broadly.
  • They see the ‘negative side’ of people and things they thought perfect in their childhood.

Physical Development

  • Both girls and boys undergo radical physical changes - boys somewhat later than girls.
  • The changes include hormonal changes which may affect mood.
  • These changes are self-absorbing for your adolescent and may be frightening.
  • It is a time of strength and physical dexterity and adolescents can reap satisfying rewards through sport.

Social/Emotional Development

  • Adolescents often feel some grief at the passing of their childhood.
  • They can feel strange about their bodies changing so fast.
  • They are moving away from their family emotionally [relatively speaking].
  • Their peer group is of utmost importance.
  • The family is still the adolescent's strongest social support.

References

Ames L, Ilg F, and Gesell SB,  "Your Ten to Fourteen Year Old", Institute of Human Behaviour. Delta publications 1989.

Waddell, Margot "Understanding 12-14 Year Olds" London, Tavistock Clinic. 1994.

Wolf, Anthony E. "Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?" Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2002

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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