Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of adolescence

Adolescent development

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 03 February 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:301
  1. Deborah Christie,
  2. Russell Viner


    In the care of adolescent patients, all aspects of clinical medicine are played out against a background of rapid physical, psychological, and social developmental changes. These changes produce specific disease patterns, unusual presentations of symptoms, and above all, unique communication and management challenges. This can make working with adolescents difficult. However, with the right skills, practising medicine with young people can be rewarding and fruitful. These skills are needed by everyone who works with young people in the course of their work.

    As a young person enters adolescence, their parents are still largely responsible for all aspects of their health. By the end of adolescence, health issues will be almost entirely the responsibility of the young person. The challenge is to maintain an effective clinical relationship while the health responsibilities transfer from the parents to the young person.

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    Specialised clinical communication skills are needed to take an accurate history, bearing in mind new life domains not applicable to children (sex and drugs) and adding communication and engagement of the family to the standard adult consultation. Physical examinations of adolescents require consideration of privacy and personal integrity as well as requiring additional skills such as pubertal assessment. For effective treatment of illness in adolescence, doctors need to know about adolescent development if they are to manage adeptly issues of adherence (compliance), identity, consent and confidentiality, and relationships between young people and their families. Evidence from randomised controlled trials clearly shows that such skills can be developed and practised effectively in primary care.

    View this table:

    The primary challenges of adolescence

    Developmental tasks

    During adolescence young people will negotiate puberty and the completion of growth, take on sexually dimorphic body shape, develop new cognitive skills (including abstract thinking capacities), develop a clearer sense of personal and sexual identity, and develop a degree of emotional, personal, and financial …

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