A second chance in the second decade

Adolescence: a period needing special attention


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Recognizing adolescence

Adolescence is a period of life with specific health and developmental needs and rights1. It is also a time to develop knowledge and skills, learn to manage emotions and relationships, and acquire attributes and abilities that will be important for enjoying the adolescent years and assuming adult roles.2 3

All societies recognize that there is a difference between being a child and becoming an adult. How this transition from childhood to adulthood is defined and recognized differs between cultures and over time. In the past it has often been relatively rapid, and in some societies it still is. In many countries, however, this is changing.

The period between childhood and adulthood is growing longer and more distinct. Puberty is starting earlier in many countries, although in general the timing of menarche has levelled off in high income countries at 12–13 years. At the same time, key social transitions to adulthood are postponed until well after biological maturity. Young people spend more years in education and training, their expectations have changed, and contraception is increasingly available to prevent pregnancy. As a result, young people take on adult roles and responsibilities later, such as family formation and employment.

Gap between biological maturity and social transitions to adulthood
Infographic showing age at first sex, marriage, childbirth (USA)

How people understand what is taking place during adolescence and how they think and talk about adolescents, as problems or as social capital, for example, is important for what they do and how they do it. This section, therefore, outlines the characteristics of adolescence and explains why adolescence is a special period requiring explicit attention in policies and programmes.

Defining terms. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines adolescents as those people between 10 and 19 years of age. The great majority of adolescents are, therefore, included in the age-based definition of “child”, adopted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child,4 as a person under the age of 18 years. Other overlapping terms used in this report are youth (defined by the United Nations as 15–24 years) and young people (10–24 years), a term used by WHO and others to combine adolescents and youth.

While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably5 6 and may be defined differently in different countries, with “adolescence”, for example, starting at 12 years or “youth” continuing into the mid-30s, this report focuses primarily on the second decade of life. When data on youth or young people are included, this is usually because available data have been aggregated in ways that do not distinguish the adolescent years specifically.7


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Health is the basis for everything. If you want to study or work, you need to be in good physical and mental health.

female, 15-17, South Africa

Health is relative, based on the way you observe it. You can have a healthy body but an aching soul. I think it sums up to a balance of forces that make your body and mind work together to be able to experience freedom and with that, to create goals.

male, 15-17, Mexico

The proper functioning of one person is crucial for the society because our problems affect our behaviour, which will sooner or later affect the whole society.

trans, 12-14, Argentina

Your health is not only your future but also the future of those around you. If I were to die at a young age, I would be unable to contribute to the economy or the population. An individual contracting a disease increases the risk of other individuals within that community contracting it. Therefore, it is important to keep healthy to ensure my safety and the safety of others.

female, 15-17, Saudi Arabia

If you feel well, you produce, you contribute, you are happy and you create a positive social environment.

female, 18-19, Mexico

Health is important to me because being in a state of complete health means being able to function at my full potential, and hence being able to perform at my best and contribute as much as I can to the activities I am involved in.

female, 15-17, Switzerland

It is important because I want to live a long life, and I don't want to be restricted by any illness that would be the result of being unhealthy. I want to be a role model to children that I may have because I know how important it is to have someone that you can look up to and to motivate you to be healthy and to exercise.

female, 15-17, United Kingdom

Adolescents on the meaning of health: To have the ability to do things well, without any sort of discomfort or pain. To ensure a comfortable future, without any complications like diabetes or any sort of cardiac disease, etc., caused by what was done in the past.

Gender not specified, 18–19, Mexico

Health is life. Being in good health allows you to really throw yourself into life.

female, 15-17, France