Supporting Adolescents in a Rapidly Changing World

The world has changed a lot since most of us were teens and even more from the days when our parents were growing up. Not surprisingly, these changes have also transformed the experience of living through the adolescent years. Just as the Chinese symbol for change is composed of two characters, danger and opportunity, most types of change tend to be double-edged. They bring with them the potential for great promise as well as the possibility for challenge.

Below are some of the ways that being an adolescent today is different from the not too distant past:

  • Adolescence is getting longer. Adolescence has expanded well beyond the traditional “teen” years of 13-19. They now begin well before age 13 and often don’t end until the mid-20’s or later. Children today engage in teen-like behaviors at younger ages than previous generations. Most well-paying jobs now require long periods of education and training, resulting in many young people being financially dependent on their parents well into their 20’s. What was once a relatively short stage of life has nearly doubled in the past 60 years.

Opportunities: Teens continue to receive emotional and financial support until their decision-making skills are fully developed. They have more time to play, socialize, and learn – as well as discover who they are and experiment with career options. They also have a longer period of life to explore romantic relationships and find a compatible partner.

Challenges: An earlier start to what we think of as adolescence means that younger children are exposed to risky ideas and behavior before they are developmentally ready to handle it. An extended adolescence also brings a longer period of limbo between childhood and adulthood. This can result in frustration as well as more time to experiment with risky activities that can have dangerous consequences. Parents may also have a longer period of responsibility for guiding and supporting their children and less time to enjoy the freedoms and benefits of the empty nest years.


In the 1950’s, the average American girl had her

first period around age 13.5 and was married at 20.

By 2010, girls had their first period at around 12.5

and weren’t married until about age 26, if at all.


  • Youth have more choices than ever before. Youth today have many more options and freedoms than previous generations. Their choices are less limited by gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. For instance, women today can become doctors, welders, soldiers, or engineers. Just a generation ago it was rare to see women in such roles.  In the past most young adults lived near their parents and it was unusual to live with a partner or have a child without being married. Now both young men and women have more choices when it comes to relationships, lifestyles, what to buy, and even where they live.

Opportunities: More choices can result in more potential opportunities and personal freedoms. Even vocational choices made during adolescence can often be changed over time with additional education and training.

Challenges: Too many choices can be confusing and overwhelming. For instance, today’s teens have more mental health problems than past generations when life choices were more constricted. Many teens also have less stable intimate relationships and career paths or are stressed out by overscheduling and pressures to succeed.


  • The pace of change is happening at a record speed. In the past 30 years alone, we have seen major transformations in technology, work, family life, the economy, and culture.

Opportunities: Many of these changes have resulted in longer and healthier lives, fewer physical hardships, greater material wealth, and optimism that problems can be solved by new discoveries and technologies.

Challenges: The fast pace of change can lead to depression, stress and anxiety, greater concern about the future, and disappointment when expectations aren’t met. In addition, greater affluence and sedentary forms of entertainment like video games can contribute to overweight and out of shape youth.


  • The world is getting smaller. Global media, new technology, and a world economy have made the earth feel like a smaller place.

Opportunities: Through music, movies, and other media we increasingly share cultural connections with people who live in places very different from our own. Because people are able to travel across the globe within a day, we have a better understanding of our world neighbors and greater access to ideas, culture, and products from around the globe.

Challenges: A smaller world means that we are more immediately affected by events that occur thousands of miles away. Tragedies that happen on the other side of the world are immediately seen on TV or social media and provide a new source of anxiety and fear. Cultural traditions, norms, and the collective identities of families and communities may be lost in the face of a common, popular culture. This may make it harder for young people to gain stability and continuity in their lives and establish their own identity.


So, what do youth need to help them succeed in a future that is constantly changing?

  • Today’s youth need to become life-long learners who are adaptable, open to learning, and see change as an opportunity rather than something to be dreaded. Parents and other adults can help facilitate such an attitude by modeling the behavior in their own lives and responding to change in a way that is supportive and not fearful. Similarly, it is important for both parents and youth to understand that choosing a particular path such as a job or college is not necessarily a lifelong commitment but an ever changing journey that is part of living in the 21st century
  • In a world where change has become the norm, being a good parent means not only teaching one’s children but also learning from them. More than ever, it’s essential that parents listen to their children about their experiences and assumptions about the world, even when they may be different from their own. This not only helps parents better understand their children, but it also models the importance of life-long learning.
  • In a fast changing world where people are exposed to new events and crises on a regular basis, the ability to cope with uncertainty and change is critical. Strong coping skills, including the capacity to remain calm in the midst of change, are important for living a balanced life in a sometimes stressful and unbalanced world.
  • As the world gets smaller, developing the ability to understand and respect others with differing values and beliefs becomes increasingly important. At the same time, helping youth develop their own values, principles, and an appreciation for their roots, can provide them with a personal rudder to navigate such a diverse world.
  • In order to live in a society with more and more choices, it is important to foster in youth the skills to set priorities and make wise choices in the marketplace, at work, school, and in their personal lives. This begins by providing our children with opportunities to make choices and take responsibility at home, while still under the shelter of parental guidance.
  • Finally, parenting children in their late teens and early 20’s usually requires a shift in the parenting role and changes in how parents guide and relate to their emerging adult. Even if your 23-year-old is still living at home or financially dependent, it’s not healthy or helpful to treat them like they’re 14. Older youth are best served when parents adopt a more consultative or coaching role while also shifting more personal responsibility to the young adult.



SteveSteve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension for 30 years. He and his wife have 3 adult children, two son-in-laws, and a new granddaughter. Steve had a somewhat turbulent adolescence and his parents couldn’t wait until he grew out of it and left home. In his spare time he likes to bike, hike, build stuff, travel and play softball.