Social-Emotional Development of Young Adolescents: Fact and Fiction

Beginning with G. Stanley Hall in the early 1900s, the age and developmental period of young adolescence began to be explored and set apart from other developmental stages of life.  From Hall to current time, researchers are still trying to understand this complicated developmental period of life that changes both the physical body and the social and emotional state of being. Due to the limited literature in young adolescent socio-emotional development, it is difficult to make many conclusive arguments.  Although more studies are finding neurological connections to puberty and beginning to understand it more clearly, there is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the puberty/ socio-emotional connection. However, the impact that this development has on young adolescents is obvious to the youth themselves, as well as parents, teachers, and others who are involved in young adolescent lives. Without more definitive data, parents will continue to misunderstand their children’s responses, teachers will continue to assume that their students are walking hormones, and society will continue to look at this stage of development as one of “storm and stress” and treat young adolescents accordingly.

Puberty: A Unique Stage with Constantly Changing Variability

The first and possibly most obvious connection to physiological and socio-emotional development lies in the growth of the brain at the time of adolescence. Although there still is not an abundance of studies, there does seem to appear some social cognition consistencies in frontal lobe and pre-frontal cortex brain activity (Blakemore, 2008; Olson et al., 2007; Yugelun-Todd, 2007).

The second connection of physical to socio-emotional development is puberty itself.  The “interpersonal, physical and hormonal changes associated with puberty may contribute to changes in the behavioural and neural correlates of social emotional processing” (Burnett et al., 2010, p. 682).  Because puberty is not a “one size fits all” experience for young adolescents, nor does it occur all at once but instead over time; puberty should be recognized as a unique stage of development with constantly changing variability (Blakemore et al., 2010; Dorn, 2006; Lerner & Galambos, 1998).

Gender Differences

A connection to physical development and socio-emotional development that Simmons and Blyth (1987) spent a great deal of time dissecting is that of gender differences. Garaigordoil (2009) also used gender differences to look at socio-emotional variables and found that girls did in fact have significantly higher scores in pro-social behavior, emotional understanding, and anxiety-shyness, and that boys and girls had similar scores in self-concept and anti-social behaviors. The first, and most widely discussed, concerns the increase for risk-taking behaviors.  Hall (1904), Tanner (1962), and Simmons and Blyth (1987) all discussed the increase of these impulse control behaviors in their texts giving a variety of rationales for the rise, but until the neurosciences became involved the rationales were speculation at best.

Peer and Social Influence

Peer and social influence are also closely tied to socio-emotional development, especially during young adolescence.  The further development of the fronto-parietal network affects self-perception processing and can influence adolescents’ views of how others perceive them (Pfeifer et al., 2009).   It is noted repeatedly that adolescents are beginning to read the cues of others by learning how to respond in more interpersonal relationships and this regard for other’s opinions can impact socio-emotional development in both positive and negative ways (Steinberg & Morris, 2001; Yurgelun-Todd, 2007; Burnett et al., 2010). 

In addition, at this stage in life, sexuality and physical relationships with others begin to become more prominent. Moreover, at the same time parent and family dynamics are changing which often lead to more independent behaviors (Nelson et al., 2005; Steinberg, 2005).  Once again through brain imaging it can be seen that “adolescence clearly represents a period of heightened emotional responsiveness to social stimuli and socially related events” and that these changes need the new found ability for constant reappraisal of situations both innocuous and potentially threatening (Nelson et al., 2005, p. 169).

What was Once Fact is Fiction

Although connections between physiological development and socio-emotional development have been empirically shown, other studies that have found what was once deemed fact to be nothing more than fiction.

Fact or Fiction: Boys exhibit more anti-social behavior than girls.

In regards to gender it has been said by other researchers that boys exhibit more anti-social behavior during young adolescents than girls.  Garaigordobil (2009) found no statistical evidence of this.  In addition, Blakemore’s (2008) brain study found no empirical evidence that “reported significant behavioral development that is specific to social cognition and that cannot be explained by general improvements in attention, concentration, memory, and so on” (p. 275).  Because of the many variables that can impact adolescent development (i.e. genetic, family and peer influences, etc.) it is often difficult to pull apart one area of socialization and deem it the cause for certain behaviors (Steinberg & Morris, 2001).

Fact or Fiction: Young adolescents’ hormones cause them to be “moody.”

Another common area of study is hormone level changes in both boys and girls, brought upon by puberty, and the connection to socio-emotional development. While there is some evidence that these hormones can bring about moodiness, it only accounts for a small percentage than what is popularly believed. Instead social situations have been found to be more responsible for moody behavior than actual hormone levels (Steinberg & Morris, 2001; Lerner & Galambos, 1998; Buchanan et al., 1992).   It is important to understand that this belief is still upheld in many homes and schools and the only way to truly extinguish this idea is to continue research in this area.  Until the popular belief that hormones alone are the cause of emotional upheaval during young adolescence, masses of young adolescents everywhere will continue to have this negative stereotype attached to them and the real reasons for the emotional instability that sometimes occurs during this developmental stage will not be identified and addressed more satisfactorily.

Fact or Fiction: Young adolescents are too young to be developing their identities.

A missing component in the historical texts pertains to identity development and its connection to puberty and socio-emotional development. However, it is widely acknowledged that gender, racial/ethnic, and sexual orientation identity development are key aspects to young adolescence and connect to puberty in a variety of ways.  Erikson’s (1963) adolescence stage of psychosocial development “identity versus role confusion” discusses the importance of identity establishment during adolescence; he suggested that most adolescents will achieve some form of identity regarding who they are as individuals during this stage.

Concerning gender identity development, the physical changes that occur during puberty can “affect self-perception and interpersonal relationships” (Jones, et al., 2014, p. 446).  Late and early maturing adolescents, in both males and females, often emphasize this.  In the current society, early maturing males are often looked upon as superior to late maturing males which can impact self-perceptions of masculinity (Frankel, 2004), and late maturing males often show lower ego development due to the same societal expectations (Lindfors, et al., 2007). For females, the opposite is true, “It has been suggested that the weight gain associated with puberty in girls, along with the fluid self-perceptions of body image and merging sexuality elicits negative responses from adults and peers” (Carter et al., 2017, p. 2174).

The second area of identity development explored is racial/ethnic identity.  “Racial identity is a central part of the self-concept and a key developmental task for the adolescent period among racially and ethnically diverse youth” (Carter et al., 2017, p. 2173).  One study focuses on African-American racial identity, specifically, and how pubertal status affects racial identity.  It found that the higher the pubertal status of an adolescent, the lower public regard the individual had (Carter et al., 2017).  The farther along an adolescent was in puberty, and the more aware they were that they “looked” more like an adult, had a negative impact on how they felt that society regarded them as an African-American, especially among males.

The third area explored was sexual orientation and how it contributes to identity development, specifically around adolescence.  According to Bregman et al. (2013), “Although well studied among heterosexual youth [identity development], it is only in the past couple of decades that there have been a growing interest in understanding psychosocial development, in general, and identity development, in particular, among sexual minority youth” (p. 418).  Bergman et al. (2013) found that “parental acceptance and sexuality-specific support remain critical protective resources for LGB youth in these developmental stages” (p. 426).  This finding also supports the earlier information by showing that adolescent socio-emotional development is also dependent on both family and peer support.

Responsiveness is Key to Empowerment

The Successful Middle School: This We Believe outlines specific essential attributes (Responsive, Challenging, Empowering, Equitable, and Engaging) for educating young adolescents and characteristics of successful middle schools (AMLE, n.d.).  By looking more closely at the physiological and socio-emotional development of young adolescents from both historic and current literature, all who work with young adolescents can be “responsive” by using these unique characteristics to help make better educational decisions.  It also allows all members of the school community to “challenge” our young adolescents, knowing what this development stage is capable of, and keeping the learning expectations high for all students.  The information helps “empower” our young adolescents by educating about how to provide environments where students can be responsible for their own learning, specifically around neurological research and the abilities of young adolescents.  Finally, this information allows for the “engagement” of learning by making the educational experience relevant. It also motivates by using the information provided above concerning risk and impulse behaviors and peer and social influence.  This engagement helps involve young adolescents in key decisions in their learning.

The Need for Continued Research

The reasoning behind the importance of more research in the area of socio-emotional development in young adolescents is a simple connection to make.  Brooks-Gunn et al. (1989) stated “The study of adolescence is important because the way young people cope with the changes occurring at this stage of life lays the groundwork for the emergence and maintenance of behaviors related to physical and mental health” (p. 51).    Because of this, the research in socio-emotional development has to continue on.  Without the socio-emotional development knowledge of young adolescents and what can impact both positive and negative changes at this stage in life, parents, teachers, and youth are trapped in fiction and myth.  Without the knowledge of what is occurring in physiological, brain, socio-emotional, and identity development, adults working with young adolescents cannot help navigate this developmental period.  So instead of trying to merely “endure” or “tolerate” this transitional period of life, we can learn to appreciate what our youth have to offer society and tap into this brilliant age and benefit from its energy, creativity, and vigor.

Bobette Bouton is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Austin Peay State University. This article is based on Bouton’s 2014 dissertation.


Association of Middle Level Education (AMLE) (n.d.). The successful middle school: This we believe. Retrieved December 9, 2020, from

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