Adolescence is a critical time of life when friendships grow deep, and teens are moved to explore and discover who they are in the world. Unfortunately, the typical story of adolescence these days is that it’s phase that parents and families must survive until their children launch into the much more culturally acceptable period of young adulthood. This pervasive narrative can cause parents, families and other adults in a teen’s life to disconnect from them. While it is true that adolescents need space to develop independently, they also need someone looking out for their well-being and providing mentorship, particularly for kids who have challenges within their families.
Let’s face it, navigating adolescence is complicated. Even for teens with the most support, this period of life can bring up new anxieties, self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy as the opinions of their peers take center stage. But amidst this anxiety, teens are forming their identities and deciding who they want to be. They are trying on personas to see what fits and feels good, as well as what doesn’t.
Reading this now, you might think back to your own teen years and the ways that you struggled, learned and grew. And despite the primacy of your peers at that time, there was probably at least one, and ideally multiple adults in your life who supported you, believed in you, and with whom you could talk about these pressures.
I once did a study with a group of teen girls between the ages of 15-18 and asked them what they thought about their own appetite for risk. That was defined by the girls as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, sexual activity and other forms of delinquency such as stealing, and/or knowingly breaking the rules. Then I met with those same girls’ mothers and asked them what they thought about their teen girl’s proclivity to enter into risky behavior. The feedback was extraordinarily consistent among the groups.
Moms: I know that my daughter is going to experiment and try risky things despite my best efforts to stop her. I even understand that this is necessary to grow and learn, and I can remember when I took those same chances. I just hope that my daughter doesn’t dig a ditch so deep that I can’t pull her out when she reaches for help.
Girls: I’m going to try risky things even when I know that I shouldn’t. Adults and people who care for me can tell me that I shouldn’t go down a path, but I need to travel that path on my own and find out for myself. What I really need to help me through this time are adults other than my parents who I can talk to, trust and who won’t judge me.
Despite the common narrative of impulsive and reckless adolescence, the teens in this study made conscious decisions, debated the pros and cons of their actions and still made some decisions their parents wished they hadn’t. As adults, we need to better understand this drive for exploration so that we can provide a buffer for them against negative consequences of this time.
When a teen is homeless, in foster care or in an otherwise unstable family situation, access to positive adult attention and guidance becomes even more critical.
Donors can help quality programs reach more kids – whether it is in their specific community or nationwide. Both the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club of America have large networks across the country serving young people
In Washington state where the Raikes Foundation is headquartered, there are multiple examples of positive youth mentoring and development organizations doing great work including Tacoma Boat Builders, a non-profit diversion program serving at-risk young men often in foster care and kids on probation. Every student is paired, one-to-one, with a mentor who understands youth development and is also a skilled craftsman. And the Odyssey Youth Movement, a non-profit organization that promotes equity for LBGTQ+ youth in the Spokane area through youth-driven programs and community education.
Collectively, we must work to change the narrative about adolescence and ensure that more kids are surrounded by caring adults who can help them navigate the ups and downs of being a teenager.