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Unique Issues in Moral Development

As with other types of development, adolescents vary in when, how much, and how fast they establish and change their morals and values. This variation also is affected by how much they have changed and mastered skills in other areas. Specifically, cognitive, emotional, and social development all can have an impact on how adolescents shape their morals and values. 

Adolescents’ thoughts and emotions also can vary across different events so that the same person will react to similar situations in completely different ways. This inconsistency is normal, and in many cases, good. The more adolescents think through their response to different events, the more they can build their decision-making skills. When faced with a choice, values can shape whether a person is aware of a problem, how they organize information about a situation, what solutions they think of, and how they weigh different results.1

Adolescent moral and values development, and consequently young peoples’ worldview and approach to different situations, is based on their personality and prior experiences.  For instance:

  • Some adolescents may connect more easily with issues in the wider world and be moved by events that happen across the globe, whereas others may focus more on issues affecting their local community.
  • Adolescents may differ in their level of optimism, as well as in how much they consider things from a practical or idealistic viewpoint. 
  • Family members are often a person’s first teachers for how the world works, setting cultural norms and traditions.
  • Adolescents’ values are formed by interactions with parents and other adults, peers, schools, religious groups, the media, the internet, and other institutions. As adolescents experience a range of views, they learn to reflect on, question, and refine their own views.
  • For some adolescents, experiencing traumatic events may shape their worldview. Some research shows that in addition to tools like cognitive therapy and approaches like trauma-informed care, religion and spirituality can help a person cope with trauma.2
  • Ideally, youth would only make choices that match where they are in their development. However, life circumstances mean that some youth face more complex decisions than what they feel ready to tackle. In these cases, parents and other caring adults can play an especially vital role in providing guidance.

Beyond the different experiences described above, adolescents also differ in the types of choices they face. Some teens may have faced these choices at a younger age, while others may be confronting them for the first time: Examples of these choices (or dilemmas) include:

  • Giving friends honest feedback or staying quiet to spare their feelings;
  • Finding time to follow through on commitments, such as schoolwork or being engaged in an activity, while also taking care of one’s health (e.g., getting adequate sleep, exercising);
  • Getting a job or taking up a leadership position during one’s free time; 
  • Keeping some things private by not posting to social media versus posting to gain acceptance by one’s peers; 
  • Debating an issue online with a friend or acquaintance versus talking face-to-face.

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.


1 Lipham, J. M., & Hoeh, J. A. (1974). The principalship: Foundations and functions. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
2 ADD - Shaw, A., Joseph, S., & Linley, P. A. (2005). Religion, spirituality, and posttraumatic growth: A systematic review. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(1), 1-11. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1367467032000157981


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on July 2, 2019