Social and emotional changes in teens

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: a survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

For teens' social and emotional growth, there are two major developmental tasks:

  • Developing friendships that are closer and more supportive than friendships in elementary school.
  • Learning to understand and express more complex emotions.

These two tasks are intertwined and interdependent.

Developing friendships

As teens grow and change emotionally, they typically spend more time with peers and less with parents and family. Teens often give priority to being with their peers instead of parents and family.

Young teens and pre-teens, age 11 to 13, try to find a circle of friends where they are accepted and fit in. Friends at this age are usually the same gender. Because teens are maturing on different timelines, young teens may seek out those who are at similar maturity levels. Parents might be surprised when a teen is no longer close to a longtime childhood friend.

As teens move into middle adolescence, age 14 to 16, they become more tolerant of different interests and opinions. They begin to worry less about approval from peers. They may also develop friendships with the opposite sex.

In later adolescence, age 17 to early 20s, teens tend to have a variety of friends. They may have a few close friendships and begin romantic relationships.

Understanding complex emotions

Awareness of their own emotions occurs as teens begin to identify and name those emotions. Teens start to become more socially aware, recognizing emotions in those around them. This is the start of developing empathy for others. For example, a teen might begin to notice how each of their friends reacts a little differently to the same situation.

Teens also begin to manage their emotions. In psychological terms, this is called “emotional regulation.” Teens start to step back and think about their emotions before reacting. For example, instead of immediately showing anger over a friend's action, a maturing teen will first consider:

  • Circumstances that led to the friend's action.
  • Possible reasons for the friend's action.
  • Possible responses to keep the friendship intact.

This process is an important step in learning to interact and get along with peers, as well as making and keeping friends.

What parents can do

Here's what you, as a parent, can do to help your teen handle emotions and friendships:

  • Talk about what it means to be a good friend. Point out examples in movies, books, or other media.
  • Model healthy ways to interact with others. These include being loyal, honest yet tactful, and considerate of others' feelings.
  • Get to know your teen's friends. You might offer to provide rides. Make your home a welcoming place.

Children's Mental Health Research to Practice Series resources

CYFC partnered with the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health (MACMH) to host a Research to Practice training series at the annual Child and Mental Health Conference. This series featured University of Minnesota faculty and staff and provided an in-depth review of basic and applied research, best practices, and translation of research to practice and policy. These events offered advanced training for experienced professionals with an opportunity to participate in a full day of learning and interaction. The following resources were taken from Managing Emotions in Teens: Responding Dysregulation and Challenging Behaviors event.

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Related resources

The Teen Years ExplainedClea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This e-book can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator emerita in family relations

Reviewed by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2018

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