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42 Million Opportunities: Adolescent Health Matters

Periodically, I stumble upon one of my journals from middle or high school and decide to take a stroll down memory lane. This usually ends with the conclusion, “Ack! Glad I grew out of that drama!” (a feeling probably driven by my tendency to journal only when I was either really happy or really upset). While I consider my adolescence a fairly good one (thanks to some key relationships and plenty of opportunities to explore my interests), part of me still feels that awkward twinge when reflecting on those years.

And that’s normal because adolescence can so often be an awkward time of life. During adolescence, youth go from childhood, where others are directing them, to being the primary directors of their lives – an often messy and challenging transition. At the same time, that transition contains all the potential for the future and constitutes the difference between a thriving adult population or a struggling one.

In the United States, nearly 42 million adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 are currently living through this transition. The vast majority are generally healthy; still, many struggle with significant challenges, including mental health issues, substance misuse, obesity, and violence. These challenges prevent adolescents from thriving, and while any adolescent can face these issues, too often, our most disadvantaged youth bear the burden.

Despite its awkwardness, adolescence should be a time of excitement when youth can see their potential. We can all play a part in making an exciting adolescence a reality. This premise is the heart of the HHS Office of Adolescent Health’s national call to action, “Adolescent Health: Think, Act, Grow” (TAG). Built on discussions with leaders in youth-serving fields, TAG identifies five essentials for supporting adolescent health:

  1. Positive connections with supportive people
  2. Safe and secure places to live, learn, and play
  3. Access to high quality, teen-friendly health care
  4. Opportunities to engage as learners, leaders, team members, and workers
  5. Coordinated adolescent- and family-centered services, as needed

Recently, I encountered a situation that brought to the forefront the need to better support our youth. I volunteer with a program that exposes middle school students to different careers through in-depth apprenticeships. Every class has at least one student who can be challenging to teach. Among my current group, that role has been filled by Michael.* He’s the type of student who wanders around the classroom and get into others’ belongings, pretends not to hear you when you call his name, and sometimes picks fights with other students. In short, he’s the type of adolescent whom others might easily dismiss. And, for weeks, my co-teacher and I struggled with finding a way to better engage him in the lessons.

Finally, in one session, we hit a breakthrough. We were working on a footprint lab that required setting up a lot of materials. We assigned Michael to help with this task. On receiving this opportunity, he immediately stepped up and focused on what he was supposed to do. Michael went from being an adolescent on the fringes to a leader among his peers, providing them direction and contributing to the class. When I presented him with one of the school’s small behavior reward tokens highlighting his efforts, he accepted with a big grin.

Situations such as these remind me of the potential that is within all adolescents. We, as adults, need to continually remind them of that potential because adolescents’ hope for their future is linked with healthier choices.

This is where the five essentials come into play, and it all starts with relationships. A review of mentoring evaluations found that many programs had positive effects, especially when they focused on positive skill building. These programs worked especially well when efforts were targeted toward at-risk youth. Even when not associated with a formal program, positive relationships with adults can still support youth outcomes. For example, parent conversations with teens about sex and reproductive health are associated with delayed initiation of sex, decreased frequency of sex, and increased condom and contraceptive use. Through positive and caring relationships with adolescents, adults can show youth they matter. These relationships also serve as a gateway to help adolescents discover new interests, challenge themselves, and learn from mistakes in a safe manner.

So take some time to think about how you can better support the healthy development of youth in your life. If you need ideas, see the TAG action steps for professionals.

Our nation’s 42 million adolescents represent our future – they are our future workforce, parents, and leaders. When we work to support their healthy development now, we set them on a trajectory to reach their full potential and build a brighter future for us all.

*Name has been changed to protect the student’s identity.

Kaylor Garcia, Senior Research and Communications Analyst


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