Often when I tell people that I specialize in adolescent medicine, they can’t believe I like working with teens.

After all, when you do an Internet search on “teens,” some of the top hits have to do with problems such as sex, drugs, crime and suicide. Plus, the general tone when teenagers are discussed usually tends to be negative.

Many times this feeling comes from the often difficult interactions that parents and loved ones have with teens as they go through this transitional period.

The word “adolescence” comes from the Latin word “adolescere,” meaning “to grow up,” so it is inevitable that everyone going through this time of life will have some ups and downs. Parents and loved ones are certainly on the front lines to experience these changes.

I’ve heard it said: “Adolescence is a period of rapid changes. Between the ages of 12 and 17, for example, a parent ages as much as 20 years.”  Now that I live with a teenager, I can understand that sentiment firsthand.   

Despite the inevitable challenges, we must learn to trust and celebrate our teens. They will be replacing all of us as the next generation of the workforce and it is crucial that we support all teens to be healthy and whole adults.

Other than the first year of life, adolescence is a stage of life when one goes through the most rapid physical and psychological changes. The ability to navigate the adolescent years well has a huge impact on adult health.

So how do we as a society trust and celebrate teens? Here are three thoughts from my experiences working with teens, their families, friends and support groups through the years:

1. Talk to and listen to teens

This sounds simple, but one of the most striking lessons for me over the years is how little this actually happens. With the hectic pace and technology advances in our society, this interactive communication seems to be happening less than when I first started to practice.

Having a trusted adult to talk to who is not judgmental can have a hugely positive impact on youth development. When that trusting relationship is established, teens have a lot to say. I am continually amazed by the challenging situations that teens from all walks of life face every day.

Our world is getting more and more complex, and mentoring from adults is important to help teens learn to critically think and make decisions.

Most teens start to be able to think abstractly and understand the consequences of actions around age 15. Thus, teens need caring adults who can help them think through issues. 

2. Believe in their potential to be great

This is often lost in communicating with teens because of dealing with the problems and challenges. Yet, I believe this is one of the most important factors to youth wellness.

Teens have a heightened sense of other’s opinions of them. Even though it seems otherwise, parents and adults in authority roles have a big influence on teen behavior. If teens constantly get negative feedback from those who are important to them, they will live down to those expectations.

Help teens discover things they are good at and their passions. Those positive connections are much more powerful to getting teens to be internally motivated to face challenges than all the efforts aimed at the problems.

3. Give them opportunities to contribute

Action is always powerful. Teens have to try on different roles, responsibilities and experiences to learn.  Giving them positive, meaningful opportunities to contribute will help them develop in a positive direction.

There are way too many negative opportunities out there, which too often are unopposed by positive ones. With all of the financial and social challenges our society faces, we should look for more ways to let teens be a part of the solutions. 

If you look over a person’s lifetime, adolescence is just a short period of time. The return on a positive investment for the teens in your life will be tremendous and certainly worth the often bumpy ride.  

UCF Forum columnist Dr. Lisa Barkley is the assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion and an assistant professor of medicine in the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine. She can be reached at Lisa.Barkley@ucf.edu.