This guide is intended to provide some context into what you might expect for neuro-typical sixteen-year-old development. Milestones and development are different for everyone.
The best-known milestone of reaching age 16 is getting a driver’s license, depending on where you live. While being able to drive adds new layers of independence, conflict, and potential danger into your teen’s life, your 16-year-old will reach many less-obvious developmental milestones this year.
Your job as a parent or trusted adult is to give them chances to practice new skills in low-stakes versions of real life. Parents and caregivers sometimes have to adjust to a more hands-off approach to parenting during the later teenage years. Your teen may want you to be more of a “potted plant parent,” according to adolescent parenting expert Dr. Lisa Damour. Yes, this may be an adjustment for you. But, as you modify how and when you connect, remember that your calm and steady presence in their lives still helps them meet checkpoints in their emotional, physical, and intellectual development along their path toward adulthood.
The major developmental milestones for 16-year-olds
Age 16 language and cognitive skills development
Your teen’s cognitive development prepares them for managing complexity, making judgments, and planning for the future – what adults do daily. Brain imaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of teenage brains shows that your teen’s brain structures and the connections between them are still under construction (up until age 25). The more your teen experiences, the more their brain re-organizes these information highways – finding newer, more efficient traffic patterns for your teen to process their ever-expanding world. Because your teen’s brain is a work-in-progress, toxic substances such as marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol can easily cause lifelong damage.
By Age 16, your child may:
- Think less concretely and more abstractly.
- Use abstract thinking to form new ideas and questions.
- Be intrigued by philosophy and other intellectual pursuits.
- Begin to appreciate symbolism.
- Organize their thoughts and can use mnemonic devices (like HOMES to remember the names of the Great Lakes) and other strategies to think and recall information more efficiently.
- Earn and spend money wisely (signs of financial literacy).
- Plan for “what if” situations.
- Communicate like an adult.
- Fully understand punctuation and grammatical rules, and write and read sentences with complex structures.
Watch for signs of potential learning disabilities if your teen struggles in school. Talk with their teachers, healthcare provider, and a mental health counselor to determine if bullying, depression, or learning or attention problems are to blame.
Age 16 social and emotional learning milestones
Your teen’s biggest social and emotional milestone at this age is their search for self-knowledge and identity. They will want to be more independent and in control as part of this process. Your 16-year-old may:
- Be spending less and less time with you and more time with friends.
- Understand that others’ actions may not represent their true thoughts or intentions.
- Be overly focused on their perceptions (especially their behaviors and appearance).
- Be developing and fine-tuning their unique personality and opinions.
- Focus on their peer group and their need for belonging, reinforced in cliques, gangs, or clubs who may try to act alike, dress alike, have secret codes or rituals, and participate in the same activities.
- Be learning emotional regulation skills such as accepting or managing negative feelings to balance their emotions.
Age 16 physical development and motor skills
Your adolescent may grow several inches in several months, followed by a period of slow growth, then have another growth spurt. Changes with puberty can happen gradually, or several signs may appear seemingly overnight.
By age 16:
- Most teens assigned female at birth (AFAB) will have completed puberty by this point and will be physically mature.
- Girls’ growth spurt peaks around age 11.5 and slows around age 16.
- Males will have a growth spurt, and puberty-related changes continue with voices cracking as their voices lower.
- Your teen will be exploring sex and sexuality through self-stimulation (masturbation).
- Some teens develop acne. Your pediatrician may recommend prescription treatments if you have a family history of acne or if your child has severe acne that could cause scarring.
Vaccines for 16-year-olds
Staying on track with recommended vaccines and booster shots will help keep your teen healthy. They will most likely receive the following vaccines this year:
- Influenza (Flu) (one dose of vaccine every year)
- COVID-19 (per current CDC recommendations)
- Meningococcal disease
- Meningococcal conjugate (MenACWY) given at 16 years old (2nd dose)
- Serogroup B meningococcal (MenB) may be given, preferably at 16 through 18 years (2 doses)
Preteens and teens are at increased risk for meningococcal disease, an uncommon illness. Infections of the brain, blood, spinal fluid, and spinal cord with this bacteria can cause lifetime disabilities and even death. All 11 and 12-year-olds should have received a meningococcal conjugate (MenACWY) vaccine. The CDC recommends a booster dose at age 16.
Healthy eating and activity for 16-year-olds
Looking forward, what do you hope your teen knows or remembers about eating and their bodies? With a few more years under your roof, it may help to focus on what you can control around these topics with a teen. Moving your bodies as a family, whether that’s walks around the block or yoga at home, can provide the activity they need as well as powerful memories. Shopping, cooking and eating together gives your teen valuable skills in adulthood and traditions to last a lifetime. You’ve laid the groundwork showing them what kinds of foods can give them the nutrition and energy they need, now it’s time to let that teaching shine as they display much more independence.
- Adolescents with heavy periods (especially those not eating red meat) are at risk for low iron levels (anemia). Talk with your child’s healthcare provider if you have concerns.
- Limit 100% juice, sports drinks, and other sugary beverages to no more than 4–6 ounces (120–180 ml) daily. Talk about the health risks of energy drinks and drinking too much caffeine.
- Your teen should brush their teeth twice daily, floss once daily, and see a dentist every 6 months.
- Getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily will help your teen sleep better, maintain a healthy weight, build strong muscles and bones, and even have an easier time focusing in school.
- Are you worried about your 16-year-old’s eating habits, body image, or mental health? Additional support can give your teen the tools to feel good about their body.
- If your teen is an athlete, limit practicing to 5 days a week to prevent overuse injuries and burn-out.
- If your teenager is interested in weight training, make sure a qualified adult supervises them.
- Your 16-year-old should get between 8-10 hours of sleep every night. Watch for signs of sleep deprivation and keep screens out of their bedroom to protect their sleep.
Cultivating healthy screentime habits
According to recent estimates, teens ages 13-18 spend, on average, more than 7.5 hours in front of a screen for entertainment, 4.5 of which are spent watching TV. Teens spend nearly four times the recommended 2 hours per day on screens. Here are some tips to help your family find a healthy screentime balance:
- Common Sense Media offers resources to help you teach digital citizenship and offers reviews of movies, books, TV shows, apps, games, and YouTube for you to learn more about what your teen is watching.
- Review the basics of online etiquette, such as using privacy settings and remembering that anything posted on social media can be made public.
- Remind your teen not to post their location or share personal information with anyone they don’t know well from in-person interactions.
- Create media-free zones and times, such as meal times, before bed, or in the car. This will create opportunities for meaningful conversations to happen (see conversation starters below)
- Ask your teen about cyberbullying and what they would do if they needed help.
- Boys tend to spend more time on screens than girls, possibly because of their love for video gaming. Keep games in common areas if possible.
- A shame-free talk with your 16-year-old about sexting can protect them from legal and reputational harm.
- Introduce the concept of mindful screentime – intentionally focusing their attention on how they feel and changes in their thoughts when online.
Keeping your 16-year-old safe
Your most significant safety concern at this age most likely is your child driving (or being a passenger of a teen driver). Unfortunately, you can never remind them enough times to wear a seatbelt and not to text while driving. Agree on safety measures like texting when they arrive at a destination, or how much gas to keep in the tank. Other ways to keep your teen safe are to:
- Let them know you are a judgment freetext away if they want to leave a party or other gathering; if they feel uncomfortable, they are not obligated to stay.
- Offer strategies to avoid tobacco, marijuana, drugs, and alcohol. Discuss the health risks of abusing prescription drugs, supplements, and steroids. Around 15% of all high school students say they have used street drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, inhalants, heroin, meth, hallucinogens, or MDMA (also called ecstasy or molly).
- Discourage vaping and using e-cigarettes and talk with them about their health risks to their developing brains.
- Talk with your teen about gun safety and school violence. Guns are one of the leading causes of death in children ages 1 to 17 in the U.S. in 2020. Be aware of the homes your teen visits that have guns, and what the safety measures are used by the parents.
- If you are concerned about your child’s suicide risk or self-harming behaviors, do not leave them alone. Call or text the national suicide and crisis lifeline (988). Turn to your healthcare provider or a mental health provider for professional support.
- Ensure your 16-year-old always wears a helmet when on a bike, scooter, skateboard, ATV, motorbike or snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding, and playing contact sports.
- Continue conversations and open communication with your teen about healthy and safe relationships, including how to prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.
- Your teen should continue to have annual check-up appointments with their pediatrician or healthcare provider.
Conversation Starters and Parenting Hacks for Your 16-Year-Old
Not all potted plants speak, so your teen may become annoyed when asked about their lives. Try a variety of questions that go way beyond the standard “How was your day?” Here are some conversation starters to show you are genuinely interested in how they are doing.
Questions to ask your 16-year-old:
- Do you think of yourself as an optimist or a pessimist?
- Which celebrity would play you in a movie?
- Has anyone ever assumed something about you because of your skin color or appearance?
- Have you ever assumed something about someone else because of the color of their skin? Tell me more!
- What is something you can do when you start to feel stressed?
- What keeps you up at night?
- What do you think some of the benefits are of being sexually active as a teenager? What are some of the risks? Do those risks or benefits change when you are an adult?
- Which shows are you watching right now? Would you recommend any of them to me?
- How would you describe your personality?
- Is bullying a problem at your school?
- Do you agree with the current legal age for drinking, smoking, and voting?
Ways to help them grow and develop:
- Make time each day to hear about your teen’s activities; ensure they know you are actively interested and listening carefully.
- Respond positively to your child’s efforts and interests. Set firm, fair, and consistent limits for your teen.
- Encourage your 16-year-old to be part of family decision-making (i.e., family trips, family media plans, or meal planning).
- At this age, many teens struggle with being over-scheduled. Discuss ways to manage busy schedules and handle their stress. We’re conditioned to think quitting is always a negative, but some teens (or parents) may need something taken off their plate to thrive.
- If your teen wants to participate in activism, find shared ways to contribute to a movement, like joining a protest, volunteering, or learning together.
- Talk about their future college or work plans with them. Validate that every subject may not be their #1 interest, and help them to find ways to get through that coursework if they have college aspirations.
- Don’t be afraid to give your teen more responsibilities. Steadily increase privileges and responsibilities as appropriate.
- Build your teen’s financial literacy by helping them open their own bank account. Talk about whether a debit or credit card is right for them to teach them about building credit and avoiding debt.
As a parent of a 16-year-old, you may notice shifts in your relationship with your child. While being a houseplant is not something you might aspire to, use the metaphor of potted plant parenting to guide you through this relationship transition. You are still more important than your teen will ever admit to you – just “being there” and knowing that you are there if they need you helps your 16-year-old grow, learn, and, most importantly, stay safe.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
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