For some of us, remembering how teens think means only to conjure up our thoughts from a few years ago. For others, it feels like ancient history and requires some time and effort to truly represent the thoughts of a young person. But it is with these thoughts and perspectives that we often shape those policies and programs designed to foster health in today’s teens. Rather than simply guiding our initiatives based on our recollections of youth priorities, or worse yet, using our adult insights to decide what is “best” for today’s youth, we need to seek out authentic teen voices and ensure that teen perspectives guide our efforts.
Although we cannot be assured that all teens speak with one voice, nor can we shape policy based purely on teen insights, we do need to “try our best” and consider the voices and perspectives of youth in all we do. There are various ways to do this—from informally talking with youth on what they consider is in their best interest, to rigorous research that controls variables ensuring valid findings. Each pole of this spectrum has pros and cons as we generate programs and funnel our energies toward those initiatives that are most effective in helping teens.
Key to developing this youth-based framework is the art of listening. We may spend a lot of time talking to teens, and perhaps complaining when they don’t listen to us, rather than actively and intently listening to their thoughts and priorities. By listening to teens we may best hear their perspectives and concerns and, thereby, attend to the realities of current teen life.
Helping teens articulate their thoughts should also be a role for adult advocates. Current knowledge of brain development demonstrates that the maturing prefrontal cortex allows teens to put their thoughts into words. Assisting teens to find the words that accurately describe their thoughts and using other media, such as journaling, art, drama, dance, and creative expression, may help teens find their voices.
Research methods that may help us discover and use teen voices include surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Each of these allows us to “listen” to teens in a systematic way and to interpret their thoughts in accurate ways. Although these methods have their positive attributes, they also have limitations. For instance, teens often tire of long surveys, yielding inaccurate results. Teens may feel intimated during personal interviews or limited in their expression during a focus group based on the dynamics of the group. Creative methods to conduct youth-based research that reveal the candid voices of teens are being developed to allay these concerns. Using journaling via text messages or written word, open-ended sentence completion exercises, videos, photographs, and other expressions of voice through media are now more common ways to access the views of teens.
Just using teen-oriented methods is not always enough. We need to ensure that teens are part of the process such that the youth lens truly depicts the thoughts and perspectives of teens. Youth advisory boards, teen representation in program planning, and teen involvement that truly relies on their perspectives—rather than just allowing them to serve as “token voices”—are integral in developing youth-focused initiatives. The phrase, “Nothing about us without us,” can go a long way to ensure youth-based and youth-oriented programs and policies designed to promote teen health and speak to the realities of teen life in today’s world!
Judith W. Herrman, PhD, RN, ANEF, is a Professor, School of Nursing, University of Delaware and a Healthy Teen Network Board Member