Your guide to age seventeen

This guide is intended to provide some context into what you might expect for neuro-typical seventeen-year-old development. Milestones and development are different for everyone.

Believe it or not, your child is now on the cusp of becoming an adult, legally and physically. Many parents and caregivers wonder, how ready is my 17-year-old for the real world? As they move towards milestones like graduating from high school or starting college, this may be the last year they live with you.

You know that the choices your teen makes now can impact much of their adult lives. So remember that you do affect the choices your 17-year-old makes, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Parenting your 17-year-old can be a tricky balance of guiding them towards autonomy while also keeping them safe and supported.

During this year, stress is one of the biggest challenges your child will face in their peer relationships, school, home, and work. The good news is that developmentally, 17-year-olds tend to be more comfortable seeking advice from older people and their parents again.  Your parenting challenge for this year is to continue what you have already been doing for them – connecting with them and supporting their ongoing emotional learning.

The major developmental milestones for 17-year-olds

Age 17 language and cognitive skills development

This highly-stimulating, exciting time of life for your late adolescent results in rapid cognitive growth. We now know that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for something called executive functioning) continues to grow and develop for another eight years – at least until your child is 25 years old.

By Age 17, your child may:

  • Be more skilled at making complex decisions.
  • Have established and more realistic plans for their future after high school (work, college, military, travel).
  • May still struggle to consider “the big picture” when in the moment or under stress.
  • Adapt their language and behavior depending on where they are – school, home, or work.
  • Have better organizational skills so that they can juggle multiple responsibilities (homework, friends, jobs, and relationships).
  • Engage in more thinking about thinking (called metacognition)
  • Be able to make their own schedule and plans.
  • Set limits and compromises when appropriate.

Age 17 social and emotional learning milestones

17-year-olds will seem more emotionally mature as they:

  • Move toward a more adult sense of themselves and their purpose.
  • Cope better with new problems and different situations than they did at younger ages (called fluid intelligence and emotional regulation).
  • Focus on relationships and dating and likely become sexually active.
  • Seek adult leadership roles.
  • Continue to be focused on their appearance.
  • Become better able to resist peer pressure.
  • Have fewer mood swings as their sense of identity and control both feel more secure.

They may still have moments when they remind you they are not ready to be an adult, especially when they:

  • Continue to feel the need to challenge you and your authority.
  • Feel nervous or hesitant about becoming an adult with increased responsibilities.
  • Are paralyzed by both a fear of the future and a fear of failure when trying to make bigger decisions.

Age 17 physical development and motor skills

By age 17, physical and sexual development is nearly complete. Your adolescent will:

  • Have fully-developed male genitals (penis and scrotum) in size and shape.
  • Have adult patterns of armpit, leg, chest, pubic and facial hair by age 18.
  • Notice a slowing in growth (height) in males by age 18.
  • Have completed breast development, usually by 17-18 years old.
  • Notice the appearance of the third molars (wisdom teeth), usually between 17 and 21. Talk with your dentist about whether or not your teen will need to have their wisdom teeth removed.
  • Continue to gain weight even if they are not growing taller. In males, increasing muscle mass may be the cause of weight gain.
  • Be able to take care of their grooming and hygiene.
  • Most teens have had sex by age 17. Continue small chats about sex, birth control and pregnancy to keep lines of communication open and support available as they navigate these topics. Make sure your teen is aware of their reproductive rights/restrictions where you live.

Vaccines for 17-year-olds

Your healthcare provider can help you ensure that your 17-year-old is up to date with their recommended vaccines. They should receive vaccines, boosters, or catch-up vaccines if they are off schedule to protect them from the following diseases:

  • Influenza (Flu) (one dose of vaccine every year)
  • COVID-19 (per current CDC recommendations)

Before your child enters college, a technical school, or a university, check that their vaccinations are up to date. If your child has missed any vaccines or is off schedule, they can “catch up” to get back on track. In addition, many states recommend and require that some college students receive the meningococcal conjugate vaccine.

Healthy eating and activity for 17-year-olds

If plans are in motion for your 17 year old to live independently in the coming year, you’ll want to solidify some of the teaching you’ve already done! Can they make their favorite meals? Do they know about how much to buy for a week’s worth of snacks and breakfasts? There is still plenty of time to get your teen ready, and their roommates and friends will appreciate it too. Take the next year to enjoy bonding over physical activity, and reinforce how much better everyone feels when they get outside and move together. This is something that can carry over to their new friendships in adulthood and benefit them physically, socially and emotionally.

  • Continue to make eating together as a family a priority.
  • Teens make more of their own food choices. Try a night when they cook for you!
  • Talk about the health risks of energy drinks and drinking too much caffeine. Help them learn about alternatives to caffeine to stay energized. 
  • Stock their favorite fruits and vegetables for snacks.
  • Your teen should brush their teeth twice daily, floss once daily, and see a dentist every six months. Their dentist can help you determine if wisdom teeth have enough room to grow or if you need a referral to an oral surgeon.
  • 17-year-olds should be getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. 
  • Talk with your healthcare provider if your teen athlete is feeling pressured to lose weight or gain muscle by overdoing training or using dangerous substances like steroids or supplements. 
  • Focus on health, not weight. Teach your teen not to use food as a reward or coping strategy for difficult feelings. These behaviors can lead to disordered eating.
  • Your 17-year-old should get between 8-10 hours of sleep every night. Watch for signs of sleep deprivation which can lead to serious problems for your teen’s health and well-being.
  • 17-year-olds can struggle to find a healthy relationship with their food, body image, and well-being. Talk with your healthcare provider or mental health specialist specializing in eating disorders, adolescent obesity, or adolescent athletes if you are worried about your teen.    

Keeping your 17-year-old safe

It might seem like you are constantly nagging, but teens (even older ones) still need reminders to keep them safe. Plus, your communication shows them that you care about their well-being. So keep talking about substance abuse, safe driving, sexual activity, and mental health self-care, even if it feels like a conversation you’ve had a million times.

  • Discourage vaping. Using E-cigarettes or vaping in adolescence can cause lifelong problems for your teen’s mental health by harming the parts of their brain controlling attention, learning, mood, and impulse regulation.
  • Reinforce the importance of always wearing seatbelts with your 17-year-old. They are much more likely to always buckle up if you do too.
  • Give your teen tips for getting out of riding with a driver impaired by alcohol or drugs. Talk about the risks of driving while texting, sleep-deprived, or impaired by alcohol, marijuana, or drugs.
  • Even though substance abuse is common among teens, remind them that not all of their peers drink or use substances.
  • Know where your teen is going and who they’ll be with. If your teen is hosting friends or a party, you should be there to make sure there aren’t drugs or alcohol. If your teen is going elsewhere, you should text the hosting teen’s parents to ensure there will be adult supervision.
  • Ensure your 17-year-old wears a helmet when on a bike, scooter, skateboard, ATV, motorbike or snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding, and when playing contact sports to avoid concussion-related brain injuries. Repeated concussions, with or without a helmet on, can have lifelong consequences. 
  • Talk with your teen about gun safety and school violence. Having a gun in your home increases the risk of murder and suicide in your home. 
  • Some teens cope by cutting or self-injuring. Don’t miss the signs of self-harm in your teen.
  • Be alert for any changes in your teen’s behavior – they could be signs that your teen is struggling with depression or anxiety. Contact your health care provider, mental health counselor, or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988) if you have any concerns that they might attempt suicide.
  • Gender-diverse teens and/or teens in larger-sized bodies are more likely to experience bullying, depression, and anxiety and be at risk for attempting suicide.
  • Your teen should continue to have annual check-up appointments with their pediatrician or healthcare provider.
  • Continue conversations and open communication with your teen about consent, teen dating violence, and protecting themselves against sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy.

Reinforcing healthy screentime habits

Like tobacco, alcohol, or drugs, screen time or video games can become an addiction that damages your teen’s health and relationships. Talk with your teen, their health care provider, and even their school if their daily screen time dose far exceeds the recommended 2 hours per day. Other helpful reminders to give your 17-year-old are:

  • Co-view and discuss. According to Common Sense Media, teens whose parents participate in their media lives make better choices and spend less time with media.
  • Limit multitasking. Multitasking makes it harder to focus on one thing and can prevent face-to-face conversations.
  • Safeguard privacy online. Discuss limiting information in online profiles, never posting personal details like phone numbers and addresses, and using strong passwords.
  • Social media posts are permanent – they don’t disappear even when deleted, and could impact their future college and job opportunities.
  • Report any messages from people they don’t know to you or another trusted adult.
  • Cyberbullying can cause lasting emotional harm and even be fatal. Encourage your 17-year-old to speak up and out against harmful online behavior by being a digital upstander.
  • Set timers and reminders to help keep track of the amount of time spent video gaming.
  • Avoid sexting and sharing any regular pictures without first asking others’ permission. Your 17 year old may start to understand the legal consequences of some non-consensual behavior. 
  • Encourage media mindfulness. Teach them to notice when being online makes them uncomfortable, worried, sad, or anxious, and strategize ways to make themselves feel better.

Conversation starters and parenting hacks for your 17-year-old

They may be almost ready to fly the nest, but take advantage of their greater sense of identity and capacity for complete thinking by asking some of these thought-provoking questions:

  • How would you define racism?
  • What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your last relationship? (if they have been in a relationship)
  • What’s your favorite way to de-stress?
  • What are the best and worst things about having a smartphone (or social media)?
  • How would you describe your personality?
  • Are you looking forward to being an adult?
  • If we had more money, how would you use it?
  • What are the big things kids are talking about at school?
  • Why do you think kids use drugs or alcohol?
  • What do you think about marijuana being legal for adults in some states?
  • Do you believe in God?

Ways to help them grow and develop:

  • Stay involved in your 17-year-old’s life even if they act like they don’t want you to. You can better see the world from your teen’s perspective when you are familiar with it. 
  • Get to know your kid’s friends, their parents, and especially the parents of anyone your kid may be dating.
  • Find ways to help your teen talk to people in certain jobs or get experience by working or volunteering.
  • Encourage your adolescent to talk to a trusted adult about problems or concerns, even if it is not you who they choose to speak with.
  • Decide rules and consequences of mistakes in advance.  If you have a two-parent or a blended family, parents should have their own discussion beforehand for consistency. Mistakes are a normal part of life – even for adults. If your 17-year-old makes a mistake, ask them what they learned from their mistake or poor choice.
  • Stick to your boundaries and established limits. 
  • If your teen is stuck in analysis paralysis, support their critical thinking and planning skills by brainstorming different options and listing the pros and cons. Let them take over more of the day-to-day problem-solving and life choices.

Habits are hard to break – that’s why your job as a parent of a 17-year-old is to help them learn the healthy habits now that will keep them safe as adults. Being a 17-year-old can be stressful and overwhelming as they contemplate launching from the nest, worrying about college, part-time jobs, and more serious relationships. They are also trying to figure out where they will fit into the adult world. So be there to offer support, connect them with resources, and provide love and acceptance when you see them struggling.

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team


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