Our adolescent years are a dynamic window of biological, cognitive, and social changes that make us especially sensitive to certain types of learning and experiences, creating opportunities and challenges for influencing our lifelong health and wellbeing.
Developmental science offers insights into these changes, pointing to the kinds of experiences and support that can help us thrive.
The research-based Key Concepts represent our core developmental needs during adolescence. Investing in policies and programs designed to meet these needs can help establish positive trajectories that benefit the social and economic prosperity of our communities, our nation, and our world.
Exploration & Risk Taking
Being able and willing to take risks and try new things is a part of our natural tendency to explore the world during adolescence. It’s a fundamental aspect of learning that helps us expand our skills, discover who we are, and ultimately leave the familiarity of home.
The willingness to approach the new and unknown during adolescence is an important quality that helps us adapt to the world and prepare for adulthood. But long-standing racial and economic inequities in our society often limit opportunities to take healthy risks and amplify negative consequences from mistakes for youth from traditionally marginalized groups.
Adults need to support policies and programs that provide opportunities for healthy exploration and positive risk taking for all adolescents.
Meaning & Purpose Through Contribution
Adolescence is an important time for contributing to others. Throughout our adolescent years, our physical, cognitive, and emotional capabilities mature in ways that allow us to contribute to the people around us. We become better able to provide emotional and practical support to our friends, family, schools, and broader community in deeper, more meaningful ways than when we were younger.
The experience of making a positive difference also supports our sense of meaning and purpose—the forward-looking feeling that our lives are directed and significant. A sense of purpose is associated with greater emotional wellbeing, academic success, and resilience, all of which can be powerful assets as we navigate adversity and achieve goals throughout adulthood.
Opportunities to not only contribute, but to reflect on the meaning of our contributions and to have our contributions recognized, are important to healthy development during our adolescent years.
Decision Making & Emotional Regulation
Learning to make good decisions and manage strong emotions in a positive way are fundamental tasks of the adolescent years, and ones that we’re developmentally primed to tackle during this period.
Throughout adolescence, our cognitive and emotional abilities mature in ways that help us more deeply consider the needs and perspectives of others, think abstractly, and analyze more complex issues compared to when we’re children. These changes prepare us to develop the skills we need to make good decisions and navigate our emotions. And like every skill, these require opportunities to practice in real-world situations and to make and learn from mistakes.
Support from Parents & Other Caring Adults
During adolescence, we become less dependent on caregivers as we explore and expand our social worlds. But families and other caregivers continue to play a critical role in our healthy development. Secure and supportive relationships with parents and other supportive adults can help us build resilience, develop a positive sense of self, and navigate challenges. Circumstances that disrupt these connections can impact our health and wellbeing during adolescence and into adulthood.
Adults need to know that their support is still essential to helping youth thrive. Youth need programs and policies that build on the strengths of families facing challenges and ensure that all young people have a caring adult in their corner.
Developing Values, Goals, & Identity
During adolescence, we start to form a deeper sense of who we are, what we value, and who we want to be. We become increasingly sensitive to social feedback and better able to think in abstract and complex ways that help us build a deeper sense of self around these questions related to identity. We think more about what it means to be a member of our particular social or cultural group or groups.
Healthy development in adolescence involves creating a positive sense of self and belonging, based on our values and aspirations. This process can be challenging if we are facing racism, sexism, and other forms of bias and discrimination, which too often causes us to be defined by others in ways that are grounded in negative or otherwise limiting stereotypes.
Adults can support this process of healthy identity development by providing opportunities for identity exploration, affirming expressed identities, and ensuring access to messages and feedback that support pride in one’s racial and or gender or other identities.
Respect & Social Status
During adolescence, changes in our social contexts as we transition to middle and high school combine with physical and cognitive development in ways that increase our sensitivity to belonging and earning respect from those around us.
This heightened attention to our place in the social world motivates us to learn the skills we need to adapt to the more complex social demands of adulthood. It also amplifies the impact of feeling disrespected, excluded, or given messages that we don’t belong—including through experiences of racism, bias, and other forms of discrimination or harassment.
As adolescents, we’re motivated to earn prestige and social standing from those around us. To ensure that youth can channel this motivation in healthy ways, adults need to ensure that young people have ample positive pathways to gain respect and approval from the adults and peers around them.