16-Year-Old Child Development Milestones

Your child’s growth and development at age 16

Turning 16 is big deal to most teens. Not only does their freedom expand with the addition of a driver's license, but they also are becoming more cognizant of what they want to do in their future. Those who plan to attend college may be visiting universities or preparing to take the appropriate standardized tests.

As for parenting, 16-year-olds can bring both joy and frustration to their parents and caregivers. Along with all the reasons for immense pride in how your teen is growing up and accomplishing goals, there are bound to be a few struggles along the way too. 

On the one hand, you might get to see your teen land the starring role in a musical, earn a spot on a sports team, get a driver’s license, or make the honor roll. On the other hand, there also might be academic challenges, risky behaviors, or straight-up rudeness, none of which are easy to deal with.

The key is balancing these challenges alongside the excitement of parenting. To make that goal more achievable, it helps to know what your teen is experiencing developmentally. Below you will discover how your 16-year-old is developing cognitively, physically, and emotionally. Plus, you will find tips on how to help them grow and learn as well as how to keep them safe—especially as they begin driving or riding with other newly licensed drivers.

16 year old child development milestones
Verywell / Emily Roberts

16-Year-Old Language and Cognitive Milestones

At this age, your child is no longer simply thinking about their own life. In the mid-teen years, kids start to consider how the entire world works and how their life fits into it.

They also are mastering abstract thinking—that is, considering what is and what could be as well as improving their reasoning and problem-solving skills during this time. But these skills are still not completely developed, says Ellen S. Rome, MD, MPH, and head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children's.

"The ability to foresee consequences is not completely hardwired at this age," Dr. Rome adds. "A 16-year-old might manage their job or homework well and even drive their car safely, but then not use a condom with their significant other."

​However, when it comes to communicating, for the most part, 16-year-olds are able to communicate like adults. In school, they can understand both concrete and abstract thoughts, fully understand punctuation and grammatical rules, and write and read sentences with complex structures.

One challenge many teenagers this age face is being over-scheduled, which is not necessarily good for their development. They need free time to pursue interests as well as time to rest and relax without expectations. During this time, they might prefer to unwind by watching YouTube or Netflix, reading books, playing video games, or even scrolling through social media.  

"They also might be thinking spiritually and know what it means to love another person," says Ashley Ebersole, MD, MS, FAAP, an adolescent medicine physician with Nationwide Children's. "But, this also can be a challenging time because some 16-year-olds are susceptible to a phenomenon known as the Personal Fable, which is this belief that they are invincible or that it is OK for them to take a particular risk because they believe they are special."

Additional Cognitive Developments

  • Changes language and behaviors between school, home, and other settings
  • Exhibits defined work habits
  • Explains the rationale behind their thoughts or decisions

16-Year-Old Physical Development 

The differences in the level of physical development among sexes are more apparent around age 16. Females, who are likely almost done growing and developing, are starting to slow down in physical development, while males are sometimes just getting started.

"At 16, a female's body may very much replicate an adult female body while a male might still be developing and may notice more height growth and further development of facial hair," says Dr. Ebersole. "Adolescents this age also are expected to gain weight as well as experience a redistribution of fat patterns."

Dr. Ebersole indicates that many teenagers struggle with the idea of gaining weight at this age, but stresses that it is completely normal for them to do so. Yet despite this fact, research shows that as many as 50% of females are dieting between ages 15 and 18.

"Adolescents often are very resistant to weight gain," Dr. Ebersole explains. "But it is very developmentally normal for this age."

You might also see your teen sleeping longer and eating more to keep up with the growth they are experiencing. Also, shifts in their circadian rhythm may cause them to stay up later at night and sleep later in the morning.

Additional Physical Developments

  • May be concerned about the way they look
  • Continue to develop physically including muscle development and weight gain
  • May consider dieting even though weight gain is expected at this age

16-Year-Old Emotional and Social Milestones

A 16-year-old knows that adulthood is not far away, so they will start to show more independence and engage in less conflict with their parents. They also will begin making decisions with that independence in mind. However, their choices may not always feel like the right ones to their parents.

"Sixteen-year-olds sometimes weigh the opinions of their peers over that of their parents," says Dr. Rome. "They won't always recognize the consequences of their decisions, but as Dr. Ken Ginsburg says, parents should be a lighthouse providing a beacon that guides teens toward safe harbor. In other words, parents set limits but allow kids to test the waters as long as their choices are not life-threatening ones."

If your child makes decisions that concern you, talk to them. Pay attention to changes in behavior, particularly if your teen seems sad or depressed, and reach out for professional help if necessary, suggests Dr. Rome.

Sixteen-year-olds are entrenched in a social world that includes friendships and romantic relationships. They may spend less time with their families and more time with their friends or dating interests, or they might prefer to spend more time alone than they used to.

Teenagers often have strong sexual desires and may become sexually active. Nearly half of all 16-year-olds in the U.S. have had sex. At the same time, they might begin to understand more about sexual orientation and become aware of their preferences.

"At this age, teens are sometimes developing short, intense love relationships," says Dr. Ebersole. "For instance, they might find someone they feel like they are totally in love with and then break up two weeks later."

Social and Emotional Milestones

  • Become aware of sexual orientation
  • Enter into deeper platonic or romantic relationships in search of intimacy
  • Show signs of confidence and increased resistance to peer pressure

Other Milestones for Your 16-Year-Old

Most teenagers begin driving around age 16. But driving does bring its own risks. Make sure your teen is mature enough to handle the responsibility of driving before teaching them to drive or handing over the keys.

"You also should have regular discussions about who they are going with, where they are going, and how they are getting there," says Dr. Rome. "You could even consider having your place become the space where your teen and their friends hang out. Although you can give them some freedom and space, they also should know you will be coming in periodically to refill the popcorn bowl so that you can get eyes on them."

You also might want to consider implementing some safe driving rules like limiting the number of passengers your teen can take in the car and using apps like Life 360 so that you know where they are and how fast the car is going. Keep in mind, accidents are one of the top causes of death for teenagers.

Ensure that your teen knows how to be safe on the road, whether they are driving or riding as a passenger and that they can call you to come get them if they ever feel unsafe, suggests Dr. Ebersole.

How to Help Your 16-Year-Old Learn and Grow

Being 16 is not easy for teens—or for parents or caregivers. But you can make this time period in their life smoother by keeping the lines of communication open as well as educating them about the challenges they may be dealing with.

Talk about expectations, risks, and opportunities without shying away from tough topics such as drugs, alcohol, and sex. Make your rules clear by saying things like, “I trust that you will call me to pick you up if there's any drinking at the party.”

"Allow them a chance to voice their opinion," suggests Dr. Rome. "Problem-solve with them first, make suggestions second, and then agree on a plan. For instance, you can ask them what time they think would be a safe time to get the car home or how they believe different situations should be handled."

A 16-year-old is quick to tell parents that they are not needed or that they have things handled, but that could not be further from the truth.

Continue to strengthen your relationship with your teenager by showing interest in their life and praising accomplishments. Let your teen fail sometimes, but make sure they have the skills they need to handle the discomfort that comes with failure.

Also, talk to your teen about the pressure to have sex, regardless of their gender. Forbidding a romantic relationship or ignoring your child’s sexual growth could end up backfiring. Instead, make your expectations known and talk consistently and openly about topics such as sexual desire, sexting, and consent.

Finally, make sure you are discussing the future. After all, in just a few short years they will be either going off to college, starting a new job, or even entering the military. Make sure you take time to talk about all of their options.

There is not one future life path that’s the “best” for every teenager, but your 16-year-old might need assistance in exploring all the options ahead of them, including going to college or not going to college, and how the choice will affect their future. Take time to help your child plan for life after high school.

How to Keep Your 16-Year-Old Safe

Substance abuse is a significant risk at this age says Dr. Ebersole. In fact, she indicates that she sees a number of young people who have engaged in vaping or juuling recently or used other substances in some way.

"Talk to your teen about the risks of smoking, vaping, drinking, and using drugs," says Dr. Ebersole. "For instance, a lot of kids don't understand that there is tobacco in a vape pen or they don't realize that there is a chemical inside."

Make sure you are giving them factual information without using scare tactics. Instead, educate them on the risks as well as communicate your expectations. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), having ongoing conversations can add a layer of protection for your kids. And by all means, make sure you watch for signs of experimentation.

"This is an age and stage where smoking, drinking, and other forms of self-harm can become hardwired if it is not addressed," says Dr. Rome. "It is worthwhile to have frank conversations with your kids."

If your teen is struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

When to Be Concerned

At this age, there are two common reasons parents may be concerned for their teen. First, you may worry that your child is not succeeding academically. Slipping grades might be displayed through lack of organization or being disengaged from the learning process.

Self-confidence around learning could also be a contributing factor. The first step is to discuss your concerns with your teen’s teachers. They might be able to offer up different perspectives and provide resources.

Keep in mind that learning disabilities—like dyslexia, dysgraphia, or others—may have gone undiagnosed and can make it feel impossible for the child to succeed academically. Kids with learning challenges typically need different accommodations to help them learn, so you may want to have your child evaluated if they are struggling.

Secondly, around 16 years old, parents often see warning signs for mental health issues or substance abuse problems, says Dr. Rome. If this is the case, reach out to a mental health professional or a healthcare provider right away.

"Trust your instincts," she says. "If something doesn't feel right, it's worth looking into."

A Word From Verywell

While some 16-year-olds do not need to be reminded to do their chores, complete their homework, or save their money, others struggle to even get themselves out of bed on time or hold a part-time job. If your teen still requires a lot of help to function, it’s important to provide support and guidance but do not do too much for your child.

Remember, young adulthood is just around the corner and you want your teen to be prepared for it. Help them learn valuable life skills while they are still living under your watchful eye. For instance, make sure they know how to prepare simple meals, do their own laundry, and maintain a budget.

And if the issues you are experiencing cause concern, do not hesitate to talk to a healthcare provider for input and advice. Sometimes the challenges teens are dealing with have an underlying medical or mental health issue at the root.

Originally written by
Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

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