What Adults Need To Know About “The Breakthrough Years”

When it came to adolescence, Ellen Galinsky wanted to find out what tweens and teens wanted to know about their development. Galinsky practices a form of research called “civic science.” That means she goes out and finds out about the people who will be subjects of her studies. So, she began asking questions like, “What do you want to know about your development?” and “When I interview researchers, what do you want me to ask them?” and “What are the things the adults in your world should know about people your age?” 

Those questions and many others were then integrated into a nationally representative study of more than 1,600 9-through-19-year-olds and their parents. Afterward, she spent more time interviewing close to 60 of the parents and children. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. She returned to her study sample to find out how they were doing during the pandemic. The answers are revealed in her book, “The Breakthrough Years.” We sat down with the author, researcher, family studies expert, and President of the Families and Work Institute to learn more about her findings. 

Eden Pontz: You asked an important question that revealed five main things teens want adults to know. Touch on these points and explain why they are so important.

Ellen Galinsky: I asked teens, “What do you want to tell the adults of America about people your age?” Responses fell into five areas, and they paralleled teen brain research.

  1. “Understand our development.” That may seem trivial, but it’s not trivial at all. I asked parents, “If you had one word or phrase to describe the teen brain, what would that word or phrase be?” Only 14% of the parents used positive words about adolescent brain development. The most frequently used word by 11% of the people was “immature” and another 8% used similar words like “under-developed.”
    That told me many of us are seeing adolescents as deficit adults. We’re seeing what they’re not. We wouldn’t say a toddler is a deficit preschooler. We wouldn’t say an infant is a deficit toddler. But we see adolescents as “not adults.”

    Young people need to be able to explore and have adventures. How else are they going to move out eventually? They need to learn how to react quickly to judge whether a situation is safe. That’s what they need to do to survive. So much of adolescent research has been about negative risks, like taking drugs and drinking or making what is often called “stupid decisions.” People have wondered, “Do adolescents make these kinds of decisions because they’re not smart, don’t know the consequences, or feel they’re immune from danger?” That’s not true.

  2. “Talk with us, not at us.” Adolescents need to have some autonomy – to learn how to make decisions for themselves. I don’t mean to turn everything over to them. I mean, give an age-appropriate level of control over their choices. The best parenting, the best approaches, and the best teaching involve adolescents in learning to solve problems for themselves.

  3. “Don’t stereotype us.” 38% of teens wrote, “We’re not dumb, we’re smarter than you think, we’re not all addicted to our phones.” They said things like, don’t label us the “anxious or depressed generation” or the “COVID generation” and instead let us be individuals. They’re right about that, too.
    When parents’ perceptions of adolescence were negative their kids didn’t do as well. They were more depressed, sad, lonely, angry, or moody. We know kids will live up to or down to expectations.
  4. “Understand our needs.” Adolescent brains get particularly activated, more than younger children and young adults during certain experiences. There’s an approach in psychology research called the “self-determination theory,” which suggests we don’t just have physical needs for food, water, and shelter. We also have psychological needs for things like having relationships or caring connections. That is, feeling that you belong, are supported, and can make some decisions in your life. Also, being treated with respect and as if you are competent. And being able to find ways to contribute or give back – these are all basic psychological needs. Children who had those basic needs met before the pandemic by the relationships in their lives were more likely to do well during a tough time—the pandemic.

  5. “We want to learn stuff that’s useful.” That goes back to one of the best-kept secrets in America, which is the importance of executive function skills. Those of us who build these skills are more likely to do well in school, healthwise, with wealth, and overall satisfaction than people who don’t build these skills. We can learn these skills, and the teen years are the prime time to do so. These skills include understanding the perspectives of others, setting goals, communicating, working together, or taking on challenges. They build on core processes in the brain that help us succeed. 

EP: Why is adolescence too often seen in a negative light – and how can we reframe it?

EG: The field of adolescent development began in the early 1900s with a book by G. Stanley Hall. A key message of that book was that adolescence is a time of “storm and stress.” Since then, researchers have typically studied adolescents’ risky behaviors.

Now we’re seeing a positive youth development movement begin to take hold. If we view kids as fraught with problems, we’re going to treat them as if they’re vulnerable. But if we see them as capable, if we see them positively, we’re going to treat them differently. 

We tend to treat adolescents in negative ways because we’re both afraid for them and afraid of them. We’re afraid for them because they’re moving out into the world, and we’re not always going to be there to help them. So, we want to protect them. Also, if we think, “Oh, they’re awful, they’re in a hormonal minefield,” we won’t feel so responsible. But if we treat adolescents in constructive and positive ways, we will have a very different relationship with them.

EP: In the book, you talk about different aspects of the adolescent brain. What do you want adults and parents to know and think about differently?

EG: Some researchers have compared the teen brain to a car without brakes – their pedal is on the metal; that is, the reward system is very active during the adolescent years. And their cognitive control center isn’t as advanced as other parts of the brain yet. That’s not a fully accurate analogy. Teens are learning cognitive control. That’s important to understand. Our understanding of the brain affects how we treat adolescents. For example, if you hear that the reward system is very active, if you know they’re more sensitive to rewards, you may see that as a bad thing. Instead, know this is a time when they’re supposed to explore. Give them positive risks. Take a different view. We can give them what researchers call “autonomy support,” which means that we teach them to solve problems for themselves rather than solving problems for them. 

I refer to a process in the book called “shared solutions.” With shared solutions, the adults state the problem and the goals. Then, ask, “What ideas do you have for solving this problem?” The adults set the rules but involve the teenagers in solving the problem themselves. No idea is too stupid. Both parent and child brainstorm and write down as many ideas as possible. Then you can ask, “What would work for you, and what would work for me?” They are using the skill of perspective-taking as they try to understand what would work for both. Then, come up with a solution. See it as a change experiment because it may not work perfectly. Then you try this new solution, And if it doesn’t work, try a different idea.

EP: How can adults help encourage brain-building in young people?

EG: Another myth about adolescence is that parents don’t matter very much, but parents matter a huge amount. Parents are brain-builders during adolescence. One of the ways we can help kids is to help them understand that we often learn by trial and error. Young people told us that making mistakes is seen as doing something wrong that they shouldn’t do. We need to reframe mistakes as an opportunity to learn more.

Our relationships with our kids — whether we make them feel they belong or provide a safe space where they can tell us things they might not be comfortable telling other people — are critical.

EP: How do parents’ views affect how adolescents fare, and how can we see things to help ensure our children’s mental and emotional well-being?

EG: As parents, we can help ensure our children do well by seeing their strengths and building on them. Relationships help us develop. They’re everything. So, our relationships with our kids — whether we make them feel they belong or provide a safe space where they can tell us things they might not be comfortable telling other people — are critical. 

One of my mother’s gifts was letting me tell her what I thought she was doing wrong. I had to say it politely and constructively. Still, it was an incredible gift, allowing me to say, “I think you’re making a mistake.” I have tried to do the same with my children. 

We can not fix problems for our kids; instead we can help them learn to solve problems themselves. So, if they’re in a challenging situation, listen, be there for them, and help them figure out something, even just one thing, they might do to solve this problem.

Another piece of advice I have is to have young people be helpers, not just those being helped. Research shows that if we help others, we help ourselves. We know that an increasing number of young people are struggling with mental health challenges. In addition to improving the services that families need, we can also involve young people in coming up with solutions to improve mental health. 

EP: What strategies do you want parents to consider when working with their children to create solutions together? 

EG: When I interviewed some of the families from the study and asked them what the most important skills parents and teachers should have were, a 12-year-old whom I call Joshua perfectly captured what others said. 

First, he said, “Listen more than you talk.” Second, he said to “Listen with ‘when-I-was-a-child’ mind, not just your ‘now-I’m-an-adult’ mind.” This means you’re listening and understanding what your child is saying and not just putting your adult perspective on it. You’re understanding their point of view and why they’re saying it. 

The third thing that young people said was, “If we are the problem, then we need to be part of the solution.” So, when there are problems in families, let teens help come up with solutions. 

Young people also said to set aside time to spend together. Setting the stage for a conversation is important. It could be going for a walk, where you don’t have to necessarily look at each other, but talking about things you’re both thinking about and avoiding distractions.

Teens said, “Don’t expect perfection.” Learning is by trial and error. Figuring out what not to do and what to do is part of the process rather than just focusing on mistakes. Trying something new sometimes means doing it wrong multiple times. It’s the only way you eventually learn to do it in the best way. 

For even more with Ellen Galinsky, check out this piece from Greater Good Science Center.

About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for Parentandteen.com. She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

Read more articles by this author

Get our weekly newsletter for practical tips to strengthen family connections.