Preparing for Adulthood through the High School Years


Through the high school years and during middle adolescence, young people are preparing for adult responsibilities and independence. They are sorting through their interests, priorities, friendships, purpose, and other areas of life. Some are caught up in the everyday moments. Others focus on their futures, including work, education after high school, and making a difference in society.

Of course, teenagers may seem to need less practical help to get things done than they used to. Some can drive, and they are developing a wide range of life skills. However, they still need parenting adults—and other adults—who are there for them, guiding them, supporting them, and being with them through good and bad. During middle adolescence, they need close—if changing—connections as they continue to discover who they are and their place in the world.

Intellectual Milestones


What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • As teenagers get older and think more abstractly, they become more comfortable with “gray” areas on topics that seemed “black-and-white” when they were younger.
  • During middle adolescence, teens can think and talk abstractly and complexly, but they may not have honed the skills and habits to plan and follow through on their ideas. They can easily get distracted and move on to other things.
  • Many teens enjoy flexing their critical thinking skills by talking about big questions regarding science, racism and justice, purpose, spirituality, politics, and other topics. Some become passionate about issues that matter to them in the world.
  • Ethnic identity develops for youth of color during these years. If a strong sense of ethnic identity develops, young people are more likely to reject negative, stereotypical views of their culture.
  • Some teens use their new intellectual capacities in middle adolescence to challenge their parents constantly. Even though this can wear down parents, it helps teens sharpen their thinking and figure out how to think for themselves.
  • Take time to enjoy stimulating, rich conversations with your teen as they develop their own perspectives and ideas. Learn from them.
  • Talk honestly about the questions, issues, and ideas that your teen encounters as their world expands—even when you disagree with some of what they see.
  • Be patient with challenging conversations when your teen pushes the limits. Give yourself breaks, and try not to take so personally the ways they push back or push away—it’s a hard part of growing up for parents.
  • Regularly compliment your teen for accomplishments and growth.
  • Expect more of your teen as they develop more skills and become more responsible.
  • Expand possibilities for your teen by introducing them to new ideas, people, places, and experiences that help them discover new parts of themselves and the world around them.
  • Join your teen when they identify issues and causes that are important to them. Let them help you renew or update your commitments to social change.

Emotional Milestones

What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Though most teens have relatively stable feelings,  some teens deal with ongoing sadness or depression. Left untreated, this can contribute to problems in school, substance abuse, unsafe sex, and other problems.
  • Youth become better able to identify and express their emotions appropriately. They get better at coping with stress in healthy ways.
  • Teens begin to understand that their feelings and attitudes can change in different situations. They might recognize that they are shy with some people and more gregarious with others.
  • Teens may yo-yo from enjoying their independence to craving your attention.
  • Continue to express care and maintain a warm, caring relationship, which helps them manage the emotions they experience as they grow up.
  • Help your teen learn how to recognize and deal with stress, anger, and sadness. Managing these effectively will be a skill they can use throughout their lives.
  • Try to be available when your teen is ready for a conversation about stuff they are dealing with. That time may not come until late in the evening or when you’re driving somewhere together.
  • If you see troubling changes in your teen’s emotions (particularly anger, sadness, or depression) that last more than a day or so, talk specifically with them about your concern. If it continues, seek help from a health professional.

Physical Milestones


What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Teens continue to mature at different rates. Some may worry that they aren’t maturing physically; some may mature earlier than expected.
  • Some teens in middle adolescence look physically older than they are. A 15-year-old can be mistaken for a 21-year-old, which can lead to inappropriate adult relationships and activities.
  • Most teenagers have trouble waking up in the morning. Part of this is because they stay up later. But part of it is biological. Older teenagers tend to shortchange sleep, which can hinder their development.
  • Talk openly and honestly with your teen about their growth, including the fact that differences in timing are normal. Keeping lines of communication open will make it more likely they seek your help if they encounter difficult situations.
  • Help your teen monitor and manage their health habits, including sleep, exercise, and eating. They need to take responsibility for these things, but parents can play important roles in helping them solve problems, set goals and priorities, and remember to do things they commit to doing.

Social Milestones

What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Though most families experience some tensions as kids gain independence, only about one in five teens has a high-conflict relationship with parenting adults. Most can see both the positive and negative aspects of their parents.
  • As they get older, teens tend to have more independence from and less conflict with parents. They typically spend more time with their friends. On average, teens have about four to six close friends.
  • Most teens build close friendships with peers who are like them and share their interests and values. Those who develop friendships across ethnic differences tend to become less prejudiced over time.
  • In middle adolescence, dating becomes common, and some teens develop intense romantic relationships. By the end of high school, about 6 out of 10 teens have had sexual intercourse at least once.
  • As they get older, teens become less and less influenced by their peers on major values and choices. But friends and peers continue to influence clothing styles, music, and fads.
  • If your relationship seems strained, check out the quizzes and activities in the section on strong family relationships. They may help you and your teen get on track.
  • Get to know your child’s friends, including any romantic partners. Be welcoming, but not over-eager, so they are comfortable being around you.  
  • Respect your teen’s need for privacy while also being available when they need help. If they see you as more of a resource (even a tough one) than an enforcer, they are more likely to open up when they are confronting difficult issues in their relationships. Help your teen practice what to do in difficult social situations. Having a strategy in mind can help deal with pressures or potentially dangerous situations, such as riding with a drunk driver.

Spiritual Milestones

What Milestones You Can Expect How You Can Respond
  • Young people approach their spiritual identity in many different ways:
    • Some pull back from religious or spiritual activities from their childhood.
    • Others become fervent and deeply committed.
    • Others express curiosity about other people’s beliefs and practices.
    • And still others express little interest in other belief systems.

Each of these options can be ways they are seeking to “own” their spiritual commitments and practices, not necessarily active rejection of what their families value.

  • Explore different spiritual practices and traditions together. Talk about what’s attractive, familiar, confusing, or off-putting to you (while maintaining respect for others). Sometimes these explorations help clarify what is most important to you.
  • Model spiritual practices and commitments that are important to you. Actions often speak louder than words.
  • Teenagers sometimes can ask tough questions. Be open to their questions and help them process things that may not make sense to them.

* 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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