The Truth About Teens

Teenagers … amirite!? They’re rebellious, lazy, awkward, and constantly fighting with their parents…or are they? Misconceptions and stereotypes about teens are everywhere – you wouldn’t be alone if you shared some of these perceptions – but the truth is more complicated (isn’t it always?).

Yes, adolescence is a time of dramatic change for everyone. Hormones are pumping, teens start to question their parents’ authority and explore their identity, and are constantly facing new social situations. As we heard from brain development experts at Child Trends’ annual Kristin Anderson Moore lecture a couple weeks ago, we now know that the development of complex skills like critical thinking, reflective thinking, and considered response is not “open and shut” – it doesn’t stop at the end of childhood, but continues throughout adolescence.

But no matter how full of biological, social, cognitive, and emotional change adolescence may be, the research shows that most teens are doing just fine. Most adolescents are successful in school and are attached to their families and communities. A new Child Trends report about adolescent well-being and the family environment finds that most teens’ parents talk to them about things that really matter and that parents know where their teens are and who they hang out with.

Still, for a significant minority of adolescents, the teenage years are a time of risk for behavioral, health, and/or social problems. Unintended pregnancy, substance use, depression and other mental illness are just some of the issues that come up and often worsen during adolescence. For the most vulnerable teens, like those growing up in poverty or who are beginning to self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) or who have been exposed to multiple adverse experiences, there is an even higher risk for many negative outcomes including homelessness and dating violence.

The good news is that we know a lot about what factors can protect teens, such as close and caring relationships with adults, strong social emotional skills, and positive routines and practices. For example, a recent Child Trends study found that teens who felt connected to their school and those who perceived that their teachers cared about them were less likely to use drugs as young adults.

Unfortunately, it can be hard for parents and other concerned adults to recognize when teens are struggling or when they’re just going through the ups and downs of adolescence. Are they experiencing feelings of isolation or do they just want to be left alone to listen to the new Taylor Swift album? Luckily, there are many resources for parents, siblings, teachers, caregivers, healthcare providers, and others to rely on for help in supporting teens as they figure their way through this critical life phase.