Here is the full transcript of Charisse Nixon’s talk titled “What Adolescents (Or Teenagers) Need To Thrive” at TEDxPSUErie conference.
In this TEDx talk, Charisse Nixon, a developmental psychologist, emphasizes the critical importance of fostering protective factors in adolescents to help them thrive. She identifies relational aggression as a significant issue but highlights the need to focus on youths’ strengths rather than just the negative aspects.
Nixon discusses how meaningful connections, rooted in empathy, gratitude, forgiveness, and humility, are essential for positive development. She stresses that adolescents need to practice these “four gems” to build resilience and foster meaningful relationships.
The talk also addresses the challenges posed by consumerism and the pressure to conform, which can hinder authentic connections. Nixon shares a personal story about her sister to illustrate the profound impact of empathy and forgiveness on relationships. Ultimately, she calls on adults to model and teach these values, underscoring our collective responsibility in guiding adolescents towards a path of growth and connection.
Listen to the audio version here:
Thank you so much for having me. I’m a developmental psychologist, and what that means is that I study how we change. I study people. I study kids. But more than anything, what I do is rest in research. Research drives my bus. And when you say that to people, that doesn’t all the time go so well.
But let me tell you a little bit about what I studied and how I started. I started studying the effect of marital conflict on kids. I then went to studying the effects of peer conflict on kids. I settled on studying relational aggression. Relational aggression uses relationships to hurt others.
And if you think the kids just do this, you’re wrong. We all have done this. And so we know that relational aggression is really damaging. And I studied this for a lot of years. But here’s what I learned. I was missing half of the puzzle. I was missing a big chunk of the puzzle because I was so focused on the negative. What I forgot was that there’s a whole other side. Kids have strengths. Youth have strengths. We have strengths.
Understanding Protective Factors
And so I have spent the last five to 10 years really trying to focus on figuring out what are those protective factors? What are those strengths that seem to make a difference? Now we know a lot. In research, we know a lot. But if you talk to any researcher, you’re probably going to hear a lot of people say things like, “We know this, but only if this is true and this is true and this is true.” We do know a lot, but there’s a lot of things we don’t know.
After decades of research, there are some hard, cold facts we know about protective factors. We know without a doubt that we are hardwired to connect. Not just kids, we. We are hardwired to connect. We are hardwired to connect not only to people, but research shows we’re hardwired to connect to spiritual meaning. That’s not one you hear a lot. We’re hardwired to connect.
This is particularly important when I think about longitudinal work that’s been done. In other words, studies that have been looked at kids over time or looked at adults over time. What happens? Emmy Werner, UC Davis, did a phenomenal longitudinal work where she actually followed 700 at-risk infants, 700, not for one year, not for 10 years, but she followed them for 40 years.
The Impact of Connection and Faith
That’s a longitudinal study. She wondered, these at-risk kids who were suffering from some of the most extreme conditions, she wondered, would they still thrive? Would some of them still thrive? What she found in her work were some pretty amazing things. Among the most significant protective factors, you’re going to know what I’m going to say, the most significant protective factors were connection, again, connection to a non-parent adult. That’s you and me.
The other thing she found was a significant protective factor is faith, spiritual meaning. Again, not one we often talk about, but one that’s in the science. One that we need to talk about if we want to really look at positive developmental outcomes. Let’s take a look at it.
If we know more than anything that we are hardwired to connect and that meaningful relationships are where protective factors lie, how are we doing? How are we doing with our youth? Well, one in five we know of our youth suffer from a major depressive episode before they leave high school. It’s one in five.
We also know that one in six have considered suicide in the past year. Importantly, when I did a little further look at this, what it looks like and more research shows that of those who have committed suicide, one-third of those youth who have committed suicide, it’s not related to any pathology. It’s not related to risk factors, which tells us there’s something else going on here. There’s something else going on. We’re not doing so well. If we know relationships are the end-all, be-all, relationships, meaningful connection is what protects our youth, we’re struggling.
The Struggle of Adolescence
What I’d like us to think about are what are some contributing factors? I’m going to just offer up two tonight. The first one is our youth are in a stage called adolescence. If anyone has interacted with anyone in a stage of adolescence, that’s a different time period. It’s a different time period. Let’s set the stage for these beautiful people. I live with two, so I can call them beautiful.
Adolescents struggle with perspective-taking. Typically they can only take one perspective. Whose is it that they typically take? Their own. They typically take their own. We also know they’re consumed with themselves. When you think about our culture, our culture actually promotes this. That’s scary because adolescents, just by the nature of being an adolescent, they experience a heightened sense of self-awareness.
Then you overthrow the culture on that. They feel more isolated and alone. Sadness is prevalent during this time. Loneliness is prevalent during this time. Our adolescents are consumed with negativity. If you spend any time with one, you’re going to hear some negativity.
Adolescence is also a time of loss. I think it’s important to say that because adolescents aren’t kids anymore. They’ve lost that, but they’re also not adults. They’re kind of in this limbo thing. They’re treated differently from adults. They kind of don’t know where they fit. Adults kind of don’t know where they fit. They experience loss.
The last thing we know about adolescents is that they struggle with who are they? Who are they? This identity issue is big. It is right there glaring in their face, and they’re trying to figure it out. They’re trying to figure out their purpose in their life. They’re trying to figure out what are they here for. Those are big issues, big issues. Not only do they have those big emotional and social issues, they’ve got big brain issues on top of that. Big brain issues. Now, when we think about brain issues, that’s biology. It’s biology.
The Adolescent Brain
Their brain is actually restructured during this time. Best we know now, it’s going to be about until 25, until their brain starts to settle down from all these changes. With the biological restructuring, we have a few things happening. Because of their limbic system lighting up so often, our adolescents struggle with controlling their impulses. They struggle with being explosive. They struggle with reading other facial expressions. There’s work done in Boston, and they take adolescents through a functional MRI.
In this functional MRI, they hook them up to leads, and then they show them facial expressions, just faces. They wonder, what part of the brain does an adolescent use to identify fear, or if I look pensive, or if I look bored? What they found is adolescents don’t get those facial expressions right all the time.
In fact, they over-attribute anger where there is none. You see someone who looks afraid, surprised, shocked, an adolescent is likely to say, they’re angry. And if an adolescent is over-attributing anger, it’s not surprising why they’re so defensive and argumentative. They’re just protecting themselves. They’re just protecting themselves. What we also know when we think about all these things, the picture that we’ve painted is not exactly an open invite for meaningful connections.
And all this means for us, for you and me, is that this is going to be hard. It’s not supposed to be easy. If we’re going to connect with our youth, we can’t expect them to have open arms waiting for us to embrace and for us to make those connections. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard. And if you’ve spent some time with a young person, or seen a youth from far away, you’re going to know it’s going to be hard.
Now with that said, there’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot of hope. I’m a developmental psychologist, so I can tell you that the brain is plastic. And because the brain is plastic, we have a hand in brain development. We can actually, depending on the opportunities we present to our youth, we can actually help create neural pathways that go a certain way to actually promote growth and development. Promote positivity.
With that said, though, we know that there’s a window of sensitivity. Now this window of sensitivity, as I said, is open during adolescence. People ask, well, what does that mean, a window of sensitivity? When you think about a window of sensitivity, think about an open window, I guess.
When you’re young, you can learn new things quite easily. And then as you get a little older, the window starts to close a little bit. And it takes more time and more practice to learn. The window’s not closed, but it’s harder. I know this because three months ago, I started piano. It’s hard. It is really hard. I am rerouting my brain, and it is not easy, but I am sticking with it.
The point being is that window of sensitivity is not closed. It takes patience, and it takes practice. It takes practice. Let’s go to our second reason, or our second contributing factor to our youth disconnection. And I think we need to look at the culture. I think it’s a big important part, and it’s important because you and I play a role in this culture.
We need to ask the question, is our culture promoting meaningful connections? Is our culture actually promoting the relationships, or something different? Are we plugging into technology, or are we plugging into people? And when I think about this, I do a lot of work with schools. I think of a school I was with recently.
I just went out during lunch and just wanted to watch the kids. And in this day and age, that’s kind of a scary thing to do, but I did just want to observe and watch the kids. When I went out to, and they were sixth grade, sixth grade.
When I went out to watch the kids, do you know what I saw? I saw a line of sixth graders looking down, not interacting, on their phones. They were plugged into technology, not the people. They were not practicing resolving conflict. They did not have happy smiles. They were not sharing emotions, and they were not meaningfully connected, unless you would argue they were meaningfully connected to their phone. Maybe, but we know that it takes practice for meaningful connections. Our job as adults is to provide those.
The second thing we know is that adolescents are exploited by our culture, because during adolescence, it’s all about being accepted. It’s all about looking good, looking good, having the outside all together. You know this because you can look at any Facebook, any like, shares, and they become very, very important. I recently was pretty curious about this, so I asked my students, I said, “Hey, do you actually take down your photos and posts if you don’t have enough likes? Do people actually do that?” And they responded, “Oh yeah, that’s what we do.”
The Influence of Consumerism
That’s what we do, because you don’t want to seem like you don’t have what it takes. That is what I call impression management. That’s impression management. The other thing we know is that we are spending a lot of time promoting a certain way to look. Our culture is filled with consumerism…., filled with consumerism. Are they relational relators or blockers?
When I think of consumerism, when I was a kid, in our family, we liked to draw and color a lot, and I remember having a box of eight crayons. They were kind of fat, if anybody remembers those big fat crayons. Well, I was able to get a hold of a box of 16, 16 crayons. I took them to school. I was so proud, and I was so happy, and I was probably a little prideful.
When I was at school, I remember me and my 16 crayons, I was coloring. I was really small, and I looked over two desks to my left. Somebody had the 64 box of crayons, the one with the sharpener in the back, the 64 box. And I thought about consumerism, and I’m thinking to myself, “You know, this consumerism has started quite young, started quite young.” And as I thought about this today, I thought, “I wonder how many crayons they have now.”
So I Googled it. Did you know they have 120? They have 120. It’s up to us to start to take hold of our culture and create a new one. Create a new culture where we’re actually promoting positive, meaningful connections. Create a new culture where we go from focusing on individual me to a culture focusing on we. That’s a different kind of culture. Now if we’re going to build a culture, we’ve got to hit the basic needs.
Addressing Basic Needs
And what I mean by that is that we have to make sure we’re taking care of adolescents’ basic needs. According to research, everybody has four basic needs. And because I like things simple, I came up with an easy way to remember it for my students, the A, B, Cs, and Me. Everybody has a need to be accepted. Everybody has a need to belong. Everybody has a need to control. And the last one is often missed. Everyone according to the science has a need for meaningful existence.
Now what we know about these four needs is that although we all have them from the time we’re little to the time we’re older, they’re very salient during adolescence. The need to be accepted and belong to a group kind of trumps everything. We know that adolescence and culture together we need to look at as a whole if we’re going to look at a solution.
So what possibly can we do? Where are we going to go? And fortunately, research has some ideas here. Science has given us some ideas. I’ve done a lot of work looking at where does the solution start.
Promoting Positive Connections
And according to the work, and according to working with kids as well as a lot of research, I’m going to describe to you four gems. I call them gems, but they’re four things, they’re four keys that we can actually look at that will help our adolescence promote and maintain positive connections.
The first gem, the first gem is the gateway to all the others, and it’s empathy. If our adolescents do not have empathy, they can’t get anywhere else. You can’t have meaningful relationships without empathy. Empathy is a precursor to belonging. If you remember back to our adolescents, they struggle with perspective-taking.
But it’s not just about perspective-taking. You could have a criminal who could have perspective-taking. Empathy is also about compassion. How do our kids learn that? They learn it from us. We need to be able to show our kids what empathy looks like, to show them, not just in the head, what it looks like.
When I think about this, I think about how people have always said stories build bridges. Well, they do build bridges, but I’m going to make the argument that your back story and sharing back story builds connections. Because if you share your back story, it’s going to make us vulnerable, and that vulnerability is going to form the meaningful connections.
The second gem that I’m going to speak about before we go, we’re going to look at how it relates to adolescents. Adolescents are isolated, alone. Empathy says, “Hey, I’m connected. I’m connected.” Adolescents are self-serving. Empathy says, “I’m going to focus on another.” Do you know that in order for you to experience genuine self-esteem, genuine, not self-inflated, genuine, you actually have to give outward? You have to give outward. If you want to worry about not being judging, we need to start thinking about how to seek to understand adolescents.
The other thing empathy does for us, it takes a kid who’s really struggling with their identity and helps them explore who they are. Because if I am willing to share my back story and let you share your back story, you’re going to start to figure out who you are. Because even though we want to say we can get rid of our back stories, they’re part of who we are.
Let’s take a look at the second one. This second gem is something that’s often overlooked. It’s a predictor of overall health, overall well-being. It reduces depression. If you remember back, our adolescents need that. It’s not money. And I have a high school kid, and she would say it’s her SAT scores. It’s not SAT scores. It’s not ACT scores.
What predicts overall well-being and happiness is gratitude. It’s gratitude. When’s the last time we wrote a thank you letter? When’s the last time we actually thanked someone for what they did in our life? Gratitude, and again, I’m going to look at our beautiful adolescents. They’re isolated, where gratitude increases connection. This has been experimentally studied often. And if you could, they did it simply. All they had to ask was, “You go ahead and write a thank you note to someone who you haven’t properly thanked.” And if you want to experience even better effects, you will give it to them.
Now, you think this isn’t a big deal, but this day and age in technology, when’s the last time we’ve done that? Gratitude is a big deal because it takes adolescents’ negative mood, and it actually, and I’m going to use the word here, causes, it actually causes positive mood. That’s been experimentally studied. It causes more positive mood. It takes someone who’s pessimistic, like our beautiful adolescents that they struggle with, it causes optimism.
It takes folks who are being self-focused and puts it on someone else. If you think about it, our meaningful existence, adolescents struggle with purpose. Gratitude actually causes adolescents to appreciate what they have and appreciate life. Do you remember back to what we talked about with suicidal ideation and depression? Meaningful existence is a big deal.
If we’re going to try to promote meaningful connections, we’ve got to find ways to do it. So far, we know empathy and gratitude are two ways. Let’s look at the third one. The third one of the gems, the third one, this one, when I think about this one, it’s an essential because we’re all human. And in my house, we have a saying, and that saying is, “We’re all broken. We are broken.”
We are all broken. And so we are going to mess up. We are not going to do relationships well every day. We’re going to mess up. And because we’re going to mess up, we’re going to need forgiveness. Forgiveness, and I want you to think back to the ABCs in me. Forgiveness actually gives us a sense of control. Forgiveness empowers us. Forgiveness says you are not going to have the power over me anymore if you have been a target. Forgiveness actually reduces anger and increases perspective-taking.
When I think about, again, our adolescence, they go from being broken to repaired relationships. You know, before we leave that point, it’s important because when I was a kid, I was a brownie not for long, but we did learn this “make new friends, keep the old.” We never really learned how to keep the old. And particularly when you think about with technology, when you don’t like somebody, can’t you just kind of with a stroke of a key get rid of them?
We have to spend more time helping kids, adolescents, and ourselves repair relationships. Helplessness goes with suicidal ideation. Adolescents who feel helpless, forgive, they’re going to feel empowered. Because forgiveness is not for the offenders, it’s for themselves. It’s a decision they make. It’s a process.
The Power of Forgiveness and Perspective
We’re going to go from pessimism again to helping reframe and optimism. We’re going to go from being very angry to actually causing positive affect. These three gems, if practiced, actually lead to meaningful connections.
Now, you see a big circle there. I’m big on efficiency. So I wondered, if we don’t have a lot of time, is there one variable that’s going to be able to give us all three of them? Is there one variable that’s going to be able to have us more empathic, more gracious, and more forgiving? I looked hard in the research for this one. Do you know there is? There is. And it’s one that’s countercultural, and it’s not one that’s often talked about. And that variable is humility.
The variable is humility. And I think about, what does that look like in our culture? What does that look like in our culture where a lot of youth are feeling, a lot of adults feel entitled? What does humility look like?
Well, here’s what we know. Humility is about focusing on others. It’s about valuing someone else. When I think about this, I think about posturing. You know, all four of these gems are really a learning posture. All four of these gems speak to how we look at others. For humility, adolescents struggle in being superficial.
Do you remember the computer with the posts? Humility leads to deep connections. Fractured relationships, humility repairs. And finally, for our adolescents who are so preoccupied with how they look, humility actually causes and promotes acceptance. That’s a big deal. Remember the ABCs in me? That is a big deal.
The Impact of Humility and Connection
To show you the power of these four gems, I’m going to briefly share a story about my sister. My sister, Cindy, is in the middle, and I’m the one in the little with the hair sticking up. That would be me. My sister, Cindy, was 11 months older than I was, so she was a year ahead of me. She had something called Marfan syndrome.
Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disease where it affects your, among other things, your bones, your joints, and your eyes. And so Cindy had really thick glasses, and she was really thin and really skinny. And this was important for me as a kid because I remember being eight, we shared a lot of things. My mom even called us, you know, that we shared a twins room. We weren’t twins. We were 11 months apart, but she called it the twins room. We shared a bedroom. We shared friends, and we shared the bus.
What I remember is that my sister was made fun of often on the bus. The bus was like a hotbed for cruelty. Now I was a year younger, or 11 months. I was a year younger. I remember my sister, particularly with the older kids, the boys would throw her stuff around, and the girls wouldn’t let her sit with them. And I remember watching this as a kid, and I remember doing absolutely nothing.
And I remember how much I hated myself. I could not forgive myself. I could not imagine standing up to those big kids, but it got worse. What I remember was at night, my sister, because we shared a room, she would often cry. And because I didn’t know what to do, and it was so painful, again, I did nothing, and I pretended I was asleep. And I only share that story because it speaks to the power of unforgiveness in my life. It speaks to the power of how that blocked the potential for meaningful connection with my sister.
Fostering Forgiveness and Understanding
How if somebody would have come alongside me and said, “Hey, you don’t need to stand up for those big kids. You don’t even need to stand up for her.” Because the research that we do now shows all my sister needed was an acknowledgement. All she needed was a hand on the shoulder and to say, “Hey, I’m really sorry that happened.” I needed someone to come alongside me to help me see that, to help her.
When I think about the four gems, I think about the power of them. I think about the power in them in changing this culture. And now you may be thinking as I come to a close, how do our youth get them? How do our youth possibly get these four gems? If they are that powerful, how do they get them? And when I think about this, I think about a race because we’re all in a race. Let me introduce you to the exchange zone.
I’m not a runner. I have a broken foot today. I’m not a runner. But when you are, if you’ve ever done a relay race, and this concept is from the book Unstoppable by Christine Caine. When you think about an exchange zone, for those of you that are runners, you know that it’s made, it’s won and lost in that zone there.
And as I begin to think about this, what’s even more important is whose responsibility is it to transfer the skills? Is it the new runner with his arm outstretched or her arm outstretched, or is it the old runner? It is the old runner, and that’s us. It is our responsibility to put it in their hands.
Remember back to our discussion of adolescence, this is hard. This is not always inviting, but it has to be done. If we’re going to think about transferring the four gems, the responsibility rests with us because ultimately, these four gems change our focus, but they change our hearts. Thank you.
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