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How Parents and Caring Adults Can Support Moral Development

The process of moral and values development in adolescence not only helps adolescents become engaged in society, it also supports optimal health. For example, research has linked faith-based participation and spirituality with positive social ties, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of substance use. During this time of questioning, adolescents often want to talk to parents and other adults such as coaches, teachers, and counselors. The four in five adolescents who attend religious services at least once a year may look to their faith tradition for supportive adults. No matter what your role in young people’s lives, these tips can help you create a space where youth can thrive. 

  • Let adolescents explore other perspectives. Adolescents are curious about how their values and ideals fit in with those of other people. One way they can explore this is by talking and working directly with people of other ages and backgrounds. Adolescents also can get to know other views through music, art, books, poems, movies, and plays. Being comfortable with seeing and thinking about new ideas, even if they never adopt them, can help adolescents respect others’ views.
  • Talk honestly and openly about your values. Even though it may not always seem like it, teens do care about what their adult role models think and appreciate when parents and other adults are “real” with them. You don’t need to wait for them to come to you to start a conversation. The news, TV shows, movies, and other media can be conversation starters. Sharing your story about how different life events shaped you helps adolescents process their own ideas.
  • Listen and don’t judge. When adolescents share their concerns, they are making themselves vulnerable to your opinion. Listening to them and treating their questions as valid will help them feel safe and also will make it more likely that they will continue coming to you for advice. You can let teens know that it's okay to make mistakes. 
  • Support adolescents in evaluating and addressing the results of their actions. A valuable part of risk-taking is that adolescents experience some of the results of their actions. As a parent or caring adult, it may be necessary to try and reduce the harm that can come from an adolescent’s choices (e.g., to prevent serious injury). Still, having an accurate and full picture of the results of their actions helps adolescents make decisions in the future. When adolescents experience negative outcomes, you can help them think through a new approach for the next time.
  • Model how to disagree. Different backgrounds and viewpoints mean people do not always agree, and teens in your life will be no exception. It is okay if your adolescent’s views do not perfectly match yours. By showing teens respect when views differ, you teach them how to hold on to their values and maintain their relationships even when people hold different opinions.
  • Revisit rules, as needed. Adolescents want to know that rules are fair and understand how they work. They also want to know the reasons behind rules. If adolescents say a rule is not working, listen to their feedback and give them a chance to share what they think may work better. Giving teens a way to contribute empowers them and prepares them to manage their own actions even when no specific rules are in place.
  • Encourage adolescents to get involved. Volunteering helps adolescents support the causes that matter to them, express their thoughts, and connect with their community. Learning about community and civic engagement is another way to get involved. For those who are 18 or older, voting is an important way they can make their voices heard and improve their communities. These activities let adolescents see beyond themselves as well as develop a sense of purpose and belonging.
  • Help teen voices be heard. There are several ways an adolescent can take action and make their voices heard to make a difference in a community. Adolescents can be leaders and express their values in a range of settings. For example, adolescents can be active participants in their school clubs and activities, volunteer efforts, community sports or arts groups, or join a community-based program’s youth advisory or youth leadership council. 

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 February 6, 2019