Discovering Themselves As Young Adolescents

These years are a pivotal time when young people begin to discover who they are and their place in the world. With a growing ability to see the consequences of different actions, tweens and young teens are more able to think like adults, but they don’t have the experience and judgment needed to act like adults. Strong support can help them develop the confidence they need to make positive choices as they sort out who they are and how they fit with others.

Intellectual Milestones

What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Young teens become more and more independent. They cultivate their own interests, preferences, and beliefs, including choices about friends, sports, interests, and school.
  • How they think begins to shift from how a child thinks to how an adult thinks. This includes having more advanced reasoning skills (such as thinking through hypothetical situations) and an ability to think abstractly (or think about things they can’t see).
  • They begin to have their own thoughts and opinions on many topics—including things they have always accepted, such as family rules.
  • As they develop advanced reasoning skills, they may want to argue, question authority, or challenge society’s standards. It’s how they practice these new, unfamiliar skills.
  • They often develop a stronger sense of right and wrong, including a deep sense of justice or injustice they experience or see around them.
  • Youth of color may become particularly conscious of their racial or cultural identity and heritage. They may become highly critical of bias and prejudice they see and experience.
  • Some young teens also gain awareness of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. If they identify as sexual or gender minorities (LGBTQ+), they may face additional challenges to feel like they have support and fit into their family, school, and community.
  • Listen to your kids as they explore and test their new thinking abilities—even if they say things you disagree with or don’t like. Take their opinions seriously.
  • Don’t shut down or ridicule their ideas, which hurts their self-confidence and openness to you. Instead, ask follow-up questions and ideas that push them to think even more deeply.
  • Continue to focus on the importance of school and learning. Even if you can’t help with the more-complex topics they are learning as they get older, your interest and questions reinforce the importance of learning.
  • Encourage curiosity and critical thinking about the world around them. Talk about tough issues in the news and follow up on things they are interested in.
  • Share power with your child, allowing them to have input and make decisions when it’s appropriate.
  • Allow disagreements. They are an important part of a young person figuring out who they are that’s different from their parent(s). You’ll often discover that you learn new things about each other when you talk about your different perspectives on priorities, values, and issues in the world.
  • If your kids are part of an ethnic or cultural minority group, provide opportunities for them to connect with others to help them develop pride in their own identity and culture.
  • If your child identifies with a sexual or gender minority community, connect them with others who share their identity and can help them learn to navigate relationships and the world around them, which may not be welcoming.

Emotional Milestones

What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • As kids go through puberty, they can experience roller-coaster emotions. They may quickly swing from being happy to being sad or from feeling smart to feeling dumb.
  • Many kids become emotionally sensitive. They can be easily offended or hurt.
  • Kids are likely to focus on themselves, shifting between being overconfident to being unsure of themselves.
  • The changes in their bodies, how they think, their friends, and the world around them (such as new schools) can create a lot of stress for some young teens.
  • Be patient and gentle with kids, as they experience strong emotions that can quickly change.
  • Because kids this age have strong emotions, they tend to either “love” school or “hate” it. If your child happens to “hate” school, help her identify parts that are more enjoyable—even if it’s recess, gym, and lunch.
  • Some kids will give you the silent treatment when they become angry—or if they don’t get their way. Give them time to regroup, and find ways to reconnect and talk again.

Physical Milestones

What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Puberty typically begins during these years. Boys’ voices deepen, and most grow facial and pubic hair. Most girls start their period, and grow pubic hair and breasts.
  • With growth spurts can come clumsiness and a lack of coordination. When you grow several inches taller in a few months, it inevitably affects your sense of balance and coordination!
  • This is the age when kids need to pay more attention to personal hygiene, which may include using deodorant for the first time or bathing more frequently. Some spend hours in the bathroom. Others may refuse to bathe or change clothes.
  • Kids typically become aware of their own sexuality and the sexuality of their peers during these years. They may become highly curious or very private. They do best when these parts of development are viewed as normal and healthy, not the subjects of teasing or shame.
  • Be warm and accepting of your child as they grow and develop, recognizing they may need you to show your care in new ways as they get older. This is particularly important for kids who may develop faster or slower than their peers, or who identify as LGBTQ+.
  • Encourage your child to be physically active, particularly if they don’t excel athletically. Experiment with various individual and team sports and activities to find one that they enjoy and will keep them fit. Or they may find that household tasks or physical work are more rewarding for them.
  • Talk honestly and openly (but privately) with your teen about issues they’re facing in their physical and sexual development. Assure them that the changes are normal. If you’re unsure, get help from a trusted healthcare professional.
  • Work hard to continue having regular family meals together, even as activities get busier. Try to eat healthy foods, and take time to talk with each other. Use this toolkit to make meals more meaningful.

Social Milestones

What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Some young teenagers bristle at physical affection from mothers and fathers. They can seem rude and short-tempered.
  • Many kids form cliques and tight-knit groups. They are very aware of who’s in what group—though they may not know where they fit. Those who are not part of these tight-knit groups can experience a deep sense of isolation and rejection.
  • Peers have more and more influence, both positively and negatively. Kids want to fit in, so they may do things with others they would never do alone.
  • Some young teens may face pressure (or be curious) to use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs, or to engage in other risky behaviors that adults have made “off limits.”
  • Get to know your teen’s friends while also giving them space to just be with their friends. Many families work to create a space in their home where young teens feel welcomed and comfortable as a way to both give space and keep them safe.
  • Encourage your young teen to balance social activities (which may be their top priority) with other responsibilities and activities, including school and family responsibilities.
  • Talk with your kids often about what they see and do on social media. Talk through activities or messages that concern you.
  • Be direct and open with your young teen about sensitive issues such as sexuality, racism or bias, gender identity, and substance use.
  • As kids work through personal and social issues with you, let them know you are willing to listen without attacking, blaming, or shaming, even if you sometimes need to set limits and clarify expectations.
  • Be proactive in talking about your family’s values and expectations regarding alcohol and tobacco use as well as other risky behaviors. Talk to other parents or professionals if you have concerns.

Spiritual Milestones


What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • During these years, many young teens work through how spirituality and religion are part of their own identities. For some, this can be difficult; for others, it goes smoothly.
  • As young people begin to think abstractly, they often also ask challenging questions about the world, their place in it, and other big questions (e.g., why do bad things happen to good people?). They are often not satisfied with the answers they accepted as children.
  • Keep talking with and listening to your kids, even if they say things about spirituality, faith, religion, and values that worry you.
  • Tell your own story and articulate your own beliefs and questions (and why you hold them). Young adolescents want to be respected and have honest conversations with parents, and they may be curious about your experiences.
  • Continue to maintain family’s spiritual practices, rituals, and commitments that are important to you. Your child may not seem to be interested, but these practices still help shape their lives.

* Search Institute describes spiritual development as “a constant, ongoing, and dynamic interplay between one’s inward journey and one’s outward journey.” It occurs both within and outside of religious traditions, beliefs, and practices. See our international, multi-faith, and multicultural research in this area of human development.

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