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Positive youth development

Early Adolescence (12–14 years old)

A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the cognitive part of the circle is larger.

Early Adolescence (12–14 years)

Cognitive development

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What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Brain-Based Development
The brain functions more efficiently Can learn and grasp new concepts and interpret complex information
  • Youth learn through experience. Activities that engage the senses (for example, field trips, games or role-playing) are enjoyable and are also powerful learning tools
  • Support participation in activities that require thinking about multiple things at the same time (for example, learning to juggle, playing a musical instrument or throwing a ball with your non-dominant hand)
  • Introduce challenges that require complex thinking skills (such as building a model bridge structure out of miscellaneous items, including youth in organizing events)
  • Encourage sports and exercise activities to help improve memory and attention skills
  • Encourage continued practice in a range of activities that take advantage of and reinforce the ability to learn new information more quickly and accurately
The brain’s processing speed increases Can learn new information more quickly
Distinctions about risks and rewards begin to emerge

Eager to try a range of new activities

May engage in behaviours that are potentially dangerous or harmful (such as staying out past curfew) with seemingly little regard for potential consequences

May be drawn to thrill-seeking and risk-taking activities (for example, cliff jumping, roller coasters)

May begin to improve ability to assess risk versus reward

Becoming more sensitive to pleasure and rewards such as:

  • having fun with friends
  • getting paid to do chores
  • Encourage youth to take safe risks by providing opportunities to participate in supervised activities that are also thrilling (for example, skateboarding)
  • Help identify potential consequences of risky behaviour by asking questions like: “What do you think could go right?”; “What could go wrong?” or “How could this affect your future?”
  • Provide or connect youth to sources of information (for example, family physician, online resources, someone with related experience)
  • Provide supervision, advice, tools and information to encourage safety and preparedness (such as protective equipment, a cell phone, or a map)
  • Lead by example—youth at this stage look up to older youth and adults—and model sound decision making (for example, by wearing a bike helmet or dealing rationally with conflicts)
  • Provide support in a “non-judgemental” way when dealing with the consequences of risky or harmful decisions
  • When helping a young adolescent make decisions, emphasize the rewarding aspects and positive alternatives rather than the potential consequences
The ability to control impulses and regulate behaviour is not fully developed May have a tendency to seek immediate gratification—impulse control abilities are not fully developed
  • If youth engage in “negative” behaviour (for example, submitting a late assignment) have them describe their thought process leading up to, and following, the behaviour in question (for example, “You always hand in your assignments in on time. What was different about this time?”; or “What would you do differently next time?”)
  • Be patient, compassionate and acknowledge sources of stress that may be impacting a young person’s emotions and behaviour (for example, struggling with grades, a recent argument with a friend)
Development of Reasoning Skills
Capacity for abstract thought increases

Can generalize abstract rules from concrete examples (for example, learns that practice can be beneficial to improve performance at sports and can also be applied to activities outside of sports)

Can consider what might happen in hypothetical as well as in real life situations (for example, can describe what might happen if all the snow in the world melted)

Can formulate and test hypotheses in order to draw conclusions (for example, “I’m going to try a new route to school because I think that it will get me there faster”)

Can suspend beliefs about the real world to consider the structure of an argument

  • Encourage activities that allow youth to organize abstract ideas and draw reasoned conclusions (for example, developing a “pros and cons” list)
  • When an adolescent is learning a new concept, have them describe their thought process out loud. Probe their depth of understanding by:
    • Suggesting alternative explanations (“But have you thought about…?”)
    • Posing alternative perspectives (“Would you think the same way if you were…?”)
    • Asking youth to generate analogies, comparisons and connections (“Do you think that’s similar to…?”)
  • Create opportunities for debate and have debaters argue for positions that they may not personally support (for example, the benefits of shortening the summer holidays)
  • Present riddles and logic puzzles
  • Promote perspective-taking (for example, introduce diverse perspectives, concepts, and lifestyles through movies, books, biographies, case studies and music)
Logical thinking skills expand Can understand logical principles and begin to engage in logical thinking (for example, developing strategies when playing a game that considers how other players might respond to their moves)
Working memory improves Can hold multiple dimensions of a problem in mind at one time (for example, can think about the horizontal effects: if I do ‘X’ it will impact ‘Y’ which will impact ‘Z’)
  • Reflect with a young person about the day’s events and lessons learned
  • Provide youth with different perspectives on how the facts can be interpreted, and explain in relatable terms why those perspectives are valid
Beliefs about knowledge and “facts” become more sophisticated

Notices that individuals exposed to the same facts can draw different conclusions, calling into question the absolute nature of “facts”

Begins to understand that the “right answer” sometimes depends on a variety of factors

A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the emotional part of the circle is larger.

Early Adolescence (12–14 years)

Emotional development

What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Experience of Emotions

Emotional brain centres are developing earlier than other brain regions

Experiences emotions more intensely

May be more emotional, have mood swings and have more intense responses to issues or events such as:

  • having a fight with a friend
  • winning or losing at sports
  • experiencing discipline, rules or fighting with parents

These intense emotions can be acted out in erratic, dramatic, or challenging behaviour (for example, acting aggressively)

  • Much of this emotion is biological—try not to take it personally
  • Acknowledge that emotional “ups and downs” related to conflicts with friends or romantic partners are real and intense
  • Offer to provide constructive help and support to youth when they are engaging in tasks that can be emotionally challenging (for example, experiencing conflict with a peer, when writing a resume)
  • Affectionate, caring adult influences can support positive and healthy management of negative emotions. Be a supportive influence, or incorporate opportunities for youth to access supportive role models. Some ways to do this include:
    • Validating feelings through comments such as “I understand how that could really upset you” or “That would have affected me too”
    • Acknowledging that they are upset and that they are not alone
    • Talking about your own related past experiences and how you managed the situation
    • Being a role model and demonstrating how to manage emotions and stay calm
    • When developing new programs or services, think about how to connect youth to positive adult influences

The ability to read body language is still improving

Becoming able to read and understand other people’s displays of emotion

May not yet be able to properly identify facial expressions of fear (which can sometimes be confused with anger)

  • Clearly communicate feelings through words, as well as through body language
Development of Self-Regulation

Emotional self-control increases

Begins to suppress outward signs of emotion (for example, stifling giggles, trying not to cry)

May begin to cope with negative situations more effectively by applying thinking skills

  • Provide opportunities to encourage the development of strategies to control and address emotions, such as: reframing the situation; refocusing on something happier; trying to think positively about the issue; putting things into perspective; and accepting the situation
  • Some strategies include:
    • Providing space to be alone, relax and reflect
    • Taking time to talk, listen and appreciate their feelings
    • Doing something productive (for example, exercise, supportive humour or art)
  • Provide or connect youth to information about stress reduction techniques like meditation and relaxation training, which can help young people manage emotional fluctuations and stress

Motivation becomes more internalized

Begins to do things that are not necessarily enjoyable because it is personally important (for example, doing homework not only to avoid punishment, but because getting good grades is important to future success)

  • Provide positive feedback for everyday accomplishments
  • Create opportunities for discussion about personal ambitions and challenges. Young people tend to stick with challenging tasks when members of their support system demonstrate interest in them
  • Encourage exploration of things that youth enjoy to learn through experience what motivates them
Development of Empathy

Empathy for others begins to increase

Begins to feel empathy for others as a result of understanding their perspectives and having concern for their feelings (however, not yet likely to experience personal distress about others’ predicaments)

  • Promote perspective-taking to encourage the development of empathy and recognizing the difference between a youth’s own situation and that of other people (for example, someone from a different cultural background)
  • Encourage youth to take an interest in other people and/or topics (for example, volunteering with a community organization)
  • Introduce diverse perspectives, concepts and lifestyles through movies, books, biographies, case studies and music
A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the social part of the circle is larger.

Early Adolescence (12–14 years)

Social development

What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Identity Formation

Development of personal identity begins

May be aware of having choices to make about identity, and may begin exploring those choices

  • Keep an open mind while youth are exploring different selves and avoid passing judgement without first talking with the youth about the reasons behind their choices
  • Provide support, warmth, encouragement and companionship as youth begin to explore their identity
  • Encourage youth to consider options that make them happy, rather than trying to satisfy others

Social group identity begins to emerge

May begin to identify with one or more social groups they belong to (for example, a sports team, cultural groups and communities, gangs)

Placing more importance on “fitting in” or acceptance into their own social groups

Increasing social group-esteem (showing pride in belonging to a social group)

  • Support young people’s exploration of cultural traditions to help them develop their sense of cultural social group identity and social group-esteem. This could include participating in local cultural events (for example, pow-wows, town fairs) or larger events (for example, local Caribbean Carnival)
  • Consider opportunities for young people to socialize and learn from those of similar heritage, ethnicity, race, language or sexual orientation
  • Ensure that youth have opportunities to learn about important social group customs, cultural practices and history (for example, Aboriginal children and youth can learn about the clan system through the telling of stories)

Gender identity and roles become more important

Gender identity becoming more important and stereotypes about gender roles are intensifying

May begin to conform to activities and behaviours considered typical for their identified gender

  • Encourage and create open communication that allows youth to ask questions
  • Don’t make assumptions about gender identity
  • Be aware of using gender stereotypes

Spiritual identity may begin to emerge

May adopt the spiritual traditions of their community, or explore alternative spiritual traditions, and begin to see this as a part of their own personal identity

  • Support young people’s exploration of spiritual and religious traditions to help them develop their sense of spiritual identity (for example, smudging ceremony, charitable activity, trip to the Holy Land)
  • Acknowledge and show sensitivity to a young person’s spiritual side as you interact or develop supports for them

Self-concepts become more abstract

Becoming less likely to describe themselves in concrete terms (I live in Canada, I have a dog)

Becoming more likely to think of themselves in abstract terms (I am a leader, I am ambitious, I am friendly)

  • Engage youth in reflection about self-identity and motivate youth to think about ”who they are” and “who they want to be”

Self-appraisal skills improve

Able to use outcomes and feedback more accurately to gauge their ability levels (for example, setting aside enough time to study to get a good grade on a test or eating well, resting and training to do well in a race)

  • Provide encouragement and advice to youth before they undertake a challenging task to better prepare them and to help them manage their expectations
  • Highlight a young person’s personal strengths (for example, “You are a very caring friend” or “You have always been a very creative person”)
  • Support youth to reflect on their abilities by asking questions, such as:
    • What did you learn about your abilities?”
    • What is one thing you would do the same or change the next time around?”

Self-efficacy decreases

May become less certain of their ability to achieve goals (especially among girls)

  • Provide guidance, support and advice to keep youth motivated and on task
  • Provide academic guidance and opportunities to explore interests and identify talents
  • Model a confident understanding of your own skills and capabilities—youth learn to be self-efficacious from the role models in their lives
  • Provide realistic challenges for youth to tackle, and provide support and counselling through these challenges
  • Help youth set goals and support their attempts to reach those goals (for example, helping them take it “one step at a time”)

Self-esteem declines and becomes less stable

Beginning to display less self-confidence and have more negative thoughts about themselves

May easily have self-esteem disrupted by events that appear to be minor

  • Offer assistance if you feel the young person is becoming distraught, upset, or fatigued—ensure that the young person maintains their sense of leadership in working through the task to encourage a sense of completion and self-efficacy
  • Remember that peer-led initiatives (such as peer mentoring and peer mediation) can and improve levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy
  • Demonstrate confidence in youth’s abilities and provide support (for example, by including them in decision making, by giving them more responsibility)
Development of Relationships

Perspective-taking emerges

Able to understand that other people have different points of view

Able to imagine situations from someone else’s perspective

Able to step outside of situations and imagine an observer’s perspective

  • Introduce diverse perspectives, concepts, and lifestyles through movies, books, biographies, case studies and music

Input from peers becomes more important

Beginning to compare themselves (their abilities, attractiveness, intelligence, popularity) with peers

May become more self-conscious, especially in the presence of peers

May become more vulnerable to peer pressure

  • Encourage participation in positive opportunities for identity formation such as:
    • community organizations
    • mentoring programs
    • youth groups
    • neighbourhood associations
    • physical activities
    • volunteer opportunities

Peer relationships become more important

The peer group is expanding and becoming more important

Spending more time with friends

Contacting friends frequently through phone calls, texting, emailing and chatting online

Friendships are focusing on common activities and sharing of confidences

May begin to expect loyalty and trust in friendships

Less competition and more sharing with friends than in childhood

  • Support the participation of young people in organized events, clubs and teams so that they can identify their talents and potential career paths, and develop skills and moral reasoning
  • Encourage participation in a variety of social activities including new and less direct forms of social interaction (for example, blogging)

Romantic relationships may emerge

Interest in romantic relationships is emerging

Early awareness of sexual orientation emerging, but often remains private

Beginning to form mixed-gender friendship groups and engaging in mixed-gender social activities outside of school

LGBTTQ youth may begin early same-sex interest and may feel some apprehension or anxiety regarding same-sex attractions (due to social stigma)

Closeness achieved by spending time with romantically attractive peers together in a group setting

  • Provide or connect youth to sources of information (for example, workshops held by public health clinics or government/health agency websites)
  • Facilitate participation in supervised, mixed gender activities (for example, a teen dance, a pool party). Parents and caregivers indirectly influence their children’s early romantic development by channelling their social activities in age-appropriate ways
  • Provide opportunities for discussion about relationships and sexuality that is open and non-judgmental. In the absence of accurate biological information about how the body works, youth often create their own explanations or consult their friends

Family relationships begin to evolve

Interest in independence from the family is emerging

Conflicts over minor matters may become more frequent

  • Support youth involvement in structured settings outside of the family to provide an opportunity for self-concepts and identity to emerge through the association of like-minded peer groups and their supporting influence
  • Maintain family connections by establishing routines that bring the family together (such as family meals, participating in activities together)

Moral reasoning is based on social approval

Makes moral decisions on the basis of a desire to win social approval so others will think well of them (I will do the right thing so that other people will think I’m a good person)

  • Be conscientious of your own moral stances—youth replicate styles of moral reasoning in role models
  • Encourage peer interactions (for example, challenging conversations about relevant issues, in which conflicting views are raised and resolved) to stimulate the development of higher forms of moral reasoning
  • Discuss moral dilemmas (for example, discrimination against minorities and social class bias)
  • Provide opportunities for youth to actively participate in deciding between conflicting alternatives or moral dilemmas
A picture of a circle split into four equal parts in different colours with a smaller circle in its centre. Each part represents the different developmental domains of human growth: cognitive (yellow, upper left quarter), emotional (green, upper right quarter), social (blue, lower left quarter) and physical (purple, lower right quarter). To introduce the topic, the physical part of the circle is larger.

Early Adolescence (12–14 years)

Physical development

What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Physical Activity

Participation in physical activity is changing

Levels of physical activity begin declining, time spent playing sports and exercising decreasing

Becoming aware of personal physical strengths and limitations

Able to demonstrate accuracy, consistency and proficiency in activities

Beginning to want to gain competence in particular interest activities

  • Promote or create safe environments where youth can feel comfortable trying new things (for example, without a fear of being teased for failure)
  • Provide access to a variety of opportunities for physical activities that reflect the youth’s needs, skill-level, ability and commitment levels
  • Acknowledge that motivation is external at this stage, consider providing rewards and incentives to motivate participation (for example, hosting ceremonies to recognize the accomplishments or participation of youth in an activity)
  • Support access to or provide fun, positive and encouraging experiences that can impact future healthy active lifestyle habits. Enjoyment is critical to physical development at this stage
  • Provide access to activities that take into consideration barriers such as cost, equipment and transportation (for example, highlight low-cost options such as skateboarding, basketball, soccer, offer opportunities in central locations)

Physical fitness capacities are changing

Increasing cardiovascular endurance, naturally more able to sustain vigorous activity levels (for example, running)

Natural levels of muscular strength (for example, the amount of weight that can be lifted) and endurance (for example, the number of push-ups they can do) start to reach a peak for females around age 12

Males will experience a rapid increase in muscular strength and endurance during puberty

Without training, flexibility begins to decline (for example, gradually less able to sit with legs extended and reach beyond toes)

  • Encourage youth to learn about their bodies and abilities through experiences with different activities
  • Provide instruction and access to a safe environment where youth can learn about their changing abilities and establish their own healthy limits
  • Activities should teach youth how to avoid and deal with injury
Growth & Physical Development

Puberty produces a variety of physical changes

Physical changes occurring, including:

  • height and weight change
  • a growth spurt (more typically for females than males)
  • increased perspiration
  • oilier hair and skin (which often results in acne)
  • growth of body hair
  • growth of primary and secondary sexual characteristics
  • Encourage and create open communication that is two directional and allows youth to ask questions and be provided with age-appropriate information about their changing bodies and emerging sexual characteristics. This can help youth to develop healthy attitudes about their own bodies and sexuality
  • Provide or connect youth to information from a range of reliable sources (for example, pamphlets, medical professionals and websites)
  • Normalize changes where possible (for example, remind youth that acne occurs for almost everyone at some point)
  • Share your own experiences (for example, if you had experience being shorter or taller than your classmates)
  • Establish routines and provide information about hygiene as youth develop (for example, a reminder about the need for deodorant)

Hormonal changes cause sleep and waking cycles to change

A natural tendency to stay awake and alert later at night, and have difficulty waking in the morning

May become sleep deprived, which can contribute to moodiness and irritability

  • Schedule activities and programs at times that are comfortable for a later sleep cycle (for example, don’t hold events first thing in the morning)
  • Help youth develop strategies and routines for going to sleep and waking up at appropriate times (for example, turning off the computer one hour before bed)
  • Encourage youth to get a minimum of 9–9.5 hours of sleep every night
Body Image & Nutrition

A sense of body image begins to develop

For females, the onset of puberty results in an increase in body fat, which may have an impact on body image

Makes more social comparisons about body type

Dissatisfaction with body types may begin to appear (negative perceptions of body image can vary for youth from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds)

  • Be aware that youth may have an increased sensitivity to comments about body shape that were not present in childhood
  • Encourage youth to focus on the parts of their bodies that they like and can feel confident about
  • Role model a healthy attitude about body image (for example, avoid disparaging remarks about your own body)
  • Share your own experiences managing low body image (for example, if you were shorter than others in your class but eventually caught up in size)
  • Help youth to refocus on what they can do and who they are—not just how they look

Interest in nutrition and healthy eating is increasing

May begin to express interest in managing own diet (for example, by making own meals)

  • Provide information about nutrition, which plays an important role in development (for example, check out Canada’s Food Guide)
  • Continue to reinforce healthy eating habits and routines (for example, involve youth directly in grocery shopping or meal preparation)
  • Teach youth to manage specific individual dietary requirements, if needed (for example, if an allergy exists)
  • Be a role model and lead by example (such as cooking healthy food, providing healthy options in youth spaces)
  • Provide information about nutrition and being healthy alongside sport and physical activity