Understanding Adolescence for Working with Teens

ASPCA, National Shelter Outreach


Understanding Adolescence for Working with Teens

In order to work effectively with teenagers it is important to understand adolescence (the chronological period from about 12 to 13 to 18 or 19 years of age) and the work of important developmental psychologists.

Jean Piaget determined that children progress through a series of stages that represent the changing fashion in which they view and consider the world around them. Lawrence Kohlberg would later build on this concept in his analysis of moral development. Erik Erikson studied the process by which an individual forms a social personality. The theories developed by Piaget, Kohlberg and Erikson provide an important framework for humane educators and parents.

Erik Erikson
Responsible for the theory of psychosocial development — the process by which an individual forms a social personality. The fifth stage, associated with adolescence is identity vs. role confusion. Erikson proposes that the principal task of an adolescent in terms of social development is to form a clear identity consisting of a robust sense of self and an image of one’s future direction. When problems often arise in the adolescent’s struggle to complete this task, an identity crisis can result.

Jean Piaget
Responsible for the theory of cognitive development — the development of the ability to think. The fourth and final stage, formal operations, is associated with adolescence. During this stage, the adolescent acquires the ability to use abstract logic and to think about thinking. The powers of formal operation include: generalizing readily, relating propositions to each other in order to make deductions, entertaining hypotheses, understanding theories and appreciating philosophical concepts.

Lawrence Kohlberg
Responsible for the theory of moral development — the process of learning and maturation centering on one’s concepts of rights and wrongs. The second stage, Conventional Stage, is associated with school-age and adolescent years. Persons in this stage believe in law and order. In this stage, there tends to be the feeling that something is right if someone in an important position — authority figure — says it is right. The third stage, Principled Stage, is associated with adulthood. Persons in this last stage have internal codes of conduct based to a large degree on their own reflections and analyses.


Individual differences are great for early teens (12-14). Early teens are beginning to make moral judgments and think for themselves. They can be very responsive to ideas that empower them to make their own decisions and can be very creative. On the other hand, peer pressure and hormonal changes are strong and young teens are often confused and self-conscious about trying or displaying new ideas.

Late teens (15 -17) are beginning to see that their ethical and moral judgments may conflict with the world around them. Problem solving and speculative questioning techniques work well with this age group. There is a high degree of variability among high school students — from very interactive or very withdrawn. It is important to get participation from entire classroom.

Adolescence is a time when behavior and attitudes change. Think about your own adolescence and remember what it felt like to be suspended between childhood and adulthood.

The teen years present a challenge to humane educators. As teens struggle to assert their individuality and independence, they confront barriers, real and imagined. Peer pressure is a significant factor motivating behavior, though at the same time, teenagers are fascinated by people who buck the trend and stand alone in support of their convictions. Teenagers are also beginning to assert their financial independence and are ready to put their money where their convictions are when it comes to shopping. This is an ideal time to consider lifestyle choices and career options.

© 2001 ASPCA

Courtesy of

424 East 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128-6804