Ten Tasks of Adolescent Development

In order to help parents influence healthy adolescent growth, the Raising Teens Project identified 10 critical developmental tasks that teenagers need to undertake to make a successful transition to adulthood:

Teens are faced with adjusting to growing bodies and newly acquired sexual characteristics. They must learn to manage sexual feelings and to engage in healthy sexual behaviors. This task includes establishing a sexual identity and developing the skills for romantic relationships.

Teens typically undergo profound changes in their way of thinking during adolescence, allowing them more effectively to understand and coordinate abstract ideas. They begin to think about possibilities, try out hypotheses, plan ahead, think about thinking, and construct philosophies.

Teens typically acquire a powerful new ability to understand human relationships. Having learned to “put themselves in another person’s shoes,” they begin to take into account both their perspective and another person’s at the same time. They learn to use this new ability to resolve problems and conflicts in relationships.

Teens begin to acquire new abilities to think about and plan for the future, to engage in more sophisticated strategies for decision-making, problem solving, and conflict resolution, and to moderate their risk-taking to serve goals rather than jeopardize them.

Teens typically develop a more complex understanding of moral behavior and underlying principles of justice and caring for others. They question beliefs from childhood and adopt more personally meaningful values, religious views, and belief systems to guide their decisions and behavior.

Teens shift toward an ability to identify and communicate more complex emotions, to understand the emotions of others in more sophisticated ways, and to think about emotions in abstract ways.

Teens develop peer relationships that play powerful roles in providing support and connection in their lives. They tend to shift from friendships based largely on shared interests and activities to those based on sharing ideas and feelings, mutual trust, and understanding.

Forming an identity is a lifelong process, but crucial aspects of identity are typically forged during adolescence, including developing an identity that reflects a sense of individuality as well as connection to valued people and groups. Another part of this task is developing a positive identity around gender, physical attributes, sexuality, ethnicity, and (if appropriate) having been adopted—as well as sensitivity to the diversity of groups that make up American society.

Teens gradually take on the roles that will be expected of them in adulthood. They learn to acquire the skills and manage the multiple demands that allow them to move into the labor market as well as meet expectations regarding commitment to family, community, and citizenship.

Although the task of adolescence has sometimes been described as “separating” from parents and other caregivers, it is more widely seen now as adults and teens working together to negotiate a change in the relationship that balances autonomy and ongoing connection. The emphasis on each depends in part on the family’s ethnic background.

During the teen years, adolescents grow in size, sexual maturity, emotional development, and thinking capacity. The developmental changes during adolescence rival those of infancy and early childhood. Research indicates that the human brain does not reach full maturity until at least the mid 20s.

Most milestones occur gradually, with frustrating starts and stops along the way. Each task depends on others to be fully accomplished, and all are part of underlying developmental forces propelling adolescents toward maturity.

In addition, many researchers see human development as a lifelong process, with parents developing alongside their adolescents.