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Youth Empowerment: How Older Folks Can Support Teens

High School is hard. 

After so many years of paying bills, cooking, cleaning, and managing all our other adult responsibilities, it’s easy to forget the challenges of being a teen; however, those challenges still exist. Now more than ever, it’s paramount that we listen to the voices of youth in our communities and in our lives. And as we do so, we must listen with empathy and humility.

Among many other challenges facing youth today, one constant is this: youth often lack agency over their lives. For example, as an adult, I can choose what I want to learn about in post-secondary education and I can choose what type of job I want to pursue. Unfortunately, young people sometimes don’t have the agency to make these choices, and when they do, their choices are often limited. For example, many high schools offer choices for which classes to take, but students generally have to take one math, science, history, and language arts class. Young people can look for jobs, but very few fields will employ high-schoolers. And these are only a few examples; there are many more ways in which youth’s agency over their lives is often limited by their age.

That is why, when a young person has the agency to use their voice to speak on an issue important to them, we must honor their voice.

Youth don’t have as many opportunities as they should to make their voices heard, and much of what they speak of may be issues that were taboo for older generations. Mental health, gender identity, sexual orientation, racial justice, environmental justice are just a few of the many issues that weren’t socially acceptable to openly talk about and address just a few decades ago, yet these are now some of the most frequently discussed and pressing issues facing the youth of today.

Thankfully, there are many opportunities for youth to make their voices heard in our community. The Conflict Center is just one of many different organizations in the Denver metro area that has a youth leadership program, and these organizations frequently host events in which youth can speak on issues most important to them. 

When these events occur, it is of utmost importance that adults attend and listen to the voices of youth in our communities. Additionally, adults should create as many opportunities as possible for the youth in our lives to have agency to use their voices. It’s not easy, but it starts with honoring their voices. 

Adults can also do this outside of youth leadership events. This can be as simple as asking young people in their lives what they think about a particular issue, or inquiring about what issues are most important to them. This can also mean inviting them to collaborate with setting expectations and brainstorming solutions at home, at school, or at work. And, when a young person shares thoughts or solutions, adults shouldn’t just actively listen and honor their words, they should elevate them using whatever platforms we have, both personally and professionally.

It is often said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” While that is true, the voice of the child themselves is often lost in the mix. When the village comes together to raise that child, all must listen to and honor that child’s voice, for they are the most important person there.