Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

Adolescent development

Two school girls

A critical transition

WHO identifies adolescence as the period in human growth and development that occurs after childhood and before adulthood, from ages 10 to19. It represents one of the critical transitions in the life span and is characterized by a tremendous pace in growth and change that is second only to that of infancy. Biological processes drive many aspects of this growth and development, with the onset of puberty marking the passage from childhood to adolescence. The biological determinants of adolescence are fairly universal; however, the duration and defining characteristics of this period may vary across time, cultures, and socioeconomic situations. This period has seen many changes over the past century namely the earlier onset of puberty, later age of marriage, urbanization, global communication, and changing sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Key developmental experiences

The process of adolescence is a period of preparation for adulthood during which time several key developmental experiences occur. Besides physical and sexual maturation, these experiences include movement toward social and economic independence, and development of identity, the acquisition of skills needed to carry out adult relationships and roles, and the capacity for abstract reasoning. While adolescence is a time of tremendous growth and potential, it is also a time of considerable risk during which social contexts exert powerful influences.

Pressures to engage in high risk behaviour

Many adolescents face pressures to use alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs and to initiate sexual relationships at earlier ages, putting themselves at high risk for intentional and unintentional injuries, unintended pregnancies, and infection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Many also experience a wide range of adjustment and mental health problems. Behavior patterns that are established during this process, such as drug use or nonuse and sexual risk taking or protection, can have long-lasting positive and negative effects on future health and well-being. As a result, during this process, adults have unique opportunities to influence young people.

Adolescents are different both from young children and from adults. Specifically, adolescents are not fully capable of understanding complex concepts, or the relationship between behavior and consequences, or the degree of control they have or can have over health decision making including that related to sexual behaviour. This inability may make them particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and high-risk behaviours. Laws, customs, and practices may also affect adolescents differently than adults. For example, laws and policies often restrict access by adolescents to reproductive health information and services, especially when they are unmarried. In addition, even when services do exist, provider attitudes about adolescents having sex often pose a significant barrier to use of those services.

Family and community are key supports

Adolescents depend on their families, their, communities, schools, health services and their workplaces to learn a wide range of important skills that can help them to cope with the pressures they face and make the transition from childhood to adulthood successfully. Parents, members of the community, service providers, and social institutions have the responsibility to both promote adolescent development and adjustment and to intervene effectively when problems arise.