Across the nation, teens get a pretty bad rap. If they appear in the news, many times it’s due to crime or some other tomfoolery that we shake our heads at and say, “Teenagers these days.” As a high school teacher, I feel like I get to know a secret about adolescents that many other adults don’t.

Our teens are incredible. Every day, I see instances of kindness, intelligence, and innovation, and I’m just an English teacher. Although teenagers are very different from each other in terms of background, culture, and home life, one commonality that unites them is a sort of ageism placed on them by society.

Teenagers live in a negative echo chamber of sorts, battling a mantra that implies they are impatient, lazy, entitled, and out of control. While teens do encompass these traits here and there, I can attest that they overwhelmingly crave love and encouragement. And this is where many of us fail them.

In America, we have a tendency to assume that because teens have mature bodies, their brains are mature as well. No wonder they pull away from us. From an educator’s perspective, acting as if teens should already have life figured out only stunts their potential. We need to acknowledge that they are, in fact, still children, and need support from the adults in their lives.

You remember high school, right? For many, it’s a great place where friends are collected into a concentrated area. For some, it’s an escape from the realities of home, and for others, it can seem like an impossible labyrinth of emotions.

Every child that steps foot into my classroom brings a different view of the world, but something that pulls them all together is that they are still very much children. They will deny this all day, but I can tell you that my colleagues and I recognize their need for encouragement and approval.

We watch them trying their best each day. The only difference between doing this in high school and doing it in elementary is that sometimes their cheerleaders are gone. Either that or they’re trying to succeed in a world that has already decided their worth. Imagine trying to learn and grow in an environment like that.

The teenage brain is battling so much, and it’s doing so while rapidly growing. Harvard researchers have found “the brain grows and changes continually in young people – and that it is only about 80 percent developed in adolescents. The last section to connect is the frontal lobe, responsible for cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment. Normally this mental merger is not completed until somewhere between ages 25 and 30.” While teens appear to be mature physically, their brains are still learning how to handle it all.

This is a very paradoxical time for teens. They have an incredible ability to master new skills easily and think critically, yet they lack self-control and battle hormones. Despite all of this change, a teen’s environment may be the most crucial element to his or her development.

The same Harvard study mentions, “…young brains have both fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected. This leaves teens easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior, even without the impact of souped-up hormones and any genetic or family predispositions.”  

It’s no secret that if a teen has sleep, food, love, and communication at home, they will find it easier to come to school to learn. Even if teens stray from good decision making, they are more likely to bounce back to a better path if they have a solid foundation at home and school. The adults in their lives serve as that foundation. We master and influence much of their environment.

The bottom line is that teenagers are children. Their brains are not yet fully developed, and their successes and failures correspond to their environment. As a society, it would behoove us to give our teens support, stop acting as if they should have it all figured out, and raise our expectations of them.

So my question is this: What if we loved them like we loved them when they were younger? What if every time you spotted a teen out in public, you assumed they were up to good instead of bad? What if your eyes lit up when teenagers appeared in a room as if they were as precious as elementary school students? What if they walked into a room and already felt successful?

I think shifting our thinking this way can only help our children grow to be exactly who they want to be. After all, they are our future, and they are still our children.