Let’s all take a moment to think back on our teen years. What do you remember about that time? Chances are, there were some rough patches. Maybe you got dumped on the first day of eighth grade and cried to Avril Lavigne’s Complicated in your bedroom.

Or maybe you got into a heated, sulking battle with your parents about whether it would, in fact, be a good idea to hitch a ride with your friend’s boyfriend’s lacrosse teammate to and from that Dave Matthews Band concert.  

But chances are, it wasn’t all bad. In fact, there were probably some highly formative and happy moments, too. Maybe you had your first kiss. Maybe you spent hours laughing hysterically with a person who’s still one of your closest friends. Maybe a high school course instilled a love of psychology that became your career.

The adolescent years, roughly ages 10 to 20, are a roller coaster—for teens and their parents, too. They’re often portrayed as an unmitigated disaster: risky decisions, underdeveloped brains, constant fighting, social media addiction…and sure, there are many challenges that come with the rapid social and emotional changes happening during this period.

But it’s not all bad!

The science of adolescence suggests that these years, more so than any other in our lives, are actually a unique period of growth, learning, and development. Because of this, there’s an opportunity for us (the adults in teens’ lives) to help shape the people they are and will become.

So how do we do that? How do we help our adolescents become the best versions of themselves? What do they need to thrive?

Luckily for us, the UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent and National Scientific Council on Adolescence have distilled the science down into six key areas. 

Let’s talk about that science—along with a few more, ahem, oddly specific examples.

6 things teens need (based on science)

1. Exploration & Risk Taking

What it means: Brain changes in adolescence make taking risks feel especially fun and exciting. This is good, because it provides motivation to learn skills we’ll need as adults. It can also be not-so-good when it leads to dangerous risk-taking, like driving way too fast on a road trip with your friends to Canada after turning 18 (and subsequently being forced to empty your bank account to pay a speeding ticket obtained in upstate New York).

What helps: Adolescents need to take risks, so encourage them to make those risks healthy ones, like: trying a new sport or activity, taking a more difficult class at school, signing up for an adventure-recreation program (rock climbing, white water rafting), or standing up for a cause they believe in.

2. Meaning & Purpose Through Contribution

What it means: Teens are starting to be better able to put themselves in others’ shoes, making them better at anticipating others’ needs. This makes them more capable of helping others. Over time, contributing helps them feel that their lives are meaningful and have direction.

What helps: Contributing can happen with friends, when teens listen to and support them. It can happen at home, through doing chores or babysitting siblings. It can happen in the larger community, through service organizations and volunteering. It can also happen at school, through involvement in student government or clubs, like the R.E.S.T. (“Relax, End Stress Today”) club one might start at their high school, and which may involve a fair amount of napping on desks.

3. Decision Making & Emotional Regulation

What it means: Teens feel things strongly—like, for example, anger when their mom tells them that the trendy, hot-pink halter top they bought for $1.99 at Forever 21 is not appropriate attire for the 7th grade Valentine’s Day dance.

Learning to recognize and manage their feelings is important for both their overall emotional health, and for helping them make smart decisions.

What helps: Recognize that emotional ups and downs are normal during the adolescent years. Teach them to recognize and label their emotions and to use healthy coping skills (e.g., distraction, mindfulness, listening to music, self-care). Model healthy coping for them, too.

4. Support from Parents & Other Caring Adults

What it means: Teens might start acting like they don’t need the adults in their lives, but they do. Relationships with parents, mentors, and other supportive adults (coaches, teachers) play a key role in healthy development.

What helps: Show warmth and interest in teens’ lives, and work to provide appropriate structure (rules, boundaries, monitoring/awareness of what they’re up to). Help them develop relationships with other supportive adults through involvement in extracurriculars. Build a close relationship with your teen, so that one day they might grow up to be a 34-year-old woman who lives down the street from you and invites herself in for a “quick” visit every time she takes her toddler for a walk.

5. Developing Values, Goals, & Identity

What it means: Teens are figuring out the kinds of people they want to be. These identities are also being shaped by peers, family, community, and media—hence the occasional latching onto an unexpected TikTok trend, like, say, the currently popular Y2K aesthetic (i.e., late 90s/early 2000s-inspired “vintage” wear).

Identities also shape choices. If a teen sees themselves as a hard-working student, for example, they may choose to skip a party in favor of studying for an upcoming AP Physics test.

What helps: Give teens the freedom to experiment with their place in the world and set their own goals, whether it’s pursuing an interest or reflecting on who they are and want to be. Help them discover their academic and social interests. Support them in exploring their racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, including making sure they have access to positive messages about these identities. Pursuing interests through extracurriculars, sports, and school leadership positions can be great opportunities to explore their sense of self.

6. Respect & Social Status

What it means: You may remember, as a young teen, being particularly tuned in to what the “cool kids” were up to. Perhaps they were using Sun-In Spray-In Hair Lightener, so you too wanted to turn your hair orange.

Or maybe they were gathering in your town’s local movie theater to see the original The Fast and the Furious, so you too wanted to watch Vin Diesel drive a sports car under a truck. This is because our brains become highly attuned to social status and respect during the teen years.

What helps: Teens need healthy options to gain respect in their communities (e.g., through school and/or extracurriculars). They need to be treated as competent, individual people whose opinions we value. Note: when educational interventions, like this one designed to support healthier social media use, appeal to teens’ desire to be respected and “in the know” (i.e., by pointing out deceptive practices by social media companies) they may be more effective.

Evidence-based programs for teens

For further reading on the science of adolescence and how parents, educators, and other adults can help teens thrive, check out the UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent and National Scientific Council on Adolescence.

The breakup took place in the middle school hallway, during the transition between two classes. Could maybe have seen it coming, given that we’d seen each other a total of zero times during the summer.

Was tailgating and attending Dave Matthews Band (and/or O.A.R.) concerts a common high school summer past time in other places? Or is this just my suburban Connecticut upbringing talking?

In my defense, the roads were empty! Not another car to be found (besides the cop car) for miles! I had been working at a day camp that summer, and nearly every penny earned sweating through games of kickball and freeze dance was spent paying off that speeding ticket. Lesson learned (i.e., never drive to Canada again).

My high school encouraged participation in extracurricular activities through a “clubs” period that met every other week. Students could sign up for clubs that ranged from chess to community service to bell choir (…it was a Catholic school), and in the later high school years, could propose and run a club of their own. From what I remember, a friend and I decided to start the “Relax, End Stress Today” (i.e., R.E.S.T.) club primarily out of enthusiasm for the acronym. Activities included: napping, watching yoga videos, making stress balls (i.e., trying to fill balloons with rice; do not recommend), and, paradoxically, biweekly increases in stress as we tried to come up with new activities to fill the time.

The pink halter top in question looked exactly like this, and now I’m wondering if Forever 21 just recycles old styles every 20 years or so?

My parents, it seems, did such a good job fostering a close relationship with me that I now live a 6-minute walk from them. Did they expect in my teen years, when they were asking me about my school day and driving me to sports games and generally being kind and supportive, that one day I’d move next door and regularly invite myself over and help myself (and my child) to the contents of their fridge? Maybe not. But I think it’s working out great (for at least one of us).

Here’s the #y2kaesthetic on TikTok. Proceed at your own risk.

For what it’s worth, I have a PhD and was in school for 20+ years, and I can confidently say that the hardest class I ever took was AP Physics. Here are a few of the current topics covered in the “Quantum Physics” unit, according to Google: De Broglie wavelength, Bohr model radii, mass defect and binding energy, emission spectrum of hydrogen (?!) Luckily, none of these topics have been especially relevant to my adult life, so it hasn’t come up much.

Happy to report that it seems Sun-In Hair Lightener still exists, allowing a whole new generation of brunette middle schoolers to discover that orange-red is probably not their color. Also, according to Amazon, this stuff has no expiration date, so, like Forever 21 shirts, these might be the exact same products we were working with 20 years ago.

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About the Author: Jacqueline Nesi
Jacqueline Nesi, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and the author of the popular newsletter Techno Sapiens.

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