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Teenager (13 - 18 years)

Teen Safety | Drug & Alcohol Abuse | Discussing Sex | Growth & Development | Physical Development | Cognitive Development | Emotional & Social Development | Sensory & Motor Development | Sleep, Nutrition & Exercise

Your child’s teenage years are often approached with a great deal of apprehension. Physical and emotional changes, coupled with still maturing ways of thinking, can make these years difficult to navigate for teens and their parents. Firm boundaries, open communication and healthy habits encouraged by you will help your child transition into adulthood.

While your teenager may now be prone to fewer bouts of common illness due to a more developed immune system, regular yearly physical check-ups with his or her pediatrician are still very important.

Adolescents should also be kept up-to-date on their immunizations.

As your child continues to grow and develop into a young adult, he or she will likely begin to have questions or medical concerns that will be more appropriately addressed by a physician that specializes in taking care of adult issues. When your child turns 18, it is important to begin the process of finding and transitioning to an internal medicine doctor or a physician in family practice.

Teen Safety

Accidental injuries are one of the greatest risks for your child during the teenage years. As children have more independence during teen years, they become more responsible for their own safety. Therefore, in order to keep your child safe, it is important to discuss safety practices with your child. 

Important topics to consider include: 

  • Car safety – Be sure your teen always wears a seat belt, doesn't use his or her cell phone while driving and practices good driving habits
  • Sun safety – Encourage use of sunscreen and protective clothing
  • Internet safety – Discuss potential dangers of being online and potential hazards of social media
  • Bike safety – Wear protective equipment while riding bikes, rollerblading and skateboarding
  • Firearm safety – Educate your teen about the dangers and safely store any firearms

Drug & Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol and drug abuse is the leading cause of teen death or injury related to car accidents, suicides, violence and drowning. Despite this, peer pressure, along with a desire to try new things, to look grown up and to take risks, can make alcohol and tobacco appear attractive to teens. Therefore setting firm boundaries and expectations is crucial. Substance abuse can lead to poor performance in school, problems with family and friends, and potentially life-long legal issues.

While all teens might be confronted with drug or alcohol use at some stage, some may be more likely to engage in substance abuse than others due to certain risk factors. For example, those who have family members with substance abuse issues are more likely to have them themselves. In addition, teens with poor self-esteem, mental health problems or strained family relationships are more at risk.

You can help prevent substance abuse in your teen by being a role model, openly and directly sharing your beliefs and expectations, setting strict rules with consequences, and encouraging healthy, social activities. Start conversations about substance abuse early and continue to have them throughout adolescence. Make sure your teen understands the risks, the legal and personal consequences, and expected behaviors.

Warning Signs

You should also be aware of the warning signs of substance abuse, including:

  • Less attention to personal grooming
  • Red eyes and other health issues
  • Less interest in school and activities
  • Unexpected change in school or athletic performance
  • New friends who are not involved in family or school
  • Loss of appetite/unexplained weight loss
  • Chemical soaked rags or papers
  • Unusual paint or other stains on clothing, hands and face
  • Lack of concern about the future
  • Changes in behavior, especially secrecy
  • Worsening mood or attitude
  • Overly withdrawn from family

If you believe that your teen may be using drugs or alcohol, take the problem seriously and address it immediately, without the use of a judgmental or harsh tone. If it is an isolated incident or something that has only occurred a few times, a discussion and reinforcing expectations may be all that is required. If your teen, however, is engaging in substance abuse, know when to ask for help. A physician or a counselor can assist in determining treatment to help your teen.

Discussing Sex with your Teen

Even before teens move through puberty and begin to become more interested in sex, it is important to have ongoing discussions about sexuality, safe sex and risks. While it may be an awkward topic to discuss, it is better for you to provide your child with the right information than to trust that he or she is getting the right information from others. If you are too uncomfortable, ask a physician or trusted family member for help.

When talking with your child, make sure that he or she fully understands the risks associated with sex, such as pregnancy, emotional impact and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Two-thirds of STIs occur in those younger than 25, with teens being especially high risk. Keep the conversation open and not accusatory, and keep in mind that he or she will likely be reluctant to discuss the topic.

You should also be sure to discuss sexual abuse and assault with your teen. Make sure he or she knows it is okay to say “no” and how to act if he or she is made to feel uncomfortable or pressured. Teach your teen to know that it is best to avoid secluded places, trust his or her instincts, avoid alcohol and drugs and to stay with the group. Remember that the main goal of these discussions is to provide your teenager with the information he or she needs to stay safe.

Growth & Development

While growing increasingly independent, your teenager will mature in four main areas of development: physical, cognitive, emotional and social, and sensory and motor.

Every teenager is different. Always ask your pediatrician if you have questions or concerns.

Physical Development

By age 15, most teens will experience several physical changes associated with puberty.

Girls will usually experience a growth spurt right before puberty that may temporarily leave boys behind in height. While most girls have reached their full adult height by 15, boys will continue to gain height and weight throughout the teenage years.

By this age, most girls will also have had their first menstrual period, begun to develop breasts and grown pubic hair. Boys will grow pubic hair during puberty as well as facial hair.

A great amount of excitement and anxiety can come with these changes in both boys and girls. Be attentive to your child’s feelings. Peers, as well as images in the media, can negatively impact your child’s body image, so be sure to stress the importance of being healthy and discuss the unrealistic and unattainable images he or she sees. Take action if you believe your child may have developed an eating disorder.

Cognitive Development

By age 13 and beginning around age 11, your teen will begin to understand and think more about the long-term effects of his or her actions. He or she also begins to see issues as less “black and white.” Encourage him or her to develop these mature ways of thinking by involving your teen in household decisions and rules, as well as by helping your teen to set concrete and achievable goals.

As your teenager grows, his or her abilities to think about abstract ideas and to understand other people will expand. Still most will continue to think he or she is most often "right."

Emotional & Social Development

As your child transitions into an adult, he or she will become more independent and may seek to spend less time with the family.

Teenager office visit

Dr. Gerald Levin meets with one of his teenage patients

Some children will become more sensitive and desire more privacy. Friends may also replace family as closest confidantes and sources of advice. While you should respect your teen’s desire for independence, make sure to keep him or her included and involved. Family support remains invaluable even if he or she is reluctant to have it.

Teen’s emotions can often change rapidly during development. As your teenager tries to figure out his or her own identity, emphasize that these changes and experiences are normal.

Sensory and Motor Development

As physical growth among girls levels off, boys will continue to become stronger and more agile even after going through puberty. Both boys and girls should get regular exercise to improve their strength and coordination and to develop a healthy lifestyle they will carry into adulthood.

Developing Good Habits: Sleep, Nutrition and Exercise

With the increasing demands of school and social life, teenagers often do not get the eight to 10 hours of sleep they need each night. Encourage your child to make sleep a priority, and try to help eliminate obstacles to getting a good night of sleep (such as cell phone use, watching television and using the computer when trying to go to sleep).

For nutrition and exercise, a good rule to keep in mind is the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 rule:

  • 5 — Eat 5 servings of fruits/vegetables each day
  • 4 — Drink at least 4 glasses of water each day
  • 3 — Eat 3 servings of dairy each day (skim milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • 2 — Limit TV, video games and screen time to 2 hours per day
  • 1 — Get at least 1 hour of physical activity each day