15- to 17-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.

Teenagers are a group of individuals who are full of life, enthusiasm, energy and the feeling that they can do anything. They feel as if they can conquer the world – what’s more is that they feel they are ready to. They are impressionable where physical appearance is concerned and can be easily misguided by advertising and the emphasis our society places on physical appearance. With this age bracket, we need to be open to answering questions and keep the line of communication open.

Much like the three previous articles that examined the characteristics and implications of working with 6- to 8-year-olds, 9- to 11-year-olds and 12- to 14-year-olds, this article examines the physical, social, emotional and intellectual development of youth ages 15 to 17.

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 15 to 17 are developing in the following ways:


  • They are concerned about body image
  • They exhibit small range in size and maturity among peers
  • They tend to have realistic view of limits to which their body can be tested


  • They search for intimacy, tend to romantacize
  • They make commitments
  • They desire respect
  • They want adult leadership roles
  • They can commit to follow through


  • They are beginning to accept and enjoy their own uniqueness but still seek approval from peer groups
  • They look for confidence of others in their decisions
  • They can see self from viewpoint of others
  • They take fewer risks
  • They can initiate and carry out their own tasks without the supervision of others
  • They search for career possibilities


  • They are mastering abstract thinking
  • They enjoy demonstrating acquired knowledge
  • They can consider many perspectives of a given issue
  • They will lose patience with meaningless activity


The implications of working with youth 15 to 17 year olds:  


  • Provide experiences around body image, etiquette, grooming, etc.
  • Avoid comments that criticize or compare stature, size or shape at all costs


  • Provide activities to explore job market, careers, etc.
  • Provide opportunities for them to plan their own program
  • Provide opportunities to talk about their own beliefs
  • Involve them as spokespersons for issues, programs, etc.


  • Plan activities that allow teens to try different roles
  • Be willing to be wrong; this age group won’t put you on a pedestal


  • Involve them in carrying out plans
  • Involve them in advisory groups, decision making groups
  • Offer vocational/career exploration activities

Individuals in this age may have declining interest in past activities, but offering them an opportunity to be a leader, tapping into their energy, skills and knowledge will allow you to build a leader in them, but also keep them interested in positive programs that have and will grow their development.

For further information about the growth and development of youth between the ages of 15 to 17 year olds, contact Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development professionals. The final article in this series will explore the young adults ages 18 to 19.

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