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Adolescent Development E-Learning Module


Please note: This course will take approximately 60 minutes to complete; do not refresh your browser window or you will have to begin again. Instead, use the next/previous buttons to work your way through the course.

Purpose of This Course

By understanding adolescent development, we can better appreciate how and why young people behave the way they do, and we can help young people make better decisions about their sexual health.

This course will focus on four key areas:

  • Part 1: Biological and brain development
  • Part 2: Cognitive development
  • Part 3: Identity and social development
  • Part 4: Promoting healthy youth development

By the end of this course, participants will understand:

  • Basic biological and brain-related changes that occur during adolescence and how these changes influence adolescent thinking and behavior
  • Major cognitive changes that occur during adolescence and how adolescents’ thinking increases their likelihood of risk-taking and engaging in unsafe behavior
  • How adolescents develop identity and other key social developmental milestones of adolescence
  • Key factors that promote healthy youth development and how to implement these features in working with teens

“Typical” adolescent development

While each teenager is an individual with a unique personality and interests, there are also many developmental milestones—or issues—that everyone faces during adolescence. In this course, we’ll focus on typical adolescent development – that is, the growth, behaviors, and feelings that developmental scientists have found to be common and predictable for the majority of adolescents.

Part 1: Biological and Brain Development

Go to Section: Learning Objectives > Puberty > The Adolescent Brain > Learning Exercises

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will learn:

  • The effects of puberty on teens
  • The major brain-related changes that occur during adolescence
  • How biological changes influence adolescent thinking and behavior

Some basic facts about teenagers

Individual teens develop in different areas (physical, cognitive, social, etc.) at different rates, and advanced development in one area doesn’t mean that a teen is equally advanced in all areas. Development in any area is a gradual process with stops and starts and regressions.


Basic Facts

Key Term: Puberty

Puberty describes the physical changes associated with adolescence.

There are big individual differences in the onset and progression of puberty, or the physical changes associated with adolescence.

There are also gender differences. Puberty typically begins:

  • For girls, around 8 to 13 years of age
  • For boys, around 9 to 14 years of age
The Effects of Puberty

Puberty happens because of the release of chemicals (hormones) in the brain. This fluctuation of hormones causes changes in not only physical development but also in emotional development.

Increases in hormone levels may be associated with a range of emotional changes, including irritability, impulsivity, and aggression or depression.

It is a myth that hormones are responsible for all erratic or impulsive teenage behavior. The effects of social and environmental factors, like family turmoil or interpersonal difficulties, are understood to affect adolescents’ mood and behavior, as well.

Timing of puberty

The timing of puberty can affect adolescents' social and emotional development in various ways. Because young people who physically mature earlier appear older, they’re often treated as if they’re more socially and emotionally mature, even though this isn’t necessarily true. Some research suggests that youth who experience faster physical development are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior than their peers and that teens who develop more slowly than their peers may be more likely to face bullying.

How Parents and Caring Adults Can Support Adolescents

To help young people with some of the negative effects of maturing early:

  • Provide connection to caring adults.
  • Provide clear messages about delaying sexual activity.
  • Treat them as the young teens they are, even when they look older.
  • Let adolescents know what they’re going through is normal.
  • Encourage adolescents to have a positive view of their bodies.
  • Teach adolescents to avoid drugs.
  • Help adolescents eat well.
  • Get active with adolescents.
  • Make sure adolescents get enough sleep.

The Adolescent Brain

Basic Facts

Key Term: Frontal Cortex

The Frontal Cortex, the area of the brain responsible for rational thinking, is still developing during adolescence.

Adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. Recent research shows that there is a biological explanation for this difference; the brain continues to develop during adolescence and even into early adulthood.

Brain Development: The Amygdala and the Frontal Cortex

The amygdala and the frontal cortex are two key regions of the brain that develop at different times.  The amygdala, which processes stress and other emotions, and is responsible for instinctual reactions like fear and aggressive behavior, matures early.

On the other hand, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for judgment, self-control, emotional regulation, rational thought, goal setting, morality,and understanding consequences, is not yet fully developed in teenagers. In fact, this area of the brain develops quite dramatically during adolescence and into the mid-20s.

What does this mean for adolescents?

Pictures of the brain in action show that adolescents’ brains function differently from those of adults when making decisions and solving problems. Adolescents’ actions are guided more by the amygdala and less by the frontal cortex. That means that teens’ responses to situations are rooted in emotion rather than rationality. In other words, the last part of the brain to fully develop is one of the most important—it’s the area that gives people the ability to make rational decisions.

Because the part of the brain that helps us think before we act isn’t fully developed until adulthood, in stressful situations or when faced with difficult decisions, teens are more likely to:

  • Think one thing and feel another
  • Act from impulses that differ from thoughts or feelings
  • Misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
  • Engage in risky or inappropriate behavior

How you can help

There are several ways you can help teens make healthy choices. Adolescents’ brains go through a “use-it-or-lose-it” pruning system: brain cells and neural connections that get used the least get pruned away and die off; whereas those that get used the most become stronger.

Best Practices:

Walk adolescents through the decision-making process BEFORE they encounter a risky situation.

To help teens make healthy choices, walk them through the decision making process before they encounter risky situations. This will help them to make life-impacting decisions with less stress. Teens who undergo learning and positive experiences help build complex, adaptive brains.

Strategies to support healthy adolescent brain development
  • Encourage teens to have healthy lifestyles and offer opportunities for positive experiences
  • Provide meaningful opportunities for teens to exercise logic and apply analytical and decision making skills to build up those brain functions.
  • Encourage teens to take healthy risks. Taking such risks will help to develop a stronger frontal cortex, effectively giving the teen more valuable life skills.
  • Allow teens to make mistakes so that they can learn from them.

Case Study

Meet Sarah and Justin, both 16. They’ve been dating about 6 months, and Justin wants to have sex. Sarah isn’t ready, but she feels like she’s the only one of her friends who hasn’t had sex yet, and she thinks Justin will end the relationship if they don't do it. Justin says he loves her, and they’ll be together forever, so why wait?

The adolescent brain: Application

The last part of the brain to fully develop is one of the most important—it’s the area that gives people the ability to make rational decisions. Because the part of the brain that helps us think before we act isn’t fully developed until adulthood, in stressful situations or when faced with difficult decisions, teens are more likely to:

  • Think one thing and feel another (Sarah knows she’s not ready to have sex, but she feels like she loves Justin and doesn’t want to lose him.)
  • Act from impulses that differ from thoughts or feelings
  • Misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions
  • Engage in risky or inappropriate behavior

Exercise 1

Puberty means lots of physical, social, and emotional changes for adolescents. And going through puberty early can have positive and negative effects on teens. What are some ways to support early developers? Select all that apply:

Exercise 2

Research shows that the part of the brain that generates stress and emotions develops early, but the part responsible for judgment and self-control continues to develop into early adulthood. Therefore, which of the following are true? Select all that apply:

Part 2: Cognitive Development

Go to Section: Learning Objectives > Cognitive Changes During Adolescence > Adolescents Think Differently > Learning Exercises

In this section, you will learn:

  • The major cognitive changes that occur during adolescence
  • How adolescent thinking differs from that of children and adults
  • How adolescent thinking increases the likelihood of risk-taking and engaging in unsafe behavior

Cognitive Changes During Adolescence

As a result of cognitive changes that occur during adolescence, teens are more able to engage in:

Abstract thinking

Adolescents become better able to think about abstract concepts. Unlike young children, whose thinking is more bound to observable events, concrete objects, and their own (or their friends’) experiences, adolescents begin to recognize that certain concepts are intangible and can’t be quantified or measured.

Thinking about possibilities

Adolescents become better able to think about what’s possible, instead of limiting thought to what’s real. They can reason about chance and probability and can envision and evaluate alternatives.

Thinking about things in different ways

Adolescents develop the ability to think about things in multiple ways at the same time and can approach problems with more sophisticated lenses. They can imagine multiple perspectives, consider different dimensions, and weigh those dimensions before taking a course of action.

Thinking about thinking

Adolescents become more reflective and show signs of increased introspection and self-consciousness. They can understand complex relationships between ideas and people.

How you can help

To tailor messages about health and sexuality in developmentally appropriate ways:

  • Talk to teens about what they know, believe, and feel, and build from there. For example, ask teens, “What are your biggest concerns right now?” This can help you assess teens’ developmental level, and you can begin to address issues from there.
  • Offer information and activities in a variety of ways to make sure messages are understood by concrete and abstract thinkers. For example, you can make pregnancy more concrete by describing fetal development and pregnancy using visual aids.

Adolescents Think Differently

Abstract vs. Concrete Thinking

There’s often a difference between what young people are capable of thinking and how thought influences behavior. These cognitive capacities progressively become part of the young person’s repertoire. But adolescents don’t use these new abilities consistently over time or over a variety of situations.Teens may have mature thought processes sometimes but not all the time. As teens mature, their decision making skills increase. Try to understand each adolescent’s level of cognitive development.

When dealing with concrete thinkers:
  • Understand that, to them, pregnancy is an abstract concept.
  • Walk them through the process of complex decision making.
  • Use concrete, realistic examples that they can “see” themselves in when talking about the future.
  • Abstract thinking skills may still be inconsistent.
  • Being more aware of alternatives and consequences may make it difficult for them to make decisions.
  • Allow them the time they need to process their thoughts.
When dealing with abstract thinkers:
  • Abstract thinking skills may still be inconsistent.
  • Being more aware of alternatives and consequences may make it difficult for them to make decisions.
  • Allow them the time they need to process their thoughts.

Risk-Taking Behaviors

Some characteristics of adolescent thinking can interfere with teens’ ability to use “adult-like” thinking and planning on a consistent basis, increasing the likelihood of taking risks and engaging in unsafe behavior:

Focused on the present

Teens sitting together and looking at their phones

Adolescents focus more on the present and are less able to think about the future. Many adolescents either seem unable to think about the future—that is, they can’t think beyond the present—or they discount the future and weigh more heavily the short-term risks and benefits when making decisions.

Feelings of invulnerability

Adolescents are more likely to see themselves as invulnerable. Many teenagers think that they’re invincible and that they can’t get hurt. These beliefs contribute to adolescents weighing risks differently than adults do.

Seeking novel and varied experiences

Adolescents are more likely to seek out novel and varied experiences for the sake of trying “something different.” Because adolescents value new experiences more than adults do, they may undertake risky behaviors even though they may recognize possible harmful consequences, including physical and social risks.

How you can help

Some risk-taking is not only normal, it’s a healthy part of adolescent development, helping teens learn more about themselves and test out their abilities.

Encourage teens to take healthy risks. Adrenaline-charged sports like rock climbing, martial arts, or mountain biking can provide plenty of thrills. Attention-seekers might find they love the rush of performing on stage.

Exercise 1

"My friends are all pretty responsible. We all want to finish high school and go to college. I understand some girls feel pressured to have sex ... but to me, a serious relationship doesn't have to involve sex. And I think if someone really loves you, they wouldn't push you to do something you don’t want to do."

The above quote from a teen demonstrates what cognitive changes that occur during adolescence? Select all that apply:

Exercise 2

Teens are more likely than adults to take risks, like having unprotected sex, because:

Part 3: Identity and Social Development

Go to Section: Learning Objectives > Identity Development > Social Development Milestones > Learning Exercises

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will learn:

  • How adolescents develop an identity
  • The social developmental milestones of adolescence

A lot of important psychological and social development occurs during adolescence, which affects teenagers’:

  • Identity, or how teens view themselves
  • Independence, or their ability to function responsibly on their own
  • Intimacy, or their personal relationships
  • Sexuality and their sexual feelings

Identity Development

Peers and Identity Development

During adolescence, teenagers try to establish a coherent, stable identity. As part of this identity formation, teens explore and “try on" different roles, personalities, ways of behaving, beliefs, interests, and values.

The role of peers

Young people want to belong. Teens often hang out with different groups to find a place where they belong. Peers provide recognition, advice, and encouragement. These relationships are extremely important.

Peer pressure

In early adolescence, young people are particularly susceptible to peer pressure. In general, boys are more vulnerable to peer pressure than girls.

Best Practices:

Ask a recent graduate of your program to serve as a mentor to new participants. Teens are more likely to pay attention to advice coming from something they identify with.

However, there’s sometimes an overemphasis on the influence of peers on adolescent behavior. While peers really influence day-to-day identity choices (like dress or music choices), the family has a powerful effect on adolescents’ basic values and choices.

Positive “Peer Pressure”

“Peer pressure” often implies a negative influence, but peer pressure can be positive, too.

To harness the power of positive peer pressure:

  • Encourage teens to talk to each other about their thoughts, feelings and experiences. They might be surprised to learn that not everyone is having sex.
  • Ask a recent “graduate” of your program to serve as a peer educator or mentor to new participants. Teens are more likely to pay attention to messages about healthy behavior when they come from someone the teen identifies with.

Social Development Milestones

Throughout adolescence, young people must undertake major social development tasks:

Become more independent

Adolescence is a gradual transition to being an independent person. Physical changes and appearances both enable adolescents to become more self-sufficient and cause adults to treat them as if they were more self-sufficient.

The development of independence can be a difficult experience for adolescents and their families. Even under the best circumstances, with a strong foundation of love and support, the process of separation may cause emotional and social distress. For adolescents whose families are less stable, the process can be more dramatic and difficult.

Develop close relationships with people outside of their families

These close, peer relationships are key to healthy social development:

  • Teens naturally start to distance themselves from their families.
  • Teens’ peer relationships change in important ways:
  • Spending more time with peers than children do
  • Becoming  less monitored by adults
  • Having greater contact with opposite-sex friends
  • Interacting in increasingly larger groups of friends (which helps form a social identity)
  • Teens start dating and having romantic relationships.

Develop an increased need for and capacity for intimacy

During adolescence, young people develop an increase in the need for intimacy, the capacity to have intimate relationships, and the desire to express this increased capacity.

At the same time, adolescents are learning to think of themselves as sexual beings, to deal with sexual feelings, and to enjoy physical contact with others.

Learn about their own sexuality and learn to integrate gender identity and sexual orientation into their self concepts

Emerging sexuality presents adolescents with a lot of questions:

  • What are the sources of their new feelings?
  • What role should sex play in their lives?
  • How should they control their new body functions?
  • Which partners should they choose, and how should they relate to them?
  • How much experimentation are they comfortable with?

Gender and Sexual Identity

Key Terms: Gender and sexual identity

'Gender identity' describes the gender a person identifies with.

'Sexual identity' refers to a person’s patter of attraction (physical, emotion, sexual and romantic) to others.

Along with their emerging sexuality, adolescents are also learning to integrate gender identity and sexual orientation into their self-concept. Gender identity and sexual orientation are often confused.

  • Gender identity describes the gender(s) people consider themselves to be (masculine, feminine, or transgendered).
  • Sexual orientation refers to a person's pattern of attraction to other people including physical, emotional, sexual, and romantic attraction.
Questioning gender and sexual identity

During adolescence, most youth begin to question what it means to be a man or a woman, and youth wonder how their gender identity fits into their overall identity. It’s common, too, for youth to be uncertain about their sexual orientation during adolescence.

How you can help

Key social developmental milestones

Teens have lots of questions, and they’re looking for answers.

  • Help teens develop a strong sense of self by talking with them about how to choose healthy behaviors.
  • Talk about what makes a healthy relationship, what it feels like to be in one, and what to do if they feel like they’re in an unhealthy relationship.
Gender and sexual identity

Sorting out gender identity and sexual orientation questions can be confusing for adolescents, especially because lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) youth are so often bullied  and stigmatized. This mistreatment harms these young people’s self-esteem and also increases their risk for developing other more serious problems, like depression or drug abuse, or engaging in risky behaviors. Because of the negative experiences, LGBT teens may feel particularly alone, cut off, or even defective.

All adolescents may experience a period of confusion and exploration before accepting and committing to their gender identity or sexual orientation. An understanding and caring adult can be an invaluable resource for all young people, and especially LGBT teens.

Exercise 1

Is the following statement true or false? Friends play a much larger role than families in helping teens establish an identity.

Exercise 2

Adolescents must navigate many social developmental tasks. What are some ways to help teens to become more independent, develop relationship skills, and figure out their sexuality?

Part 4: Promoting Healthy Youth Development

Go to Section: Learning Objectives > Healthy Youth Development > Questions for Adolescents > Learning Exercises

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will learn:

  • Key factors that promote healthy youth development
  • How to implement these features in working with teens

Healthy Youth Development

Program components that promote healthy youth development

Successful youth programs can really vary in both their focus and strategies, but most have key factors in common. They see young people as inherently capable and emphasize cultivating their talents and skills.

Best Practices

Programs should provide teens with:

  • Emotional and moral support
  • Developmentally appropriate structure
  • Supportive adult relationships
  • Connection between families, schools and the community

Specifically, these programs give teens:

  • Emotional and moral support
  • Structure that is developmentally appropriate, with clear messages about positive social values and behaviors
  • Supportive adult relationships
  • Strong ties between families, schools, and broader community resources

Successful programs also provide opportunities for youth to:

  • Form close peer relationships that reinforce healthy behaviors
  • Feel a sense of belonging and being valued
  • Build skills
  • Develop confidence in their abilities, whether in school, sports, arts, or socially
  • Make decisions and take on leadership roles as they mature and gain expertise
  • Contribute in meaningful ways and develop a sense of mattering to their school or community

You don’t have to do every one of these things to put young people on the right path. It all boils down to helping young people develop skills and competencies and providing positive experiences with caring adults who have high expectations and a positive attitude toward young people. The more you’re able to incorporate these kinds of activities into your work with young people, the better you’ll be able to help them make good decisions about their lives and their futures.

Questions for Adolescents

Case Study

Sarah walks in to 5th period health class. “Today,” the teacher says, “We’re talking about waiting to have sex.”

“Just what I need,” Sarah thinks. “Another adult telling me what to do.” But Sarah soon realizes the teacher isn’t telling the class what to do or not to do. She’s helping them make their own decisions.

The teacher says, “You always hear, ‘Don’t have sex until you’re ready!’ But how do you know when you’re ready?"

Have adolescents ask themselves...

Have adolescent ask themselves the following questions to help them make healthy decisions about their lives:

1. Are you doing this because you want to?

Or are you thinking about having sex because someone else wants you to? Maybe you’re not sure you’re ready, but your partner wants to, or maybe all your friends seem to be having sex, so you feel you should be too. You need to do what is right for you and not anyone else.

Anyone who tries to pressure you into having sex by saying, ‘If you truly cared, you wouldn't say no,’ or ‘If you loved me, you'd show it by having sex’ isn't really looking out for you and what matters most to you. They're looking to satisfy their own feelings and urges about sex. If you’re thinking of having sex because you're afraid of losing a boyfriend or girlfriend, it may be a good time to end the relationship.

2. Do I know my partner well enough?

If you’ve only just met your partner or haven’t been going out with them very long, then you probably haven’t had time to build a lot of trust between you. Sex can leave you feeling very vulnerable afterwards in a way you might not be prepared for, so it’s better to be with someone you know you can communicate with and trust.

3. Do I feel comfortable enough with my partner?

It’s natural to feel a little embarrassed and awkward the first time you have sex with someone because it’s not something you’ve ever done before. Your boyfriend or girlfriend will probably feel the same. But if you don’t trust your partner enough not to laugh at you, or you don’t feel you can tell them you’ve never had sex before, then it’s much better to wait until you can.

4. Do I know how to have sex safely?

It’s really important that you know how to protect against pregnancy, STDs, and HIV. Again, this is something you need to talk to your boyfriend or girlfriend about, so you agree on what kind of contraception to use. Especially with things like condoms, it’s good to have some practice putting them on, and to feel okay about doing it. It’s not enough just to have a condom if you don’t know how to use it.

5. Can I talk to my partner about this easily?

If you can’t talk about sex, then you’re not ready to have sex. It’s that simple.

6. Will I be glad when I’m older that I lost my virginity at the age I am now?

Imagine that you’re looking back at yourself in ten years. What do you think you’ll think then about how and when you lost your virginity? Is there any way in which you might regret it? When you’re with someone and they’re pressuring you to have sex, it’s hard to think about ten years from now. But try it one day when you have some time to yourself, and think about what you want your first time to be like.

7. Do we both want to do this?

You may decide that you’re ready to have sex, but your partner isn’t, even if they’ve had sexual partners before. Don’t ever pressure anyone to have sex.

8. Does sex fit in with my partner’s and my personal beliefs?

You, your partner, or your family may have beliefs that say sex before marriage (or at a young age) is wrong. Do you feel comfortable going against those views? Will it cause you unnecessary worry and guilt if you do? Dealing with the consequences of sex—and all the emotions that go with it—can be hard, so make sure you have someone to talk to that you can trust. But remember, the decision to have sex should be an agreement between you and your partner, and while other people may help or influence your decision, they shouldn’t make it for you.

9. So, are you ready for sex?

These questions help you think through some of the important issues you need to consider before making this important decision.

When it comes to sex, there are two important things to remember:

  1. You are ultimately the person in charge of your own happiness and your own body; and
  2. You have plenty of time to wait until you're totally sure about it.

Sarah listened to the teacher. She had a lot to think about. She said “yes” to some of the questions but not all. She still wasn’t sure.

How you can help

Implement these features in your work with teens

Throughout this module, we mentioned some ways you can help promote healthy youth development in your work. Here are some others:

  • Listen to teens’ concerns
  • Post written standards of behavior for participation in your program or create a rule handbook
  • Provide time for meaningful discussions with good role models
  • Model close, trusting relationships
  • Identify and build on a teen’s existing talent or interests
  • Provide opportunities to build skills
  • Help teens break down goals into small steps
  • Recognize small achievements
  • Encourage teens to make decisions about ways to improve their community and provide opportunities for them to volunteer
  • Include parents in program activities or decisions

Exercise 1

What are some good strategies for promoting healthy youth development?


Go to Section: Course Summary > References

Course Summary

Let's quickly review some main facts about Adolescent Development:

  • Because some areas of the brain continue to develop quite dramatically during adolescence and even into the mid-20s, teens are more likely to act on impulse and engage in risky behavior.
  • During adolescence, teens’ cognitive capacity and decision making skills increase, but teens don’t use these new abilities consistently. They’re more likely to focus on the present and to think of themselves as invulnerable.
  • Teens look to both family and friends to help them figure out who they are and what they believe. At the same time, young people are becoming more independent; developing close, intimate relationships; and learning about their sexuality.
  • Programs that promote healthy youth development view young people as inherently capable, help them develop skills and competencies, and provide positive experiences with caring adults.


American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, The Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making.

Gale K. Gorke, PhD, Kids Kan, Inc., personal conversation on December 2, 2010.

Judith W. Herrman, “The Teen Brain as a Work in Progress: Implications forPediatric Nurses,” Pediatric Nursing, March-April 2005. Vol. 31, No. 2.

Erica Monasterio, “Stages of Development—Adolescents and Their Children,” in Fundamental Skills for Case Managers: A Self-Study Guide, Center for Health Training, 2003.

David Walsh, Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, Free Press: New York, 2004.

Final Exam

Go to Section: Final Exam Intro > Exam

Final Exam

You have nearly completed the Adolescent Development E-Learning Module!

To finish the module, you must correctly answer the 8 of the following 10 questions.

Question 1

Puberty typically begins between:

Question 2

The effect of hormones on mood in adolescents appears to be:

Question 3

The frontal cortex develops throughout adolescence and well into the mid-20s, so teens may not mature in certain areas until development is completed. These areas include (select all that apply):

Question 4

Because the part of the brain that helps us think before we act is not fully developed in teens, they are likely to (select all that apply):

Question 5

Adolescents think differently than adults. These differences include (select all that apply):

Question 6

Which statement is most true about teen identity formation?

Question 7

Which of the following answers is not a social development task for adolescents? Select one.

Question 8

True or False: Adolescents may experience a period of confusion and exploration before accepting and committing to their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Question 9

How can parents and other adults help adolescents find answers to their questions about their identity?

Question 10

Which of these statements are true? Select all that apply.

Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on June 13, 2017