Dancer in silhouette

Is it our job to save them or support them?

There are a lot of well-meaning adults wringing their hands about “kids these days.” And by “kids” they might mean teens or college students or young employees or dance students or the entirety of Generation Z. These adults have a lot of ideas on what to tell these kids about hard work, family, relationships, social media, etc. Their ideas might even be good ones, but they are missing a key component: the kids themselves. Teens and young adults don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want you to save them with your bluster and big ideas. They want to know what you think, but they also want to hold those thoughts at arm’s length while they process the information. They want you to listen—really hear what they’re saying—without reaction.

The remedy to all this hand-wringing is perhaps an unpopular philosophy: Teens don’t need to be saved. They need to be supported.

To be clear, I’m not talking about teens in crisis, when “saving” may be necessary for their safety and the safety of those around them. I’m talking about functional teens walking through the growing pains and self-discovery of youth. It’s a normal part of adolescence not to want to be told what to do by grown-ups. Instead of trying to change that fact, instead of trying to make them listen or else, let’s send a different type of message, one that says, “I hear you. I support you. I believe in you. What do you think is the right next step?”

So much of what I do as a coach is based on what I wished I’d had as a teen: a compassionate, nonjudgmental adult who would help me figure out where I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do, in life. Someone who could show me, with real tools, how to set goals and achieve them. Someone who would let me set the pace of my own life, who wouldn’t shame me for dreaming big or holding back. Someone who would allow me to be me, in my not-yet-fully-formed self, and believe in me as capable even if (okay, when) I screwed up. Someone who would be encouraging and insightful without pretense.

Teens need caring adults in their ecosystems; that is inarguable. Research tells us that even just one strong bond with a grown-up is a protective factor in an adolescent’s life. But teens also need caring adults outside of familial bonds: teachers, mentors, clinicians, and yes, coaches who offer a safe space for exploring values, strengths, skills, friendship dynamics, careers, and more. Instead of feeling the looming weight of expectation and exasperation, kids want to feel heard and believed. They want space and support.

It’s time for adults to embrace the facts of adolescence instead of pushing against them. Teens are on their way to adulthood, which means that on the normal curve, they are going to show some impulsive, rebellious, independent, emotionally-driven behaviors. They are also going to try on new identities, experiment with new interests, and test new relationships. We need to keep them safe during all this, yes, but we don’t need to save them from themselves. Instead, we need to support their growth and curiosity, and trust that they are their own expert.