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Moral Development in Teens

by Eliza Martinez

Teens experience many changes as they leave childhood and move toward adulthood. Not only are they becoming more independent, they are making serious life decisions such as who to date and which college to go to. Most parents want their teens to turn into moral people. Eighty-five percent of parents feel that schools should teach values in the classroom, reports the Harvard Education Letter, a publication of Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Teens' moral development often tracks their age.

Stage of Development

Lawrence Kohlberg, professor and author, developed several stages of moral development in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His work elaborates on the earlier theories of well-known psychologist Jean Piaget. According to Kohlberg, teens fall into the fourth stage of moral development, which is "responsibility to the system." During this stage, teens begin to connect the consequences of their actions, shoplifting for example, to the world around them. If a teen considers what would happen if everyone stole items from the store, she is probably well on her way to age-appropriate moral development.

Moral Behaviors

During the teen years, parents might be surprised to see the dramatic rise in moral thinking. This doesn't mean that teens always do the moral thing, but they can see why it is right and how it benefits and affects others. Most teens feel that it is important to help others, respect authority, honor responsibilities and obligations, and follow local, state and federal laws. They understand that failing to do so could alter the social structure around them. During this stage of moral development, many teens don't feel that there is ever a good reason to break the law and are likely to side with the government if conflicts or disputes arise between the law and citizens.

Moral Development

While some aspects of a teen's development happen naturally, others need some assistance. Your child isn't born knowing what is moral and what isn't. She has to be taught and shown it. Your teen is faced with moral dilemmas every day, from entering into a sexual relationship to trying drugs or alcohol. Parents should instill their ideas of proper morals from an early age. Many schools use character development programs that help teach children moral behaviors.

When There is a Problem

Teens aren't always going to the make right choice and will inevitably do something that goes against their moral upbringing. Lacking sound morals, however, plays a big role in teen crime, according to a 2012 article in The Daily Mail, citing a Cambridge University study. Teens who aren't raised to become moral people are more likely to commit crimes, including burglary and car theft. If you worry that your teen might be struggling with her moral identity, talk to a mental health professional who can help her work through the issues. Teens who foster close relationships with parents are less likely to engage in immoral behaviors, according to PBS.org. Spending more time with your teen is an effective way to help her make better choices in the future.

About the Author

Eliza Martinez has written for print and online publications. She covers a variety of topics, including parenting, nutrition, mental health, gardening, food and crafts. Martinez holds a master's degree in psychology.

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