12- to 14-year-olds: Ages and stages of youth development

Understanding the different stages of youth development supports youth programming efforts as it encourages relationship building between youth and adult volunteers.

A room full of young teens can be energizing or terrifying to youth workers or volunteers. Young teens, ages 12 to 14, are at the prime age to engage them in leadership roles and give them a voice in decision making. Looking at Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H Guiding Principles shows the impact of having youth actively engaged in their development. Under this principle, youth are considered participants – rather than recipients – in the learning process; youth in this age bracket are at a wonderful age to begin exploring these principles. Youth ages 12 to 14 want to feel ownership for projects; involving them in the planning results in buy-in and commitment from them.

Much like the two previous articles looking at the characteristics and implications of working with 6- to 8-year-olds and 9- to 11-year-olds, this article considers 12- to 14-year-olds’ physical, social, emotional and intellectual development.

For a point of reference, physical development refers to the growth of the body and development of motor skills. Social development is the interaction between children and their ability to function in social settings. Emotional development looks at how youth handle their feelings and express them. Finally, intellectual development is all about how individuals learn.

Youth in the age range of 12 to 14 are developing in the following ways:


  • They exhibit a wide range of sexual maturity and growth patterns between genders and within gender groups
  • They experience rapid changes in physical appearance
  • Changes in their appearance can occur at different rates, causing great concern


  • They are interested in activities involving individuals of the opposite sex
  • They are looking more to peers than parents
  • They seek acceptance and trust
  • They tend to reject ready-made solutions from adults in favor of their own
  • They questions authority and family values


  • They compare themselves to others
  • They are concerned about physical development
  • They see themselves as always center stage
  • They are concerned about social graces, friends, being liked, etc.
  • They strive for independence, yet want and need adult approval
  • They seek privacy


  • They find justice and equality to be important issues
  • They are developing skills in the use of logic
  • They can solve problems that have more than one variable
  • They are ready for in-depth, long-term experiences
  • They want to explore the world beyond their own community


Implications for working with this age group:


  • Provide honest information for the sexual questions and issues they have
  • Plan activities that are not weighted toward physical powers
  • Be patient with grooming behaviors that may seem excessive


  • Provide activities to be with the opposite sex in healthy ways, planning groups, parties, fund raising, etc.
  • Encourage involvement in teen councils and planning boards
  • Find time to talk with them individually to help them work through problems or discuss issues


  • Plan activities that do not compare one youth with another
  • Avoid singling them out in front of others
  • Provide opportunities to learn skills


  • Provide opportunities to ask and question ways of doing things
  • Plan activities that require some length of time to complete
  • Ask questions to encourage predicting and problem solving
  • Let them serve as assistance
  • Offer more complex games

In working with this age bracket, adults must have open communication with them! They are growing both physically and emotionally at rapid paces and need individuals who will be open and honest with them. This is the age bracket many adults shy away from because of tweens’ need to pull away from an adult and establish independence. Stay with the tween; get to know them as an individual and learn to understand and appreciate them for who they are, not just as part of the group.

For further information about the growth and development of youth between the ages of 12 to 14 year olds, you can contact Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development professionals. The next article in the series explores the teenage years.

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