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Positive youth development

Developmental Maps: Adolescence (13–19 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.

Adolescence (13–19 years)

Cognitive development

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What is happening? How can I tell? How can I help?
Brain-Based Development

Capacity for complex thought, planning and impulse control increases

Begins to show improved abilities to organize thoughts, plan ahead, control impulses and direct attention to the task at hand while ignoring distractions (for example, a young person of this age may begin to rely on organizing school commitments in an agenda)

May also be more able to postpone enjoyable social activities in order to keep commitments to school or work

Begins to rely less on external forms of regulation (such as parental rules) and is more able to regulate behaviour independently

  • Provide help, support and advice to keep youth motivated and on task
  • Invite youth to take a leadership role in carrying out tasks
  • Introduce challenges that require problem-solving skills (for example, a scavenger hunt)
  • Provide opportunities for youth to plan and organize activities and events (for example, planning a bake sale, dance or group outing). Older adolescents are able to tackle these initiatives with progressively less direct support

The brain becomes more specialized and efficient

Ability to process complicated information and learn new concepts is growing

  • Encourage exercises that allow youth to organize abstract ideas and draw reasoned conclusions (for example, developing a “pros and cons” list)
  • Inspire youth to try new experiences (for example, going to a museum, producing music, trying a new sport, participating on a committee)
  • Teach youth to utilize the technology around them to stay organized and develop transferable skills for employment (for example, using the calendar option on a cell phone to stay organized and meet deadlines)

The ability to assess risks and rewards improves

Ability to effectively assess risk versus reward is improving

May engage in thrill-seeking and risk-taking behaviour such as:

  • extreme sports (such as sky diving, dirt biking)
  • drinking alcohol or smoking

May be especially motivated by risks and thrills when in the presence of peers

Sensitivity to pleasure and reward is further increasing, particularly in the presence of peers

May be more sensitive to criticism and peer rejections

  • Maintain open communication and promote honesty and mutual respect
  • Talk about how to assess risk using personal examples
  • Share your own experiences with risky situations (reflecting on your own good and bad choices) to demonstrate trust and respect
  • Encourage youth to take small steps and practice
  • Encourage youth to take positive and reasonable risks (for example, applying for a job) and participate in activities that are adventurous but safe (such as travel or organized sports)
  • Participate in a new, thrilling activity alongside youth
  • Demonstrate interest in youth’s activities (this can help them feel comfortable approaching you for information or guidance)
  • Provide guidance and access to tools (for example, protective equipment, a cell phone or a map) and information from a variety of sources (for example, online forums, others who have had similar experiences) to help them learn and be prepared
  • Encourage youth to make decisions in a calm frame of mind and be realistic about their personal abilities and potential consequences
  • Encourage and reward taking safe, small steps (for example, practice)
  • Encourage relationships that are positive and supportive to improve peer-support for pro-social behaviour (acting in ways that benefit others)
  • As youth age, encourage them to stop and think about potential consequences of their behaviour. Motivations to avoid negative consequences are becoming stronger at this stage and may play a larger role in decision making

The ability to control impulses and regulate behaviour improves

Under conditions of low emotional stress, can anticipate consequences, control impulses, and act on rational choices

Under conditions of emotional or physical stress (for example, break-up, lack of sleep) the capacity to make sound decisions is diminished

Is able to better organize and plan

  • Be patient and compassionate and acknowledge sources of stress (such as a recent argument with friend) that may be influencing a young person’s emotions and behaviour
  • If it appears that an adolescent is under emotional stress, give them time and space to de-escalate before introducing additional demands
  • Help youth appraise their emotional state by posing questions like: “Are you feeling calm enough to make such an important decision?”; or “Maybe you should sleep on it?”
Development of Reasoning Skills

Abstract thought matures

Becomes more able to think abstractly and hypothetically

Begins to suspend beliefs in areas of expertise

Develops systems for organizing abstract ideas

  • Encourage exercises that allow youth to organize abstract ideas and draw reasoned conclusions (for example, developing a “pros and cons” list)
  • Provide experiences to train and improve skills using spatial working memory (for example, play a memory game)
  • Promote perspective-taking (for example, have youth describe the major changes they would implement if given the opportunity to act as mayor for the day)
  • Introduce diverse perspectives, concepts, and lifestyles through movies, books, biographies, guest speakers, case studies and music
  • Stimulate debate and discussion on contentious issues (for example, conflicts, modern medicine, poverty, justice)
  • Encourage youth to “probe a little further” into the sources of their beliefs, opinions, motivations, and aspirations (go beyond what? and ask why?)
  • Offer counter-arguments to stimulate further reflection

Logical thinking skills improve

More able to think about possibilities, form and evaluate hypotheses, deduce and induce principles that guide decision making

Working memory continues to improve

Improving ability to manipulate information held in working memory (for example, solving multi-step math problems or planning and then packing for a trip)

Better able to maintain, attend to, update and evaluate information

Beliefs about knowledge and facts continue to evolve

May adopt a sceptical approach to knowledge in some domains

Stops believing that all “facts” exist independently of people’s perspectives

Begins to question universal social “facts” (for example, speeding while driving is wrong) and see that some truths are relative (what if the driver is a doctor on their way to an emergency?)

Begins to think about and question facts and ideas and is sceptical about answers

May insist that every answer is as good as any other answer

Accepts an authority figure’s position (dogma) in areas of uncertainty

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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.

Adolescence (13–19 years)

Emotional development

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

Emotional responses increase

Continuing to experience heightened emotions

Emotional information becoming more important and meaningful

May be experiencing mood fluctuations

May be more vulnerable to stress

  • Spend time listening, talking and practicing healthy communication (for example, staying calm)
  • Provide youth with the opportunity for their own time and space to reflect and relax in a way they choose (for example, music, reading, drawing, writing)
  • Provide motivation, support and encouragement through difficult times
  • Create/promote opportunities to help youth redirect their energy to something productive (such as exercising or helping to organize and run an event)
  • Provide support on how to cope with stress. Stress reduction techniques like relaxation and meditation can help to improve mental health and also immune function
  • Talk openly about mental health issues. If you are concerned about a young person’s emotional stability, connect him or her with available supports and information (such as Kids Help Phone, family physician, websites, an appropriate mentor or counsellor)—the negative stigma around mental health often discourages people from seeking support

Emotional self-regulation matures

Becomes better able to use thinking strategies for emotional self-regulation (for example, trying to put a positive spin on things, focusing thoughts on things that are more happy and pleasant, planning and developing solutions, or accepting the situation)

Begins to believe in their ability to regulate emotions and becomes aware of the personal strategies that work best

The ability to read body language further improves

Is better able to read and understand other people’s emotions, including displays of fear and anger

  • Continue to clearly communicate feelings through words as well as through body language

Motivation is increasingly internalized

Demonstrates ability to set their own goals and stay on task with less prompting from others

  • Provide encouragement. Youth of this age want to know that parents, teachers and other role models are interested in their activities and ambitions but still need the freedom to set and achieve goals on their own
  • If it appears a youth is struggling, offer to help them get started but don’t complete whole task for them
Development of Empathy

Empathy continues to develop

Able to understand information from differing perspectives

  • Promote perspective-taking to encourage the development of empathy, and help a youth recognize the difference between their own experience and that of others (for example, someone from a different cultural background)
  • Encourage youth to spend time focusing on other people and/or topics (for example, volunteering with a community organization)
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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.

Adolescence (13–19 years)

Social development

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

Identity is actively explored

Actively exploring identity options (for example, questioning parents’ values, and seeking information about potential career choices)

  • Provide structured settings outside of the family (for example, at a youth centre, youth council or school club) so that self concepts and identity can emerge through the association of positive like-minded peer groups and their supporting influence

Gender role flexibility increases

Begins to become less rigid about gender stereotypes as gender identity continues to evolve (for example, may be more empathetic to gender identity of others; may begin to express gender identity through clothing and image)

  • A warm, supportive relationship with a caregiver can allow young people to explore their varied identities without fear of being judged or criticized

Social group-esteem continues to increase

May seek information about their social groups by reading, talking with other group members, learning cultural practices, or attending cultural events

  • Support the exploration of cultural and social group traditions to help youth develop their sense of cultural identity and social group-esteem

Exploration of spiritual beliefs may increase

Begins to question and explore the foundations of spiritual beliefs

  • If appropriate, support the exploration of religious/spiritual traditions to help develop a sense of spiritual identity

The concept of self becomes more complex and situation-dependent

May start to notice that different contexts affect how they behave and perceive themselves (for example, I am deferential with my parents, a leader among friends and shy in class)

May notice conflicts between the way they think of themselves and behave in different contexts (for example, I am quiet in class but vocal at soccer practice)

May struggle with diverging self-concepts and express anxiety or stress about this internal conflict

  • Explain to youth that it is okay to have diverging views about who they are
  • Encourage youth to focus on their more positive self concepts

Self-appraisal skills improve

Demonstrates ability to think critically and be reflective (for example, able to see one’s self from other people’s [peers, parents] perspective)

  • Encourage self-reflective activities (such as Career Trees as ways to begin considering potential career paths)
  • Encourage youth to seek leadership roles (for example, through event organization) but to also understand that leadership requires cooperation and partnership with adult allies and other peers
  • Be relatable—when helping set attainable goals relate to your own personal limitations and/or challenges
  • Provide constructive feedback to encourage the development of self-appraisal skills

Self-efficacy increases

Beliefs about the ability to achieve goals grows stronger

  • Encourage youth to create a list of short-term goals to foster an increased sense of accomplishment
  • Model a confident understanding of your own skills and capabilities. Youth learn to be self-efficacious from the role models in their lives
  • Promote the setting of goals and support attempts to reach those goals
  • Provide realistic challenges for youth to tackle and provide support and counselling through these challenges
  • Encourage youth to seek leadership roles in executing a challenging task (for example, family activities, social events, social justice projects) but to also understand that leadership requires cooperation and partnership with adult allies and other peers

Self-esteem continues to decline

Begins to feel less self-confident and more negative about themselves than they did in childhood or early adolescence

  • Celebrate achievements and encourage youth to pursue interests, talents and hobbies
  • Consistently demonstrate concern about a young person’s well-being by making time to discuss successes and issues that arise
  • Remember that having someone available who is willing to listen is very important to young people who are experiencing periods of stress
Development of Relationships

Understanding of varied perspectives deepens

Begins to understand the effect of social roles in perspective-taking

Begins to understand that “neutral” perspectives on a situation are rare, and that everyone’s perspective is coloured by their context, beliefs and background

  • Encourage understanding of the experiences, challenges, and issues of others

Peer relationships are increasingly important

Continues to engage in friendships that become closer and more intimate, and involve sharing of confidences and mutual support

  • Encourage relationships that are positive and supportive, particularly in difficult times

Early romantic relationships emerge

Begins dating in groups (forming couples but spending time together within the context of larger groups)

Bases romantic relationships, either with the same or opposite sex, not necessarily on emotional intimacy but more often on fun and camaraderie

Some expressions of emotional intimacy beginning to emerge

May acknowledge same-sex romantic interests to trusted friends or family members

  • Provide support and help guide decisions with romantic partners rather than trying to decide on behalf of youth
  • Be aware of factors that may influence decisions about relationships (such as religion, media, past experiences, family and friends) when seeking to understand the choices being made by youth
  • Stay connected and approachable, providing opportunities for questions and help when needed

Family relationships continue to evolve

May experience intensified disagreements with parents as their sense of individuality and independence continues to develop but occurrences will begin to decline

  • Give youth space and time to reflect about disagreements
  • Listen to the problem, help them to analyze it and propose potential solutions

Moral reasoning shifts to a focus on maintaining order

Makes moral decisions on the basis of a “law and order” orientation

May feel the need to uphold laws in order to maintain order within the wider society

  • Be conscious of your own moral stances—youth will replicate styles of moral reasoning in role models
  • Encourage peer interactions to stimulate the development of higher forms of moral reasoning (for example, interactions in which adolescents and young adults engage in challenging conversations on relevant issues where conflicting views are raised and discussed) to promote and facilitate perspective-taking
  • Provide opportunities for active participation in deciding between conflicting alternatives or moral dilemmas to stimulate reasoning and problem-solving skills
  • Expose youth to moral dilemmas concerning discrimination, oppression and bias

Self-sufficiency increases

Demonstrates desire for independence in decisions about relationships and activities

Begins to gain financial independence through employment

  • Provide advice and share personal experiences related to gaining independence (for example, financial skills)
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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.

Adolescence (13–19 years)

Physical development

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

Participation in physical activity is changing

May engage in less physical activity

May begin to focus on a few physical activities or specialize in a few sports

Choosing activities that reflect personal interests, abilities, ambitions, availability, and past experiences

  • Consider barriers to participation such as cost, equipment and transportation (for example, highlight low-cost options such as skateboarding, soccer, offer opportunities in central locations to ease transportation issues)
  • Motivation at this stage is beginning to become more internalized. Develop programs and activities that focus on helping youth develop knowledge, skills and attitudes for a healthy active lifestyle and promote the social and mental benefits of sports and leisure (for example, highlight the fact that sports like swimming can lead to a job as a lifeguard)
  • Work with youth to set realistic goals
  • Remind youth to balance their priorities (for example, school, work, social life)
  • Enjoyment is still critical to physical development at this stage—providing positive experiences can impact future healthy lifestyle habits
  • As youth age, provide more opportunities for empowerment and involvement in designing and implementing programs and activities so that they feel ownership and have a role in decision making
  • Ensure that youth are participating in activities in a safe and secure space. Provide opportunities that allow youth to feel comfortable trying new things (for example, without a fear of being teased for failure)
  • Provide opportunities for practice, proper instruction and encouragement—these elements are especially important during this stage of development to help ensure that youth can develop both skills and competence
  • Encouraging participation in whichever physical activities appeal to the youth (for example, some youth who are less interested in traditional activities may want to try extreme sports while others may prefer yoga or hiking)

Cardiovascular and muscular endurance, strength and flexibility are changing

In the absence of training, cardiovascular endurance peaks and levels off in females

Cardiovascular endurance continuing to increase gradually in males

In the absence of training, there are no further increases in muscular strength or endurance for females

Muscular strength continuing to increase gradually in males (muscle endurance peaks and begins to level off)

In the absence of training, flexibility continues to slowly decline

  • 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
  • Remember that activities should teach youth how to avoid and deal with injury (for example, learning stretching routines)
  • Provide access to information about positive and negative ways to increase strength and endurance (for example, information pamphlet on the dangers of taking steroids or supplements)
Growth & Physical Development

Puberty produces further physical changes

Males may experience a growth spurt

For females growth may begin to slow down after the first menstrual period (most females reach adult height before the end of adolescence)

Sexual development beginning to mature

  • 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 and can help to promote safe sexual choices)
  • Provide access 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, the first time you shaved)
  • Provide routine reminders and information about hygiene as youth develop (for example, a reminder about the need for deodorant)

Hormonal changes cause sleep and waking cycles to continue to shift

Falling asleep even later at night and waking up even later in the morning (may result in sleep deprivation and contribute to moodiness and irritability)

  • Consider planning activities and programs at times that are comfortable for a later sleep cycle (for example, don’t hold events first thing in the morning)
  • Encourage the ongoing use of strategies and routines (for example, turning off the computer one hour before bed) to help youth wake up and go to sleep at appropriate times
Body Image & Nutrition

Development of body image is ongoing

Males: may be maintaining more positive body image than females

Females: may be dissatisfied with parts of their body

Transgendered youth may struggle with body image

Negative perceptions of body image vary for youth from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds

More commonly making social comparisons about body type (comparisons to unrealistic ideals shown in media can play a role in the development of this dissatisfaction)

Placing greater importance on and forming opinions about style, clothing and appearance

  • Be aware that youth may have an increased sensitivity to messages about their bodies
  • Allow youth more independence in demonstrating their own style through clothing and decisions about appearance
  • Encourage youth to focus on the parts of their bodies that they like and can feel confident about
  • Lead by example—avoid making critical comments about your own body

Knowledge of nutrition and healthy eating expands

May be forming opinions about, and a desire for, independent control over eating and nutrition

  • Allow some independence around food preferences
  • Remember that nutrition plays an important role in healthy development during this time. Provide information about nutrition (for example, check out Canada’s Food Guide)
  • Encourage healthy eating habits and routines (for example, involve youth directly in grocery shopping or meal preparation)
  • Engage youth in conversations about healthy eating and be aware of dramatic changes in diets that may indicate eating disorders
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