Teen: Child Development (12-17 Years Old)

If there is ever a time for parental self-doubt and second-guessing, the teenage years are that period. Efforts to provide guidance and insight are commonly rejected. Attempts at dialogue and discussion are dismissed with either rolling of the eyes or monosyllabic grunts of acknowledgement. Even the ability to physically intimidate wanes rapidly as many a growth spurt rockets the adolescent upward in stature past his/her parents. And yet, perhaps similar to a young toddler, it is at this time that children need more support and supervision, since like the 2-year-old, a strong ego coupled with an impulsive nature can be a volatile combination.

What are milestones in academic development for teens 12-17 years of age?

The high school years are a time of development and maturation. Children are developing the skills necessary for college or the general work force. As the 11th and 12th grades are nearing completion, the teen should be comfortable making oral presentations. The ability to absorb and analyze information and then synthesize and present persuasively either a supporting position or offer a counter argument is crucial to survival in the adult world. Eye-to-eye contact and the ability to read the audience instead of talking into a handheld stack of 3 x 5 cards is a difficult, yet important, capability.

In order to successfully master this art of persuasion, it is beneficial for the student to have an exposure to a broad array of literary forms -- poetry, fiction, autobiography, etc. As a result of this exposure, teenagers broaden their vocabulary skills and improve their presentation styles, using the simile and metaphor more broadly to express their ideas. The ability to efficiently and effectively research reference works, either in the traditional technique of library study or via online sources, is critical.

In addition to effective oral presentations, mastering the art of written argument is equally important. Proper use of syntax, vocabulary, and varying literary style to entice the reader are all-important skills that should be mastered. The successful adolescent will learn the mechanics of revising and editing a draft in order to produce a final copy.

What are milestones in psychological and emotional development for teens 12-17 years of age?

A formal analysis of the budding adolescent psychological and emotional maturation process is academically very impressive. During a few short years, the teen develops the ability to reason abstractly and formulate and consider multiple hypotheses, all in the realm of a thought process that is less concrete, enabling the teen to see the grays and not just view the world in terms of black and white. The classroom captures these traits by study of more conceptual and logical math skills (algebra and geometry) and expository written compositions ("compare and contrast").

A major goal of the adolescent years is the development of autonomy and independence from parents. The establishment of a personal identity (but always within the safety net of their peer group) is paramount. Unfortunately, the notorious sense of invincibility and immortality characteristic of this age group promotes high-risk behaviors. The vulnerability to peer pressure, often unstable emotions, and a frequently overly romanticized view of their world only amplify many a parent's anxiety level.

What are milestones in physical development for teens 12-17 years of age?

Puberty is the time at which a growing boy or girl begins the process of sexual maturation, and the onset varies among individuals. Puberty involves a series of physical stages or steps that lead to the achievement of fertility and the development of the so-called secondary sex characteristics, the physical features associated with adult males and females (such as the growth of pubic hair). While puberty involves a series of biological, or physical, transformations, the process can also have an effect on the psychosocial and emotional development of the adolescent.

Puberty usually occurs in girls between the ages of 10 and 14, while in boys it generally occurs later, between the ages of 12 and 16.

Adolescent girls reach puberty today at earlier ages than were ever recorded previously. Nutritional and other environmental influences may be responsible for this change. For example, the average age of the onset of menstrual periods in girls was 15 in 1900. By the 1990s, this average had dropped to 12 and a half years of age.

The sexual development of puberty has a typical pattern in both boys and girls, with a generally predictable sequence of changes.

Other physical changes in the body that occur during puberty include:

  • a growth spurt,
  • bone growth and mineralization,
  • weight changes,
  • maturation of the cardiovascular system and lungs,
  • an increase in endurance and strength (more pronounced in boys).

Where can parents find tips for caring for a teen 12-17 years of age?

One of the major challenges of shepherding teens through these tempestuous times is finding and following the fine line of protection versus nonintervention. There are obvious times when parental authority may be considered absolute (from "any C's and no car keys" to "you can't go to the party where alcohol is served, even if you plan on being the designated driver"). Harder to accomplish is to allow academic failure -- many a parent will try to intercede on their child's behalf when it clear that he/she has put out minimal effort and has the grades to reflect such a limited commitment. Most counselors would prefer a high school student to learn that there are academic consequences than to delay discovering this truism until college. Such a lesson learned will be carried into the post-academic world of hard knocks, where performance is measured in successful completion of the task and not by merely good intentions.

The majority of teens are spending progressively longer periods of time in the cyber world. Facebook and other social networking sites, text/instant messaging and Internet sites of dubious value may all steal time from direct social interaction. Worse yet is the possibility of falling victim to notorious schemes and those who prey upon the naïve Internet surfer.

During the high school years, it is reasonable for the older teen to refine the skills necessary for money management (earning spending money, living on a budget, handling a credit card) as well as food preparation (beyond the microwave) and general home economics issues -- how to make a bed, do laundry, clean an apartment (to avoid insect infestation), handle basic financial obligations (pay for the gas they use, pay for their cell phone monthly fees, etc.). After all, they will shortly be flying the coop.


Teen Drama: Handling Mean Girls, Cyber Bullying, and Texting See Slideshow

How can parents ensure the safety of their teen 12-17 years of age?

Parents of teens growing up in the 1960s were constantly worrying about the proposed lifestyle of the time..."sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Those teens have now become parents of teenagers themselves, and the irony that the same concerns have come full circle is not lost on many.

A 1977 study commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that approximately half of all high school students self-reported having had one consensual sexual intercourse.

Results from the 2013 national YRBS indicated that many high school students are engaged in priority health-risk behaviors associated with the leading causes of death among persons aged 10–24 years in the United States.

During the 30 days before the survey, 41.4% of high school students nationwide among the 64.7% who drove a car or other vehicle during the 30 days before the survey had texted or e-mailed while driving, 34.9% had drunk alcohol, and 23.4% had used marijuana.

During the 12 months before the survey, 14.8% had been electronically bullied, 19.6% had been bullied on school property, and 8.0% had attempted suicide.

Many high school students nationwide are engaged in sexual risk behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancies and STIs, including HIV infection. Nearly half (46.8%) of students had ever had sexual intercourse, 34.0% had had sexual intercourse during the 3 months before the survey (i.e., currently sexually active), and 15.0% had had sexual intercourse with four or more persons during their life. Among currently sexually active students, 59.1% had used a condom during their last sexual intercourse.

Results from the 2013 national YRBS also indicate many high school students are engaged in behaviors associated with chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. During the 30 days before the survey, 15.7% of high school students had smoked cigarettes and 8.8% had used smokeless tobacco.

During the 7 days before the survey, 5.0% of high school students had not eaten fruit or drunk 100% fruit juices and 6.6% had not eaten vegetables. More than one-third (41.3%) had played video or computer games or used a computer for something that was not school work for 3 or more hours per day on an average school day.

In addition, this same publication outlined that the majority (72%) of deaths that occur in adolescents resulted from four preventable causes:

  1. Motor vehicle accidents
  2. Other unintentional injuries (falls, etc.)
  3. Homicide
  4. Suicide

The study also concluded that it was not all bad news and that "since 1991, the prevalence of many health risk behaviors among high school students nationwide had decreased."

Health issues play a major factor in the safety aspects of teenagers. Drug experimentation and suboptimal nutrition (fad diets, limited calcium intake, skipping breakfast, etc.) are risky behaviors which may pay out both short-term and long-term consequences. Likewise, an unrealistic body image concern contributes to the rising incidence of eating disorders (bulimia and anorexia nervosa) and of the use of performance-enhancing supplements (for example, androgenic steroids). Equally of concern is the obesity epidemic in this age range (16% are overweight or obese, and 30% describe themselves as overweight). Studies have clearly demonstrated that the likelihood of an overweight/obese teen successfully losing excess weight and maintaining their healthy weight is less than 10%; thus, the vast majority of overweight/obese teens will remain so during their adult lifetime. As such, the secondary effects (endocrine, cardiovascular, orthopedic, etc.) have caused some researchers to predict that the current teen generation may be the first in many that may not have a longer life span than their parents.

Alcohol is the most frequently abused drug in the United States -- surpassing tobacco (nicotine) and illicit drugs combined. 

The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days

  • 39% drank some amount of alcohol.
  • 22% binge drank.
  • 8% drove after drinking alcohol.
  • 24% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.

Illicit drug experimentation and abuse by high school students is extremely prevalent.

In 2010, 10.1 percent of youths aged 12 to 17 were current illicit drug users, with 7.4 percent current users of marijuana, 3.0 percent current nonmedical users of psychotherapeutic drugs, 1.1 percent current users of inhalants, 0.9 percent current users of hallucinogens, and 0.2 percent current users of cocaine.

How can parents help their teen deal with bullying?

Bullying is one of the biggest challenges that teens are facing. Unfortunately, many teens are forced to deal with bullying while their parents and teachers are unaware on the specific nature and severity of the problem in their school. Data from 2010 indicate that approximately 160,000 students miss school each day as a result of being bullied or fear of being bullied. School districts and administrators have often adopted a "zero tolerance" approach to bullying. However, progressively more frequent cases of "cyber bullying" using social media are replacing the overt verbal threat and/or physical assault that is the more traditional experience in past years. Research indicates that in 2010 approximately 2.7 million students were the victims of approximately 2.1 bullying contemporaries. That means that about 282,000 high school students are attacked each month. Unfortunately, those being bullied may react in two ways to repeated bullying. Some who have been the victims of bullying respond by adopting the policy of "the best defense is a strong offense" and become a bully themselves. Other teens see no alternative but suicide. Nationally, suicide is the number three cause of death for adolescents (behind automobile accidents and homicide).

Several areas must be addressed to prevent bullying.

  1. Policies: A clear definition is necessary. This will allow easy recognition and thus promote a quick assessment and resolution of this problem. Specific types (verbal, physical, cyber, sexual or religious orientation, etc.) should be detailed. Similarly, frustrating events that are not bullying should be discussed (for example, being chosen last for sporting games due to poor ability).
  2. Consequences: Fair, immediate, and appropriate consequences should be detailed. Many states have statutory penalties for those convicted of such offences.
  3. Family education: Parents should be expected to help their children recognize and report bullying. They are responsible for supporting their child's concerns. If their child is the bully, they have the responsibility to address this issue with gravity and obtain counseling for their child.

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Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Bradley, Michael J. Yes, Your Parents Are Crazy! A Teen Survival Guide. Gig Harbor, WA: Harbor Press, 2004.

Bradley, Michael J. Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Loosing Your Mind. Gig Harbor, WA: Harbor Press, 2003.

Bullying Statistics. <http://www.bullyingstatistics.org>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Sexual and Reproductive Health of Persons Aged 10-24 Years -- United States, 2002-2007." July 17, 2009. <http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/srh.htm>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance -- United States, 200p." MMWR 59.SS-5 June 4, 2010. <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss5905.pdf>.