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7 Things Parents and Teachers Should Know About Teens

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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Girl sitting at desk looking towards another student

Summer is approaching, and many teenagers will be freed up from the structures and restrictions of school. What will now come to the forefront for them? What's at the core of their lives? Reality TV? The summer concert scene? Life at the malls? Sun and sand at the beach? Chatting and texting? Sports? Some may think this covers the list. But those that do are giving teenagers far too little credit.

The late Rachael Kessler spent a great deal of time talking to and working with adolescents. Her special interest was how to deal with what she referred to as life transitions and "passages." Some are large, like leaving high school, starting a job or starting college, leaving college, living on one's own, and coping with the impact of family trauma such as severe illness, death, or divorce. Some are linked with religion, such as Bar or Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation.

Rachael found that these passages are pivotal moments in the lives of both teens and their families. How are they handled?

What Teens Think About

Generally speaking, Rachael believed we give adolescents far too little credit. The passages in their lives are moments when they ask themselves important questions, such as these:

  • How does my life have meaning and purpose?
  • What gifts do I have that the world wants and needs?
  • To what or whom do I feel most deeply connected?
  • How can I rise above my fears and doubts?
  • What or who awakens or touches the spirit within me?

Those of you who live with teens might be wondering if Rachael had been working with teens from this planet. Indeed, she had. What she found is that adolescents are lacking in forums for exploring and expressing many of these questions and the deep feelings that they invoke.

Many teens do get caught up in the media- and video-generated culture of glitz, personality, entertainment, and consumption. It's hard for them not to. Advertisers spend tens of millions of dollars to put images in front of teens (and their parents) that will lead them to think first, "What do I want?" and not, "How can I help?" or "Where am I headed?" or even, "Where are my family, peers, or community headed?"

Rachael asks us to think about how we organize events to commemorate passages, fully aware of the way that popular culture pushes teens, parents, and educators to create spectacles or high-energy blowout events. Indeed, the kinds of "passage" events that Rachael designed were meant to create a process of reflection and, often, redirection of activities, away from the concerns of "childhood" and toward the "deeper" questions surrounding transition to adulthood.

But in our current culture, the connection between these celebrations and the passages they commemorate is not clear, nor are they a bridge to greater reflection and adult responsibility and capability.

What Can Parents and Educators Do?

While parents and educators may have a hard time addressing issues of soul and spirit with their teens, it can help to be aware of some ways into the hearts and minds of young people that can make a difference. Here is what Rachael Kessler suggests in her landmark book, The Soul of Education.

1. Positive Belonging

Teens' memberships can be a source of rich, deep connections for them. They need this kind of influence in their lives. Organized youth activities are an important forum for teens to explore these deeper questions.

Parents need to look out for camps, religious and non-religious youth groups, teen tours, and local youth centers and recreational programs that provide time for teens to come together with sensitive leaders to talk about questions generated by their life passages.

2. Silence and Solitude

For some teens, this is an important way in which they take a break from the pressures of everyday life.

3. Reflections on Life

Questions that they ask about life and their futures are best treated emotionally, not through information. In addition to talking with you, see if there is an older sibling, grandparent, member of the clergy, or respected educator that they might talk with as well. Educators can design writing projects around these questions, with peer sharing.

4. Joy and Play

Teens need to have fun, and certainly not alcohol- or drug-induced fun, but genuine fun with other peers that they will remember and be proud to talk about the next day. Fun is not frivolous.

5. Creativity

Encourage creative exploration even if it does not seem "practical" or "career oriented." Creativity develops the soul.

6. Linking to the Large

Help teens identify with greatness and see greatness within themselves. Focus them on their potential, not their limitations. Expose them to truly inspiring figures in history and in various fields of endeavor.

7. Shape the Passages

Work with teens to prepare for their passages and focus on the meaningfulness of it, at least as much as the celebration. Start to prepare in advance, and look at how the positive aspects can be continued well after the event.

Parents, educators, and teens can think about what the passage is a passage to, what the meaning and implications of the passage are, and what new expectations this might create for the teen and how others treat him or her.

You can learn more about Rachael's approach at the website where her cherished colleagues continue her inspiring work, Passageworks.org.

Was this useful? (5)

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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Ashley Gomez's picture
Ashley Gomez
Former Community Engagement & Social Media Marketing Intern

As I was only a teenager a few years ago, I completely agree with this. I think that teenagers deserve a lot more credit than they normally receive. When I was a high school student, I constantly thought about those 'deeper' questions mentioned in the article - both with and without prompting.

In line with what can educators and parents do, I think the 7 suggestions are the perfect way to allow teens to enjoy their youthfulness while at the same time preparing them for the next chapter. Many of the prominent people in my life allowed me and helped me to do just those things, and I believe it really helped me in the long-run!

(1)
Jstearns's picture

I think that with all the academic pressure today's teens face, we often forget about the other facets of their life which directly influence those academic pursuits- thanks!

Winston Sieck's picture
Winston Sieck
Cognitive Psychologist. Director of Thinker Academy.

Teens do deserve more credit than they typically get from adults. I think many problems adults associate with teens, such as lack of "motivation" or "engagement" would diminish if we truly encouraged more self-direction. Really useful for us to keep in mind these deeper questions teens think about, and ways to support their journey. Nice ideas and approach.

(2)
Alan's picture

Many thoughtful and important observations here. Particularly engaged over the need for teens to get some personal "air" in the summer months, some time to disengage from the noise, and connect with the kinds of activities that help develop their own personal stories.
This is the biggest challenge for parents --- to connect on that level or to get others to connect on that level with their teens.
Loved the list of questions that teens are asking themselves...

(1)
Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
Executive Director, Edutopia

Bravo Maurice! Yet another grounding post that we proudly promote on Edutopia and, on a personal level, as a parent of two teens, I will take to heart. Thank you for all of your great contributions over the years to help great meaning in life and learning for young people.

(1)
Amy Hardeman Garcia's picture
Amy Hardeman Garcia
Student Support for Regional Educational Service Center

Great ideas to assist teens navigate through the tough years.

Stephanie K.'s picture
Stephanie K.
High School Spanish 2

A word of warning to some teachers who might be inspired to assign some of these questions to a student as a writing assignment. I only mention this because I have seen actual writing prompts from teachers similar to these. I'm refering to the list including "How does my life have meaning and purpose?" and "What gifts do I have that the world wants and needs?" Even if it's a journal assignment that you're not going to read and grade, think first about the topic and ask yourself, not as a teacher, but as an individual: "Would I want to have to answer this?" "What if the answer is unknown or negative?" Use the mirror test on all assignments. If it's a topic that makes you uncomfortable to discuss, multiply that discomfort for students. If it's something they don't feel comfortable or confident about, they'll either give glib answers or depressing ones. Either way, if your purpose is to guide students to think deeply or metacognitively, give them the opportunity to explore possibilities within a specific scenario with a window of hope.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Stephanie raises an important point. No assignment should exist out of context and without a pedagogical plan. So preparation is required before assigning these or other prompts, and so is a follow up plan. In my experience asking these questions of youth, the depressing aspect of them not having answers extends far beyond their inability to complete the writing assignment. Without some kind of prompt for a thoughtful consideration of teenagers' thoughts and feelings about themselves and their future, it's not impossible that they will remain adrift longer than they need to. I think it's good advice to guide students to think (and feel) deeply and to structure assignments in ways that will lead them to positive outcomes, albeit without avoiding all possible bumps on the road along the way.

Inspired Home Ideas's picture

The tough teen years are fraught with many different issues that they try and handle and cope with as they grow and mature. Enabling a teen to be open, honest and share is a great means to give them confidence, self awareness, and also to help them value the adults in their world.

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