How to help your teen think critically in a confusing world

How to help your teen think critically in a confusing world
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A new newsletter to help spark conversation with the teens and tweens in your life.

Adolescents are navigating a lot. There’s all the normal tween stuff like puberty and figuring out who you are on so many levels — the stuff we all went through. There’s more, though: Our middle and high schoolers spent much of the last few years participating in school remotely, isolated behind their computer screens. Although returning to classrooms has been a huge leap forward, they are reckoning with learning loss, missed years of normal socialization, and now mixed messaging on how to handle the new Covid reality. Add in the relentless and scary news of school shootings, war in Ukraine, families dealing with inflation, and, well, it’s tough. This generation is coming of age in a polarized, confusing, and downright scary world.

This moment in time is shaping our youth in ways seen and unseen. A recent series from the New York Times chronicled why all of the above has led this generation to be one of the most isolated in decades. The result is adolescents dealing with unprecedented mental health challenges — leading to alarming rates of depression, self-harm, and suicide.

I’m Liz. I run the audio team here at Vox (shout out to our amazing podcasts) and I’m the mother of a just-turned-12-year-old son who, like most of his peers, is navigating these things, too. My son, like most of his friends, is at risk — of dire outcomes like depression, self-harm, and suicide, but also of outcomes that are more insidious: apathy, numbness, unkindness, and disconnection. It can be so hard to get a tween to open up when this is the very age they quite naturally start pulling away from parents and authority figures. And as a parent, it’s hard to know where typical pre-teen attitude ends and real concern over mental health should kick in.

I’ve spent the last few years synthesizing knowledge from multiple sources to try to help him. And, more importantly, to connect with him — which can be hard at the best of times, but almost impossible when your kid is feeling the mental health effects of a world outside their control.

Now, I’m going to take that synthesis and share it with you in a new weekly newsletter: Extra Curricula. Each Thursday, I’ll share a small curation of content — videos, podcasts, articles, documentaries, TV shows, books — to help you think about how to approach parenting and educating, and content you can share directly with your adolescent human(s). Sometimes there will be a theme or an interview. Other times, the content will be driven by the joy of knowledge. And now and then, we might ask you to share what inspired your kid or students lately or what’s been working for you to break through adolescent defenses and truly connect.

What I’ve done with my kid is working, for now. Here’s how I began seeing a difference:

We started digging into the wealth of videos available on Vox’s YouTube channel. Every night we watch one or two short videos about a range of topics: an explainer about cluster bombs in the Ukraine War (his choice), the history of the iconic Cesca chair (my choice). And something is happening. We actually talk about the world and how he’s starting to synthesize his outlook on life.

The breakthrough here isn’t just that we had a much more informed way to talk about the war or design, or that he was getting a taste of critical thinking and finding joy in knowledge, but that we had something to talk about that my son was into discussing. I discovered that he’s figuring things out, but I’m also super glad that we’re talking so he can test-drive his forming worldview on me. He has a lot of thoughts and ideas that he just wasn’t going to offer when asked point-blank how he feels about a thing, along with a lot of questions this new connection has allowed us to explore together. What he was willing to do was consider well-produced, factual information and react to it in conversation.

Anyhow, I hope you’ll subscribe and join us on this summer journey of discovery and connection.

One disclaimer: I am not a psychologist or an educator. I’m a parent who is relying on decades of journalism training to make sense of how to successfully raise a human being. We’ll try this for the summer and see how it goes. If you have feedback or questions, you can reach me at liz@vox.com.