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Communicating with children

Early Adolescent Years

Eleven through 14 years

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0593/Pirozzi
South Africa: Children participate in a child photography workshop

Adolescence is believed by many to be potentially a stormy and stressful period when young people are simultaneously handling physical, social, emotional and cognitive changes. This is the period of transition to adulthood, and adolescents may experience frequent mood swings and aggressive or emotional outbursts. They are often torn between rational thought and irrational risk taking, between adult responsibility and childish mischief.

Current research on brain development during this period of life supports the conclusion that adolescence is characterized by sensation-seeking and higher risk taking. Additionally, there is a disconnect with complex thinking as early adolescents whose executive functions have yet to develop, have difficulty demonstrating rational abilities of planning, setting priorities, making decisions and weighing consequences of their actions. Hormonal and physical changes associated with puberty, as well as a growing attraction and interest in sex and intimate relationships, bring about the development of couples and the onset of sexual experiences in societies that permit it.

Adolescents tend to rely on friends more than family, depending on their culture: This can help define their identity and be expressed in a variety of separation behaviours (unique fashion, taste in music, joining social groups and movements, expanding social networking on the Internet, producing their own visuals and texts). The search for identity also serves as a source of exploration and expression of thoughts and feelings about a wide range of issues. As a result, peer pressure plays a central role in decision-making and behavioural patterns, including those which are antisocial, unhealthy and put adolescents at risk (aggression, alcohol and substance abuse, unsafe sex and others).

Where the expectation of autonomy, individualism and self-reliance in Western societies is encouraged, such changes can become a source of conflict between adolescents and their families; while in more traditional societies, where a more collective view of society and conformity for adolescents is the norm, it is less likely to be a source of stress. In some parts of the world, adolescents have very little discretionary time, as they must help support their family, whereas in other places they have more time to socialize and be with their friends.

We can see then that the nature of adolescence is very much culturally constructed and that growing into adulthood takes different forms in different societies. Cultural differences play a very significant role in constructing what it means to be a child and an adolescent at different stages of development, and requires that our communication be culturally specific. What is clearly shared by all cultures, though, is the fact that while growing up, adolescents continue to need loving and empathic adults who provide guidance, serve as positive role models, set clear boundaries and expectations and guide them to make the best choices.


 Domains Main Developmental Characteristics

  • Capable of adult-like abstract and logical thought
  • Emerging concern for, and exploration of, options regarding future plans
  • Literacy levels might not be consistent with chronological age
  • Increasing independence and breaking away from adult authority (depending on culture)
  • Interested in mastering physical challenges
  • Experimenting with new behaviours, including risky ones
  • Experimenting with identity behaviours related to gender, race, religion, class, etc.
  • Often influenced by peer culture
  • Holding strong beliefs and principles on moral dilemmas
  • Exhibiting rebellious behaviours against authorities
  • Developing romantic and sexual relationships (depending on culture)
  • To be informed and guided into adult life, including about behaviours that put them at risk and about responsible sexual behaviours
  • To have strong, positive role models with high moral standards
  • To have recognition and respect of their opinions and ideas
  • To be allowed to learn from mistakes and correct self-destructive behaviours

 Implications for Communication

• Present positive peer-group behaviours and other adolescents who are resilient and positive
• Present divergent points of view, opinions and perspectives
• While presenting growing independence, continue to portray positive parent-child relationships/nurturing adult-child relationships
• Portray characters with high self-esteem, especially for girls, children from disadvantaged groups and ethnic minorities, and children with disabilities
• Portray gender-progressive roles in adolescents and adults
• Talk about issues of concern to their particular age group (substance abuse, unprotected sex, violence, romantic relationships, bullying and discrimination, friendships)
• Talk respectfully and not didactically: Do not “talk down”
• Present high-interest, low-literacy alternatives
• Present challenging stories with creative ideas, difficulties and solutions
• Use a lot of humour and creativity

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