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Moral Development

General Changes in Values Adolescents Experience

Adolescence is a time when changes in the brain encourage young people to think about the world more deeply and in a more abstract way. This thinking helps shape how adolescents see the world, how they choose to interact with it, and how they begin to develop the morals and values that will play out in their adult lives. 

Some of the most common changes in thinking about morals and values that occur during this life stage include:

  • Seeing the world in shades of gray. Adolescents begin to understand that not every question has a clear-cut answer. As they develop empathy, they begin to see why other people make different choices and to understand those choices better. 
  • Understanding the reasons behind rules. Abstract thinking means adolescents can sense more fully how rules are related to ideas such as justice, public good, and safety. This knowledge also means that they may push back more on the issue of why rules exist. Children may be okay when parents and other adults say “because it’s the law” or “because I said so” as answers to their questions, but adolescents may need more justification for curfews, limits, or other rules. 
  • Forming their moral code. The questions and debates adolescents raise about rules are normal and helpful. The reasons and logic adults provide help adolescents form their views of the world and how it works. When adolescents get answers that satisfy their questions about a rule, it becomes personal to them, and they are better able to see why a rule makes sense. 
  • Becoming more interested in big questions. As part of establishing their values, adolescents may think more about what is right and what is wrong, what their role should be in the world, and what they should do when faced with personal moral dilemmas. They may spend time exploring their own religious traditions more deeply, as well as looking at other religions, philosophies, and forms of spirituality.

While it may be true that adolescents no longer think like children, they still need time and support to process new ideas and ways of thinking. As part of this process, adolescents often question and challenge rules and those in authority. When adolescents raise questions, evaluate answers, and explore new ideas, they are practicing their new thinking and emotional abilities. This practice in abstract thinking helps prepare them for making complex, concrete decisions in adolescence and adulthood. 

The process of setting values also can push adolescents to get involved with causes of interest to them and to become connected with the wider community. This connection to the larger world can help adolescents make positive choices that protect their health and their futures.

Additional information on adolescent moral development can be found in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, produced by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on July 30, 2018