Understanding and Working with Teens

Janet Fox  |  9/30/2005 8:17:54 PM

This guide discusses the common physical, mental, social and emotional characteristics for high school youth. As you read, keep in mind that no two children develop according to the same schedule. In addition, transitions are gradual. A member who seems very responsible and mature at one meeting may be noisy and bored at the next. By accepting the members at their current developmental stage and offering challenging growth opportunities to help them make the transition into the next, 4-H staff and volunteers can help make 4-H a rewarding and fulfilling experience for your club members at the same time you help them grow and develop.

Young Teens (12-14 year olds)

These children have some experience in 4-H, are ready to become junior leaders but also may be tempted to drop out of the organization. This is a time of great developmental variety among peers.

Physical Development

  • Growth spurt marks beginning of adolescent may occur across a wide range of ages.
  • Girls mature before girls. Boys might look the same as 11-year-old boys, whereas girls might grow up overnight. Most females reach maximum height by age 14. Both sexes are still developing bone mass.
  • Slower-developing teens may be uneasy about the lack of changes.
  • Rapid changes in physical appearance may make new teens uncomfortable with their changing body images.
  • Hands and feet grow first, creating a problem with clumsiness.
  • Acne, voice changes and unpredictable menstrual cycles all set up situations of great embarrassment.

Implications for Programming:

  1. With the young teens, it’s important to design 4-H programs for a wide range of physical capabilities.


  • Young teens move from concrete to more abstract thinking; however, they tend to think in all-or-nothing terms.
  • If a subject is of interest, it will be intensely explored.
  • Young teens enjoy playing with ideas as much as playing sports.
  • Ready-made solutions from adults often are rejected in favor of the young teens finding solutions on their own.
  • As they start to deal with abstract ideas and values, justice and equality become important issues for the early teens.
  • Competition may be viewed in terms of what is fair, as well as being regarded as a reflection of the self-worth of the individual.

Implications for Programming:

  1. It’s important that 4-H let youth develop and select programs that are of interest to them.
  2. Small groups provide an opportunity for young teens to test ideas. Young teens can be very self-conscious, and a smaller group usually is less intimidating. Small clubs with many positions for developing leadership are ideal for this age.
  3. Adults who can provide supervision without interference can have a great influence on these 4-H'ers. If adults are respected, his or her opinion will be highly valued by young teens.
  4. When designing competitive events, it is important to make sure all measures are taken to make the event as fair as possible. Having clear-cut rules and avoiding any situations that might appear to lend themselves to favoritism should be followed.

Social Growth

  • In the process of moving away from dependence on parents toward eventual independence, early teens enjoy participating in activities away from home. Young teens seek opinions and recognition from their peers.
  • Groups and clubs provide an opportunity for the early teens to feel social acceptance.
  • Providing members with the opportunity to learn to feel at ease with members of the opposite sex is an important function of group social activities. For most activities, boys still will cluster with boys and girls with girls, although they will begin to be very interested in what the other group is doing. Opportunities are needed for boys and girls to mix without feeling uncomfortable.
  • Young teens are beginning to develop mature friendship skills.

Implications for Programming:
  1. As youths' independence from their parents grows, it’s important that programs are designed to give them independence and an opportunity to develop social skills.
  2. When planning programs, it’s important to have opportunities for gender groups to mix with each other.

Emotional Development

  • As puberty approaches; young people's emotions begin the roller coaster ride that will characterize them throughout adolescence. Changes in hormones contribute to the mood swings, as do changes in thinking.
  • It still is important to avoid comparing young people with each other; instead, a young person's present performance should be compared with his or her past accomplishments. Be especially careful at this age not to embarrass the young person.
  • Teens feel the need to be part of something important. An activity that provides good things for others and demonstrates the teen's growing sense of responsibility is ideal.
  • This period seems to present the biggest challenge to a young person's self-concept.
  • The early teen years are a time for beginning to test values. So many changes occur, everything from entering a new school to developing a new and unfamiliar body, that young people hardly know who they are.

Implications for Programming:
  1. As youth hit the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies early teen years, it’s important to support and be understanding of teens. Spending time with adults who are accepting and willing to talk about values and morals has a lasting effect on young people. This is a time for adults to help with self-knowledge and self-discovering activities.

Middle Teens (Age 15 to 17)

The middle teen years are a peak time for leadership in clubs but also a time of possible declining interest in past activities as jobs, school and dating compete for the teen's time and energy,

Physical Growth

  • Most males reach maximum height by age 16. Males gain muscle; females gain fat. By the middle teen years, body changes have been accepted by most young people. The awkwardness has been overcome in most cases.
  • Most teens of this age know their abilities and talents. Many focus on hours of training and competition.
  • New skills, such as driving a car, serve to move teens further away from the family and into the community as independent people.

Implications for Programming:

  1. During the middle teen years, it’s important to set up opportunities for youth to develop their abilities and talents through training and competition. Growth opportunities should provide youth the chance to learn new skills, particularly those that make them feel more independent.

Intellectual Growth

  • Adolescents are beginning to be able to think about the future and make realistic plans. As middle teens think about the future, tomorrow’s vocational goals influence today’s activities. The middle teen years are a time of exploration and preparation for careers.
  • Because they are mastering abstract thinking, they can imagine things that never were in a way that challenges - and sometimes threatens - many adults.
  • The middle years of adolescence are a time when teens can initiate and carry out their own tasks without supervision. Advanced divisions of projects, requiring research and creativity, give teens the opportunity to demonstrate to themselves and others how much they have learned and how much they can accomplish on their own.
  • They still have difficulty understanding compromise, however, and may label adult efforts to cope with the inconsistencies of life as "hypocrisy."
  • The teens set goals based on feelings of personal need and priorities. Any goals set by others are apt to be rejected.

Implications for Programming:
  1. Adults need to shift their relationships and attitudes with middle teens to those that empower teens. Adults can play an important role in exposing youth to potential career or opportunities to gain transferable skills by arranging new experiences in areas of interest.

Social Growth

  • Relationship skills are usually well developed, however, and friendships formed at this stage are often sincere, close and long-lasting. Recreation continues to move away from the family and now additionally away from the large group.
  • Activities, such as sports and clubs, are still important. Teens want to belong to the group, but now want to be recognized as unique individuals within a group. Teens' individually set priorities will determine how active they remain in past organizations.
  • Among most teens, group dates gradually give way to double dates and couples-only dates. Acceptance by members of the opposite sex is important.
  • At this stage, adolescents are capable of understanding much of what other people feel - if they were not so wrapped up in themselves.

Implications for Programming:
  1. Adult and youth relations should now change from director/follower to that of advisor/independent worker. Consistent treatment from adults is important, even though the teens act like adults one day and like children the next.

Emotional Growth

  • Two important emotional goals of the middle teen years are independence and identity, although neither will be achieved completely during this period.
  • Time is precious. If programs are filled with "busy work" or meaningless activities, teens soon will lose patience and interest.
  • The task of learning to interact with members of the opposite sex may preoccupy teens. Unsettled emotions may cause the teen to be stormy or withdrawn at times.
  • In general, though, the teens will pride themselves on increased ability to be responsible in the eyes of themselves, peers and adults.
  • Middle teens are learning to cooperate with others on an adult level.

Implications for Programming:
  1. Adults can play an important role in providing opportunities for youth to develop an identity and gain more independence. 4-H youth program should put youth in decision-making roles that allow them to cooperate with others and form important friendships.

Older Teens/Young Adults (Age 18 and 19)

These young adults are completing their 4-H careers and moving on to college, jobs, marriage and other adult responsibilities. They may continue in collegiate 4-H.

Physical Growth

  • Growth for almost all young adults has tapered off. Late teens are no longer as preoccupied with body image and body changes. In most ways they have adult bodies, although they may not be prepared entirely for adulthood.

Implications for Programming:
  1. It’s important that 4-H programs provide opportunities for youth to perfect skills and talents.

Growth in Thinking

  • Future plans are important to teens making the transition to adult life. Goals they set for the future influence which activities the teens continue.
  • Late teens can determine their own schedules.
  • Only general directions are needed when they are assigned familiar tasks.

Implications for Programming:
  1. Late teens want to be charge of their lives. It’s important to let youth do things “their way” and in their time, but adults can still serve as positive role models.

Social Growth

  • Close relationships develop as young people become preoccupied with their need for intimacy.
  • As teens make and carry out serious decisions, the support and guidance of adults still are needed. Final decisions are made by the teens, but adults can act as resources.
  • Part-time jobs or advanced schooling may fill the need for social relationships that were filled by club activities in the past.

Implications for Programming:
  1. It’s important that youth are looking toward the future and they might not be able to see where 4-H fits in. Let them make serious decisions to direct their participation in 4-H. By letting them decide and providing opportunities for them to share their talent and skills, older teens will be more likely to remain active in 4-H.

Emotional Growth

  • Late teens feel they have reached the stage of full maturity and expect to be treated as adults.
  • Club meetings and rituals have lost their appeal for late teens. This is a time when many teens enjoy looking back on their achievements as 4-H members, often receiving special recognition for their leadership activities.

Implications for Programming:
  1. Understand that older teens might not have patience for the 4-H club meetings and programs that once were popular. It’s important to listen to where they want to be within 4-H and provide opportunities for them to remain involved.


Each stage of life has important developmental benchmarks that need to be learned for youth to grow into healthy, productive citizenships. Teen-agers have six tasks that need to be accomplished during this stage of their lives:

  • Increase and maintain knowledge of self and self-esteem.
  • Learn to be increasingly responsible and make complex decisions.
  • Set goals and develop strategies to reach those goals.
  • Become increasingly independent from parents.
  • Develop strong relationship skills.
  • Increase interpersonal communication skills.

As an adult involved in 4-H, you are a valuable asset to your community and to the individual members of 4-H. This guide to the stages of teen development will help in planning a successful 4-H program. If youth are to develop into competent, caring, connected people, they must have experiences that build these necessary “life skills.”

Developed by Janet Fox (2004). Baton Rouge, LA: LSU AgCenter 4-H Youth Development.


Ages and Stages of Youth Development. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Cooperative Extension 4-H Program.

Ages and Stages of Youth Development: A Guide for 4-H Leaders. NCR-292, West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.

Kathryn J. Cox, Extension 4-H Specialist, Youth Development. Ages and Stages of Youth Development, 4H-015-99, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University

Older Youth: Youth Development Programs for Young People Aged 15 to 19. Michigan State University 4-H Youth Development.

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