While the definition of adolescent can differ from culture to culture, it is generally accepted that the time referred to as adolescence is the period between childhood and adulthood, a sort of “no man’s land.”

Geldard and Geldard (2006) explain that adolescence is a time in a young person’s life where they move from dependency on their parents to independence, autonomy and maturity. The young person begins to move from the family group being their major social system, to the family taking a lesser role and being part of a peer group becomes a greater attraction that will eventually lead to the young person to standing alone as an adult.

Adolescence is a period that extends over a substantial part of a person’s life. However, each adolescent experiences individual changes and growth at differing rates, with some moving through the adolescent phase quicker and more smoothly than others. Some adolescents have supportive families, others face this daunting period of their lives alone. Some adolescents may remain at home with their families, but their families are emotionally distant so the adolescent can feel as if they are “alone in a crowd”.

No-one can deny that for any one person facing changes in their lives in the biological, cognitive, psychological, social, moral and spiritual sense, could find this time both exciting and daunting. With the increase in independence comes increases in freedom, but with that freedom, comes responsibilities. Attitudes and perspectives change and close family members often feel they are suddenly living with a stranger.

Biological Challenges

Adolescence begins with the first well-defined maturation event called puberty. Included in the biological challenges are the changes that occur due to the release of the sexual hormones that affect emotions. Mood changes can increase, which can impact on relationships both at home with parents and siblings and socially or at school.

Cognitive Challenges

Piaget, in his theory of social development believed that adolescence is the time when young people develop cognitively from “concrete operations” to “formal operations”. So they are able to deal with ideas, concepts and abstract theories. However, it takes time for confidence to build with using these newly acquired skills, and they may make mistakes in judgement. Learning through success and failure is part of the challenge of the learning process for the adolescent.

Adolescents are egocentric, they can become self conscious; thinking they are being watched by others, and at other times want to behave as if they were on a centre stage and perform for a non existent audience. For example, acting like a music idol, singing their favourites songs in their room, with all the accompanying dance steps.

Adolescents live in their private world where they may think they are invincible and cannot be hurt. However, this could also be because at their age, they have not had to deal with many deaths and the mortality of the human spirit is not a reality yet. This is all a part of the complex process of becoming a separate and unique individual.

Unfortunately, these beliefs can lead them to believe that no-one is capable of understanding them, or know how they are feeling. This aspect could have important implications for counsellors.

Psychological Challenges

The psychological challenges that the adolescent must cope with are moving from childhood to adulthood. A new person is emerging, where rules will change, maybe more responsibilities will be placed on him/her so that a certain standard of behaviour is now required to be maintained. Accountability is becoming an expectation from both a parental and legal concept.

During adolescence the process of individuation occurs, which involves the development of relative independence from family relationships, with the weakening ties to objects and people who were previously important to the young person, coupled by an increased capacity and societal expectation to assume a functional role as a member of adult society.

As adolescents continue their journey of self-discovery, they continually have to adjust to new experiences as well as the other changes happening to them biologically and socially. This can be both stressful and anxiety provoking. It therefore is not surprising that adolescents can have a decreased tolerance for change; hence it becomes increasingly more difficult for them to modulate their behaviours which are sometimes displayed by inappropriate mood swings and angry outbursts.