Ten Tasks of Adolescent Development

Adolescence designates the teenage years between 13 and 19, and is typically seen as the transition period into early adulthood. However, the physical and psychological challenges of adolescence may begin as early as ages 9-12, better known as the “tween” years.

This time in a young person’s life is typically marked with exploration and confusion as they attempt to negotiate and develop their budding self-identity separate from their parents or guardians.

Self-doubt mixed with oppositionality, poor decision-making, and impulsiveness are all part of the adolescent process of developing the personal beliefs, traits, and characteristics that they will carry into young adulthood.

It is in a teacher’s best interest to always remember that the teen is just that . . . young women or men who are not yet fully functioning adults. You will have much better success with teens if you allow them to be the age they are, and not expect them to think, act, or respond beyond their years.

The Raising Teens Project

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Raising Teens Project” has identified 10 critical developmental tasks that teenagers need to undertake to make a successful transition to adulthood.

  • Adjust to sexually maturing bodies and feelings
    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.
  • Develop and apply abstract thinking skills
    Teens typically undergo profound changes in their way of thinking during adolescence, allowing them to more effectively understand and coordinate abstract ideas. They begin to think about possibilities, try out hypotheses, plan ahead, think about thinking, and construct philosophies.
  • Develop and apply new perspectives on human relationships
    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 own perspective and the other person’s at the same time. They learn to use this new ability to resolve problems and conflicts in relationships.
  • Develop and apply new coping skills in areas such as decision-making, problem-solving, and conflict resolution
    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 to jeopardize them.
  • Identify meaningful moral standards, values, and belief systems
    Teens 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.
  • Understand and express more complex emotional experiences
    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.
  • Form friendships that are close and mutually supportive
    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.
  • Establish key aspects of identity
    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 a sensitivity to the diversity of groups that make up American society.
  • Meet the demands of increasingly mature roles and responsibilities
    Teens gradually take on roles that will be expected of them in adulthood. They learn to acquire the skills and manage the multiple demands that will allow them to move into the labor market as well as meet expectations regarding commitment to family, community, and citizenship.
  • Renegotiate relationships with adults in parenting roles
    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.

Reference: Ten Tasks of Adolescent Development, A. R. Simpson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Although I work with teens every day, in writing this I am again amazed at the amount of work that teenagers need to do to grow up. As they struggle through all these myriad changes and challenges, they sometimes “backslide” into acting younger than they really are, and need to be reminded that this, too, is part of the process of growing up.

Over and over again, teens say that one caring person is important to them as they face these challenges. We have the privilege of potentially being that one special caring adult for many teens.  We just need to remember that they want that kind of connection, even if their behavior at the moment seems otherwise.

I find that being curious and listening are critical components of helping our teens move through whatever they’re struggling with. And sometimes firm adult direction is needed, too.

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Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is the founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training educators in emotional intelligence and the use of genuine listening and curiosity in conversations with students. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

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