How adults can help teenagers thrive
Ask any parent or teacher what it’s like to deal with teenagers, and chances are you’ll get a few eye rolls, exasperated sighs, or even curses. Yet people in this demographic can be praised for their brightness, leadership, and resilience. What’s irrefutable is that teens are navigating a turbulent time in life—and there’s much that people can do to support them in becoming well-rounded, empowered adults.
Most teenagers get through adolescence with few problems, establishing their own identity and preparing for a successful future. However, some experience a more difficult passage to adulthood. They may be rebellious or irritable, or worse, wind up dropping out of school or developing destructive addictions.
Aside from the physiological changes that accompany puberty, youth go through cognitive changes that enable them to think more abstractly, and as they crave more independence, they often come into conflict with caregivers.
At the very core of so much teen strife is what tends to be a common denominator, which clinical counsellor and educator Deborah MacNamara calls “peer orientation.” MacNamara is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, named after its founder, Gordon Neufeld.
An authority on child development, Neufeld co-authored the seminal book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers with Dr. Gabor Mate. It was first published in 2004, before the rise of social media, then later re-released with updated chapters about the digital world (Vintage Canada, 2013).
The book speaks to the vital importance of children’s relationships with those responsible for them and the detrimental effects of competing attachments with peers. These concepts are even more fitting in the post-COVID world.
“For teens, the pandemic involved unprecedented separation from each other, from our structures and schedules, and from influential adults, but that came on the back of unprecedented peer orientation, where our teens are orbiting around their peers as a source of influence rather than adults,” MacNamara says.
“We’re seeing an increasing amount of the kind of exclusion and wounding that happen as a result of orienting around peers and losing the influence of adults. This wounding is particularly treacherous when combined with technology, which has created an even broader landscape for peer orientation. The root of our biggest mental health crisis with our kids is unprecedented separation from adults.”
One of the best ways adults can help teens is to steer them away from electronic devices, where possible, and not only because of harmful effects on sleep and concentration.
“Technology, or the technology that keeps teens attached to their peers, erodes play—the kind of play that keeps you emotionally well, helps you process emotions and build your own identity and hobbies,” MacNamara says. “The digital world has led to the demise of play and human connections, which, in combination, help keep us well.
“Do something incompatible with being on a screen,” she adds. “You might not be able to take the whole family white-water rafting, but go on a car trip, go camping, go on bike rides—carve out those spaces with your teen.”
Meals are a fantastic way for adults and teens to connect and communicate. Young people are typically always hungry; consider this an opportunity to talk and spend time together. “Teens have a lot more freedom than when they were younger; they have different schedules … ships that pass in the night. You want to hold onto a point of connection, and food is a wonderful place to do that.”
Sometimes adults need to admit that they’re the ones who are distracted during a conversation. “Teens’ favourite topic is themselves,” MacNamara says. “People might say ‘Oh, teens are very self-absorbed.’ They’re supposed to be the focus of their own mind. They’re figuring out where they fit, where they belong, and who they are.
“Listen fully and give them your undivided attention,” she adds. “Instead of telling them what to do, draw out their ideas. Listen to their dreams. You don’t have to agree or disagree.”
It’s equally important not to force discussion if teens clearly aren’t in the mood. “Make sure you’re reading for receptivity,” MacNamara says. “Sometimes they’re in adult mode: ‘I’ll do it myself.’ But then sometimes they’re much more open to our influence or ideas. You can’t always assume you have receptivity. Make sure you look for that before you have your conversations.”
While it’s crucial with older kids not to do everything for them or coddle them, helping teens with certain tasks can go a long way to empowering them. For example, they may want to apply for a job or a volunteer position, but they may not have a clue how to draft a resume or who to contact.
“Do what you can to help your child get into the world,” MacNamara says. “Introduce them to people. Help them with a hobby or with their goals so they can move into society. Be part of it; don’t expect them to figure it all out. Support them.”
A sense of purpose can enhance teens’ sense of well-being. According to a 2023 study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adolescents who feel a greater sense of purpose may be happier and more satisfied with life than peers who don’t.
Clinical counsellor and educator Deborah MacNamara supports the suggestion that feeling purposeful has tremendous benefits for teens. “One of the best mental-health policies is having a good job,” MacNamara says. “We sometimes forget how much having a job, feeling like you’re contributing to society, makes you feel like you’re needed, you’re wanted.
“You feel productive. You start feeling confident. It’s the same with volunteer work. It helps them get out of the house; it gets them off devices; it gets them around other adults. They are able to add something to society, and they have personal worth.”
According to a 2022 study by the American Psychological Association, exposure to ozone has been linked to an increase in depressive symptoms among adolescents over time, even in regions that meet air quality standards.
Ozone is a gas created when pollutants react to sunlight. The study linked high ozone levels to symptoms such as persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, difficulty with concentration, sleep disturbances, and thoughts about suicide.
Teens are prone to many moods and behaviours, which might include avoiding friends and family, not doing things they enjoy, worrying all the time, or showing a lack of motivation. These can all be part of normal development, but it’s vital to pay close attention in case there’s more to the story.
If any of these actions are intense, last for long periods, or interfere with daily functioning, they could signal a mental health issue. Let the teen know there is support, that you’ll work on it together, and arrange to meet with a trusted professional to discuss concerns and access help.