Moral Development

Teen holding up globe

General Changes in Values that Adolescents Experience

Adolescence is a time when changes in the brain encourage young people to think about the world more deeply and in a more abstract way. This thinking helps shape how adolescents see the world, how they choose to interact with it, and how they begin to develop the morals and values that will play out in their adult lives.  

Some of the most common changes in thinking about morals and values that occur during this life stage include:

1

Seeing the world in shades of gray. Adolescents begin to understand that not every question has a clear-cut answer. As they develop empathy, they begin to see why other people make different choices and to understand those choices better. 

2

Understanding the reasons behind rules. Abstract thinking means adolescents can sense more fully how rules are related to ideas such as justice, public good, and safety. This knowledge also means that they may push back more on the issue of why rules exist. Children may be okay when parents and other adults say “because it’s the law” or “because I said so” as answers to their questions, but adolescents may need more justification for curfews, limits, or other rules. 

3

Forming their moral code. The questions and debates adolescents raise about rules are normal and helpful. The reasons and logic adults provide help adolescents form their views of the world and how it works. When adolescents get answers that satisfy their questions about a rule, it becomes personal to them, and they are better able to see why a rule makes sense. 

4

Becoming more interested in big questions. As part of establishing their values, adolescents may think more about what is right and what is wrong, what their role should be in the world, and what they should do when faced with personal moral dilemmas. They may spend time exploring their own religious traditions more deeply, as well as looking at other religions, philosophies, and forms of spirituality.

While it may be true that adolescents no longer think like children, they still need time and support to process new ideas and ways of thinking. As part of this process, adolescents often question and challenge rules and those in authority. When adolescents raise questions, evaluate answers, and explore new ideas, they are practicing their new thinking and emotional abilities. This practice in abstract thinking helps prepare them for making complex, concrete decisions in adolescence and adulthood. 

The process of setting values also can push adolescents to get involved with causes of interest to them and to become connected with the wider community. This connection to the larger world can help adolescents make positive choices that protect their health and their futures.

Two pictures, one of a teenage boy delivering groceries to an elderly woman, and another picture of a teenage girl with canned food at a food bank

Unique Issues in Moral Development

As with other types of development, adolescents vary in when, how much, and how fast they establish and change their morals and values. This variation also is affected by how much they have changed and mastered skills in other areas. Specifically, cognitive, emotional, and social development all can have an impact on how adolescents shape their morals and values. 

Adolescents’ thoughts and emotions also can vary across different events so that the same person will react to similar situations in completely different ways. This inconsistency is normal, and in many cases, good. The more adolescents think through their response to different events, the more they can build their decision-making skills. When faced with a choice, values can shape whether a person is aware of a problem, how they organize information about a situation, what solutions they think of, and how they weigh different results.1

Adolescent moral and values development, and consequently young peoples’ worldview and approach to different situations, is based on their personality and prior experiences.  For instance:

Some adolescents may connect more easily with issues in the wider world and be moved by events that happen across the globe, whereas others may focus more on issues affecting their local community.

Adolescents may differ in their level of optimism, as well as in how much they consider things from a practical or idealistic viewpoint. 

Family members are often a person’s first teachers for how the world works, setting cultural norms and traditions.

Adolescents’ values are formed by interactions with parents and other adults, peers, schools, religious groups, the media, the internet, and other institutions. As adolescents experience a range of views, they learn to reflect on, question, and refine their own views.

For some adolescents, experiencing traumatic events may shape their worldview. Some research shows that in addition to tools like cognitive therapy and approaches like trauma-informed care, religion and spirituality can help a person cope with trauma.2

Ideally, youth would only make choices that match where they are in their development. However, life circumstances mean that some youth face more complex decisions than what they feel ready to tackle. In these cases, parents and other caring adults can play an especially vital role in providing guidance.

Beyond the different experiences described above, adolescents also differ in the types of choices they face. Some teens may have faced these choices at a younger age, while others may be confronting them for the first time: Examples of these choices (or dilemmas) include:

Giving friends honest feedback or staying quiet to spare their feelings

Finding time to follow through on commitments, such as schoolwork or being engaged in an activity, while also taking care of one’s health (e.g., getting adequate sleep, exercising)

Getting a job or taking up a leadership position during one’s free time

Keeping some things private by not posting to social media versus posting to gain acceptance by one’s peers

Debating an issue online with a friend or acquaintance versus talking face-to-face.

Two photos, the first is a family of five taking a selfie, the second is a mother smiling with her adolescent daughter

How Parents and Caring Adults Can Support Moral Development

The process of moral and values development in adolescence not only helps adolescents become engaged in society, it also supports optimal health. For example, research has linked faith-based participation and spirituality with positive social ties, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of substance use. During this time of questioning, adolescents often want to talk to parents and other adults such as coaches, teachers, and counselors. The four in five adolescents who attend religious services at least once a year may look to their faith tradition for supportive adults. No matter what your role in young people’s lives, these tips can help you create a space where youth can thrive. 

Let adolescents explore other perspectives. Adolescents are curious about how their values and ideals fit in with those of other people. One way they can explore this is by talking and working directly with people of other ages and backgrounds. Adolescents also can get to know other views through music, art, books, poems, movies, and plays. Being comfortable with seeing and thinking about new ideas, even if they never adopt them, can help adolescents respect others’ views.

Talk honestly and openly about your values. Even though it may not always seem like it, teens do care about what their adult role models think and appreciate when parents and other adults are “real” with them. You don’t need to wait for them to come to you to start a conversation. The news, TV shows, movies, and other media can be conversation starters. Sharing your story about how different life events shaped you helps adolescents process their own ideas.

Listen and don’t judge. When adolescents share their concerns, they are making themselves vulnerable to your opinion. Listening to them and treating their questions as valid will help them feel safe and also will make it more likely that they will continue coming to you for advice. You can let teens know that it's okay to make mistakes.

Support adolescents in evaluating and addressing the results of their actions. A valuable part of risk-taking is that adolescents experience some of the results of their actions. As a parent or caring adult, it may be necessary to try and reduce the harm that can come from an adolescent’s choices (e.g., to prevent serious injury). Still, having an accurate and full picture of the results of their actions helps adolescents make decisions in the future. When adolescents experience negative outcomes, you can help them think through a new approach for the next time.

Model how to disagree. Different backgrounds and viewpoints mean people do not always agree, and teens in your life will be no exception. It is okay if your adolescent’s views do not perfectly match yours. By showing teens respect when views differ, you teach them how to hold on to their values and maintain their relationships even when people hold different opinions.

Revisit rules, as needed. Adolescents want to know that rules are fair and understand how they work. They also want to know the reasons behind rules. If adolescents say a rule is not working, listen to their feedback and give them a chance to share what they think may work better. Giving teens a way to contribute empowers them and prepares them to manage their own actions even when no specific rules are in place.

Encourage adolescents to get involved. Volunteering helps adolescents support the causes that matter to them, express their thoughts, and connect with their community. Learning about community and civic engagement is another way to get involved. For those who are 18 or older, voting is an important way they can make their voices heard and improve their communities. These activities let adolescents see beyond themselves as well as develop a sense of purpose and belonging.

Help teen voices be heard. There are several ways an adolescent can take action and make their voices heard to make a difference in a community. Adolescents can be leaders and express their values in a range of settings. For example, adolescents can be active participants in their school clubs and activities, volunteer efforts, community sports or arts groups, or join a community-based program’s youth advisory or youth leadership council.

Cover image for Adolescent Development Explained guide

Adolescent Development Explained Guide

Additional information on adolescent development can be found in the Adolescent Development Explained guide – PDF, developed by the Office of Population Affairs.

Footnotes

1 Lipham, J. M., & Hoeh, J. A. (1974). The principalship: Foundations and functions. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. back to top

2 Shaw, A., Joseph, S., & Linley, P. A. (2005). Religion, spirituality, and posttraumatic growth: A systematic review. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(1), 1-11. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1367467032000157981 back to top