Focus Area 2: Youth Development
4. The Adolescent Years: Ages 13 to 18

Adolescence is a time of many transitions for both adolescents (teens) and their families. The many developmental tasks facing teens are challenging. This includes teens testing boundaries for independence. Yet they are not - and do not want to be - totally independent.

Parents, guardians, and adults working with teens need to provide a supportive environment as teens face these developmental changes and tasks. Knowledge about what changes and behaviors during adolescence are normal can go a long way in helping both teens and adults manage this transition phase successfully.


Healthy transition from childhood to adulthood is a time of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive independence and change. It is important for teens, their parents/guardians and adults who work with teens to understand the changes that are occurring and to be prepared to give good guidance through all the ups and downs the new teenager is going to experience.

Social/Emotional Development

Adolescence is a time of big change in the way youth interact with family, peers, and other adults. This is a transformational time and these changes indicate a youth is preparing for life as an adult. This stage can be very difficult because society places big expectations on them, yet we know their brain is still not fully developed. A lack of executive functioning skills leads to many mistakes, sometimes even life-altering mistakes.

Social changes

  • Adolescents are busy finding their way in society as they experiment with different social roles and seeking out what feels right and comfortable.
  • They are looking for less and less guidance from adults in their lives, sometimes to a fault. But what they desire and need is a sense of independence and that is worth the mistakes they might make.
  • Adolescents want more responsibility as a means to demonstrate they are capable and have an ability to act as an adult. They want to prove their worth.
  • Their sense of self-esteem is more determined by peers than adults. They seek peer groups where they feel accepted and valued. These peer groups may or may not reflect the values of their family and caregivers, which may cause confusion or provide relief.
  • Adolescents begin to develop a deeper sense of morality. They question “right” and “wrong” beyond the rules they were taught in early stages of their lives. This is the beginning of social consciousness and the formation of how they view society and the constructs around it.

Emotional changes

  • Emotional feeling often becomes very intense and can be prolonged in adolescence. Youth are learning to understand emotions and develop a sense of how those feelings can be used positively as an adult, and how to control emotions that lead to negative outcomes.
  • Adolescents become more aware of the emotions in others. They are less self-centric and begin to see how their emotions affect others and vice versa. This can lead to rough interpersonal relationships as they learn, develop, and make mistakes with their emotional awareness skills.
  • Adolescence can be thought of as an awakening. Youth are learning so much so quickly about emotions that sometimes they think they have it all figured out. This often leads to a sense of overconfidence, may result in mistakes, and often leads to misunderstandings. But this is how they learn best.
  • They can be hypersensitive to the feedback of others. They are absorbing so many emotions and trying to make sense of them as well as the emotions they now recognize in others, that they may become argumentative and burdened with the need to manage emotions. 

Physical Development & Sexuality

Adolescents between 13 and 18 years of age experience changes in their physical development at a rate of speed unparalleled since infancy. Physical development includes:

  • Rapid gains in height and weight. During a one-year growth spurt, boys and girls can gain an average of 4.1 inches and 3.5 inches in height respectively. (Steinberg, 2007). This spurt typically occurs two years earlier for girls than for boys. Weight gain results from increased muscle development in boys and body fat in girls.
  • Development of secondary sex characteristics. During puberty, changing hormonal levels play a role in activating the development of secondary sex characteristics. These characteristics include:
    • growth of pubic hair
    • menstrual periods for girls or penis growth for boys
    • voice changes for boys
    • growth of underarm hair
    • facial hair growth for boys
    • increased production of oil and sweat gland activity, as well as the beginning of acne
  • Continued brain development. Recent research suggests that brains are not completely developed until late in adolescence into early adulthood. Specifically, studies suggest that incomplete connections between neurons affect emotional, physical and mental abilities. (Strauch, 2003). This could explain why some teens seem to be inconsistent in controlling their emotions, impulses, and judgments.

How Do These Physical Changes Affect Teens?

Physical changes can impact teens in many ways, including:

  • Teens frequently sleep longer. Research suggests that teens actually need more sleep to allow their bodies to conduct the internal work required for such rapid growth. On average, teens need about nine and a half hours of sleep a night. (Strauch, 2003)
  • Teens may be clumsier because of growth spurts. If it seems to you that teens' bodies are all arms and legs your perception is correct. During this phase of development, body parts don't all grow at the same rate. This can lead to clumsiness as the teen tries to cope with limbs that seem to have grown overnight.
  • Teenagers may become overly sensitive about their weight. The rapid weight gain that typically comes with puberty can be disconcerting to a teen, and especially to females due to societal conditioning. The Centers for Disease Control reported in a 2005 study that 62% of adolescent girls report that they are trying to lose weight. A small percentage of adolescent girls (1% to 3%) become so obsessed with their weight that they develop severe eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. (Alonso, et al., 2005). Anorexia nervosa refers to starvation, while bulimia refers to binge eating and vomiting. Boys are less likely to experience these conditions but are not immune to them.

Teens may be concerned that they are not physically developing at the same rate as their peers.

  • Whether an "early-maturer" or ‘late-maturer’, being out of developmental step with peers is a concern among adolescents because most just want to fit in. Early maturation affects boys and girls differently. Research suggests that early-maturing boys tend to be more popular with peers and hold more leadership positions.
  • Assumptions based on signs of physical maturation can lead to false expectations about a young person's ability to take on increased responsibility. Because of their physical appearance, early-maturing girls are more likely to experience pressure to be in dating relationships with older boys before they are emotionally ready. Early-maturing girls also tend to experience more depression, eating disorders, and anxiety. Adults often assume that early-maturing boys are cognitively mature as well. (Ge, et al., 2001).

How do Physical Changes Relate to Sexuality?

These physical changes also lead to questions related to sexuality. For example,

  • Teens may feel awkward about demonstrating affection to the opposite sex parent. As they develop physically, teens are beginning to rethink their interactions with the opposite sex. A girl who used to hug and kiss her dad when he returned home from work may now as a teenager shy away. A boy who used to kiss his mother good night may now wave to her on his way up the stairs.
  • Teens may ask more direct questions about sex. At this stage, teens are trying to figure out their values around sex. Often, they equate intimacy with sex. They tend to assume that the emotional attachment will follow after engaging in the physical act. Teens also will ask questions about sex without becoming embarrassed. Questions may relate to abstaining, how to know when the time is right, as well as methods of birth control and protection from sexually transmitted diseases. 

Questions related to sexuality can sometimes be challenging to address. Adults aren't always comfortable with this subject and there are some important considerations to keep in mind, no matter what your comfort level is. First and foremost, when helping young people navigate questions and their personal values related to sexuality, it's important to have a good handle on your own values and biases.

Lauren Barineau, founder of Talk More, has coached countless teachers, parents, and other adults on what to say about sexuality and how to say it. In this video, she shares simple approaches you can use to support teens in being affirmed in their values.

Cognitive Development

Most adults recognize that teens have better thinking skills than younger youth. Advances in thinking among adolescents can be divided into distinct areas:

  • Developing advanced reasoning skills. Advanced reasoning skills include the ability to think about multiple options and possibilities. It includes a more logical thought process and the ability to think about things hypothetically. Essentially, they are asking and answering the question, "what if...?"
  • Developing abstract thinking skills. Abstract thinking means thinking about things that cannot be seen, heard, or touched. Examples include faith, trust, beliefs, and spirituality.
  • Developing the ability to think about thinking ("meta-cognition"). This is a process that allows individuals to think about how they feel and what they are thinking. It also includes being able to think about how one is perceived by others. It can also be used to develop strategies for improved learning (e.g. mnemonic devices: using the phrase “every good boy does fine’ to remember the e, g, b, d and f notes on the lines of a music staff).

How Do These Cognitive Changes Affect Teens?

These cognitive changes include teens thinking about themselves and others in a different way. This can be challenging to themselves and others. For example: 

  • Teens demonstrate a heightened level of self-consciousness. Teens tend to believe that everyone is as concerned with their thoughts and behaviors as they are. This leads teens to believe that they have an "imaginary audience" of people who are always watching them.
  • Teens tend to believe that no one else has ever experienced similar feelings and emotions. Teens may become overly dramatic in describing things that are upsetting to them. They may say things like "You'll never understand," or "My life is ruined!"
  • Teens tend to exhibit the "it can't happen to me" syndrome. Also known as a "personal fable,” this belief causes teens to take unnecessary risks like drinking and driving ("I won't crash this car"), having unprotected sex ("I can't possibly get pregnant"), or smoking ("I can't possibly get cancer").
  • Teens tend to become very cause-oriented. Their activism is related to the ability to think about abstract concepts. For example, a teen may become a vegetarian and a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) after reading about cruelty to animals. Another teen may become active in Green Peace or Save the Whales campaigns.
  • Teens tend to exhibit a "justice" orientation. Teens are quick to point out inconsistencies between the ‘words’ and the ‘actions’ of adults. They have difficulty seeing shades of gray and see little room for error.

Relationships with Parents

Strong relationships between young people and their parents provide protective support against a range of adolescent behaviors that affect health and wellbeing, such as substance use, violence, unsafe sexual behaviors. Yet the teenage years are often a time of stress and strain in these vital relationships.

Adolescence is often a risky phase of development because there are so many changes taking place, so quickly. While the young person no longer needs the constant care of a parent they also aren’t fully ready to take on adult responsibilities completely on their own. They may not like to admit it, but teens do still need adult care and connection.

Parents and teens will both need to work out how to successfully transition from a parent-child relationship to a more adult-adult relationship. Youth workers can be influential in this transition time because of the trust they have built with the young person. 

Promoting Achievement of Milestones in Teenage Years

Interpersonal relationships are critical to helping young people cope with stressors, yet adolescents tend to push away this support. Your role is to find a balance between allowing them enough independence that they don’t push you away and maintaining enough support to protect them from emotional and social distress and societal and legal mistakes. Encourage them to grow, acknowledge their struggles, celebrate their successes, and help them learn from their mistakes.

Your role as a youth worker is like a life coach. You can no longer tell them what to do like you could with younger children. But, you can offer advice and encouragement! To help them achieve their milestones of adolescence, you need to establish a trusting relationship so they will be comfortable confiding in you and accept your feedback. It’s important to understand that they may not always accept your feedback in the moment, but if they trust you, they will internalize it and refer to it in later situations. In youth work, take comfort in knowing that you are often “planting seeds” that will grow when you are not around. 

Summary for the Teenage Years

Teenage years are tough! It is often a “make or break” time in a young person’s life. You’ll find that some youth are more prepared for adolescence than others. That’s because they were successful with their earlier stages of development and they are ready for the developmental tasks of this next stage.

But many young people in youth programs may have intense struggles with this stage because they are not well-prepared for adolescence. Many lacked the support and skilled caregivers needed earlier in their lives and are still in early stages of social and emotional development, despite their age and physical development. As mentioned earlier, youth do not advance to the next stage until they reach their milestones for a given stage of development.

This paradox causes a lot of problems and can lead to mistakes in adolescence that may affect the youth for their entire lifetime. It is critical for you, as a youth worker, to assess the needs of youth regardless of their age. If you expect an 18-year-old to have appropriate work skills when socially they are in the pre-teen stage, they are certain to struggle, fail, and look to find comfort somehow. This can lead to anti-social behavior, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse/addiction, and other problematic behaviors.

The good news is that you can help them by placing appropriate expectations on them, aligned with their developmental stage rather than just their age. With proper guidance and the support of trusting relationships with caring adults just like you, they can and will catch up developmentally. Don’t give up on them, despite their desire to seek independence. They do need you in their lives.


Adolescents (teens) are looking to establish their own identity and autonomy. But they continue to need positive, caring adults to play an active role in their lives. Adults, including you as a youth worker, need to provide teens with:

  • Opportunities they need to grow into adult roles
  • Some room to be responsible for their own decisions and be accountable for the consequences of those decisions
  • Support and guidance so that they will learn from their mistakes and experiences

When working with teens, the physical and emotional changes that they go through can influence how we and others perceive and react to the teen. We need to remember that a teen is not an adult, even if the teen may look like a full-grown adult based on physical appearances.

Adults who work with teens, as well as the parents of teens, walk a tightrope. At times your interactions with a teen will be challenging and uncertain, but it is essential that parents and adults remain steadfast in their commitment to the teen.

Knowing the developmental tasks to achieve during adolescence will help you to be aware of their unique needs and provide them with opportunities to successfully grow into their adult roles.

Adolescence is a critical time. Here are some tips for supporting teens in successfully navigating changes in three key channels of development: 

Physical Development

  • Don't criticize or compare the teen to others. Teens are already acutely self-conscious about the way they look. They don't need you to point it out to them.  
  • Encourage teens to get enough sleep. Realize they may need an extra boost in getting out of bed for school or weekend morning activities. Help their parents/guardians to be understanding when teens want to sleep until noon on Saturday.
  • Encourage and model healthy eating habits. Keep plenty of nutritious foods at the program site and encourage parents to do likewise at home. Remember that teens need to take in a high number of calories to fuel their rapid growth. Monitor eating habits accordingly.
  • Encourage and model physical activity. Exercise will help teens burn excess energy, strengthen developing muscles, and sleep better at night. Exercise can also help teens become more comfortable with their changing bodies.
  • Provide honest answers to teens about sex. Teens are in search of knowledge on this subject. If adults do not provide accurate information, teens are forced to rely on their peers or other potentially less informed, inaccurate sources. Unfortunately, such erroneous information can lead to teens making poor decisions.
  • Be understanding of their need for physical space. Maintain communication, but respect teens' need to withdraw. Remind parents not to take it personally if the teen is not as physically affectionate as they were in the past. Do not force them to hug or kiss relatives or family friends.
  • Be patient with excessive grooming habits. Teens often spend large amounts of time grooming themselves and obsessing over skin care products. Often this behavior merely reflects their attempts to maintain some sense of control over their rapidly changing bodies. 

Cognitive Development

  • Don't take it personally when teens discount your experience. Try to empathize with and listen to their concerns. Enlist the help of a slightly older sibling or friend to give good advice to the teen if needed.
  • Get teens involved in discussing their behavioral rules and consequences. Teens should take a more active role in determining how they may be expected to behave. Their advanced reasoning skills make it easier for them to generate realistic consequences for their actions. Listen to their ideas! This topic will be discussed more in depth in the Focus Area 3: Communications module.
  • Provide opportunities for teens to participate in controlled risky behavior. Get teens involved in properly supervised extreme sports, such as parachuting or rock climbing. Such activities will provide opportunities for teens to play out their "it can't happen to me" mentality in an environment that won't be deadly if they fail.
  • Provide opportunities for teens to get involved in community service. Teens want to become active in things that have deeper meaning. Suggest they volunteer at a homeless shelter, walk dogs for the animal shelter, or take meals to the elderly or sick. Talk with them about their experiences.
  • Talk with teens about their views and be open to discussing your own. Find out what they think about news stories and current events. Ask them about their political and spiritual beliefs. Teens are already thinking about these things so give them a non-threatening forum for discussing them.
  • Invest yourself in building a genuine relationship with teens. Let them know what you were like as a teen. Talk to them about your mistakes and vulnerabilities. Try to understand their feelings and express yours so you can be understood. 

Social Development

  • Encourage involvement in multiple groups or activities both in school and after-school. Realize that teens are trying to gain both a sense of achievement and a sense of being uniquely good at something. Don't get frustrated if they frequently change their minds about activities. At the same time, encourage them to stick with a project or activity long enough to establish some skills.
  • Praise teens for their efforts as well as their abilities. This will help teens stick with activities instead of giving up if they are not immediately successful.
  • Help teens explore career goals and options. Take teens to work so they can see what adults do. Set up opportunities for them to "job shadow" others. Ask them questions about their future career goals. Remember that figuring out what they don't want to do is just as important as figuring out what they like!
  • Give teens an opportunity to establish behavioral guidelines and consequences. With their advanced cognitive skills coupled with their need for autonomy, this is the perfect time for them to provide suggestions and to demonstrate responsibility for their own behavior. For example, have teens provide input to programming and behavioral guidelines. Also encourage parents to allow teens to have input into curfews and other family rules.
  • Establish rituals to mark significant passages. There are few rituals in our modern society to mark the passage of teens to adulthood. Some ideas to provide to parents are: a) a mother-daughter luncheon when the daughter gets her first period or a father-son outing when the son begins to shave; b) a family celebration when the teen moves from middle school or junior high to high school; and c) a celebration when the teen obtains a driver's license or votes in an official election. When appropriate, celebrations can also be done at the program site for major milestones (e.g. moving from middle school or junior high school to senior high school).
  • Be aware of who your teens' friends are and what they are doing. Despite teens' objections, adults in their lives should know who their friends are and where they are going. Suggest to parents that they meet the parents of teens' friends, as well as ideas for fun things to do at home that will encourage teens to "hang out" at home. Parental monitoring should not end when youth enter their teen years.
  • Continue to provide a structured environment. Teens should be allowed to have more independence, but not so much that may place them in jeopardy. Despite their complaints, teens rely on adults to provide them with the sense of safety and structure that they need in order to deal effectively with all the psycho-social tasks of adolescents.

In working with teenagers, it will help to remind yourself that they do need you, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. Stay patient. Be supportive. And model for them all that they are seeking to learn and achieve to successfully transition to the kind of adulthood they so strongly desire.

Anything you can do to help teens develop true resiliency and competency will be central to them navigating adolescence in healthy ways.

Reference Sources
1 Adolescent Growth & Development, Erin Morgan, Research Associate, Human Development and Angela Huebner, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Human Development; Virginia Tech University and Virginia Cooperative Extension (2009).
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