Being a teenager is different than it was for me 20 years ago. This always becomes apparent to me when I talk with teenagers who are my relatives, who train with me at our dojo, or even my 15-year-old Little Sister (I’m a Big Sister volunteer mentor.) Technology has advanced leaps and bounds. The way we work, entertain ourselves, communicate and live is completely different. But one thing remains the same when it comes to being a teen; it means you’re old enough to think coherently and independently, but not necessarily experienced enough to recognize your personal biases and how it shapes the way you think, act and make choices. Getting out of your teen years doesn’t mean you get past this, but as you live through more years you get more opportunities to see the patterns of your choices in action and therefore more chances to see how your biases influence you. As such, I’ve compiled a list of things I would tell modern teenagers, if they genuinely wanted my advice based on my experience and personal perspective.
1. Learn healthy eating habits. When you’re young, many people can get away with eating badly without obvious visible consequences as long as you’re physically active. As a teenager, you gain more control over the food you put in your mouth with your own disposable income to spend however you wish without your parents watching over your shoulder at any given time. You may even be more responsible for preparing your own meals as parents don’t need to be home to feed you. This usually means you end up eating more fast food, junk food and preservative-laden convenience food. I know I did in my teen years. I didn’t make much effort to make sure I was getting enough veggies and fruit. Fortunately, my parents were usually around in the mornings and evenings, so I at least got 2 home-cooked meals a day in which I ate relatively healthily. But nowadays, parents are often stretched to provide this. At the very least, I would encourage teens to try to eat a decent breakfast, cut back on refined sugars, and find a few veggies they’re willing to eat regularly. As an adult, I know that I have much more energy and function at a much higher capacity when I eat well, but not all teenagers realize this, and the longer you maintain unhealthy eating habits, the harder it is to change later in adulthood when the physical consequences become much more prominent.
2. Find physical activities you love to do. Teenagers have the gift of higher metabolisms, which means that even if they don’t have a perfect diet, they can burn off the excess calories just by maintaining an active lifestyle. The easiest way to stay active is to find physical activities that you enjoy doing. In my early teen years, I did fencing. As my interest in it grew, I even took up weight training to help improve my performance. I didn’t particularly like weight training (I still don’t) but I found enough inspiration in fencing that it was worth doing. The same mentality continued as I transferred into the martial arts. Few people enjoy doing generic exercise for the sake of staying fit enough to keep it consistent without some other motivating factors. I didn’t even really need to do any additional training to stay in shape as a teen, even with my occasionally indulgent eating habits. Doing martial arts 2-3 times a week, along with other activities I regularly did with my friends like biking, skiing, hiking, rollerblading, etc, was more than enough to keep me physically fit. I also realize now that my active lifestyle also helped keep me mentally fit too, as there are many modern studies proving that an active lifestyle helps you focus better mentally, lower stress, and ease psychological challenges like anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc. Check out the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain for more info on the link between the body and mind.
3. Unplug. This one’s tough. Because the new generation of teens is constantly online for entertainment, communication and networking, through games, social media, email, etc, a lot of teenagers’ free time is spent on computers. Not only does this make it harder to find time to do other activities in the physical world, they don’t necessarily feel as inclined to make the time because all their friends are online doing the same thing. It’s a vicious circle. This often means less time spent doing physical activities, less time developing in person social skills, less time outside getting sunshine and enjoying nature, etc. I know it’s hard to break the cycle, but in this case, it’s worth it to be a trail blazer. Try to make time to engage with friends in the real world. Board games are still fun, and there are lots of really cool ones coming out all the time. Even going for a walk or a bike ride some place is a nice way to get some privacy away from your parents. Most teens would probably agree that this is necessary for sanity.
4. Get a full night’s rest. According to the Sleep Foundation, teens need 9.25 hours of sleep each night (though for some 8.5 hours is enough). When you don’t get enough quality sleep, it’s harder to learn, listen, concentrate and solve problems. You may even forget important information due to lack of sleep. It can also lead to aggressive/inappropriate behaviour, likely because you’re under more stress due to lack of rest. While it’s natural to have trouble falling asleep before 11pm, it’s vital to your ability to function at school to get to sleep around that time so you can get your full quota of sleep. This may mean turning off your TV, phone and/or computer and just turning off the lights as flashing screens are proven to inhibit sleep. Reading a book is a better option, as long as you don’t find it too mentally engaging.
5. Explore subjects you like. When I say “subjects,” I don’t necessarily means ones you learn about in school. School can have a way of even making interesting subjects less interesting, depending on the teacher and the subject. If you find a subject that interests you, don’t limit yourself to learning about it at school. Luckily for you, the Internet is a vast resource that provides tons of information on any topic imaginable. Explore your interests to your heart’s content. You may even discover a vocation that you might not otherwise have found.
6. Keep an open mind. It’s easy to have strong opinions about different subjects and people, and somewhere along the line, people start to believe that having them and fighting for them means you’re a strong person. The truth is that strength comes from within. It means being willing to listen and consider what other people have to say, and being open to all sides of an issue, or even being open to there being alternate explanations for things for which you may not currently have the information. It doesn’t mean you can’t have opinions. It means not being too emotionally attached to them, knowing when it’s worth discussing them, and sometimes fighting for them, or when it’s better to walk away. Oftentimes, the older people get, the more set in their thoughts and opinions people get, but if you start practicing this mentality when you’re younger, you’ll be ahead of the game.
7. Be who you are. Many adults will struggle with this all throughout their lives. They will try to be what they think they should be, as a son/daughter, a friend, a husband/wife/partner, an employee, a parent, etc. Our society and often our personal connections, place certain pressures on us to be a certain way. Many people try to act on all these pressures, even when it goes against who they are, worried that they won’t be accepted or fit in. It takes courage to be who you are, to be true to yourself. Sometimes this will lead to conflicts that must be addressed. Sometimes these conflicts can lead to strained relationships, loss of friendships, or other compromises and/or sacrifices. Sometimes being yourself will make you a target. But if you ignore your interests and inclinations to avoid all the different kinds of social and societal pressures that exist, you may never discover how deep and meaningful your personal relationships truly are. You may never discover the communities of supportive people who share your passions (You may need to find alternate communities outside school to do so, but it is worth it to make the effort.) And you may never live life on your own terms. It is YOUR life to live. You don’t want to wake up at the end of it, and look back on it with regret, wondering how things would have been if you had taken more risks in all facets of life.
At the end of the day, these are only my own thoughts from my own limited experience. I don’t believe anyone should just accept what they’re told blindly. To the teens who would read this article and take it to heart, I say this: Do your own research. Experiment with different lifestyle choices. Talk to other people you respect. And ultimately see what works best for you. You may end up making choices that turn out to be wrong for you later on, but the good news is that you’re young and have plenty of time get things right.
Now over to you. Do you have any advice that you would offer to today’s teens that I didn’t cover? If so, please share them in the comments.