Ten Reasons Teens Need an Emotion Revolution: My Speech to Lady Gaga's Foundation and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Developmental scientists are alarmed about American teens' well-being. Our teens are doing much more poorly, in many spheres, than teens in other countries, and indicators of mental illness have been rising among American teens in recent decades. 

On October 24th, I joined 400 high school student students, educators, policymakers, funders, and parents at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. We were there for an all-day summit to launch the Emotion Revolution--a movement to improve the emotional climate for teens at school.

Last spring, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence teamed up with Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation to conduct a survey of 22,000 diverse teens. The survey asked the teens how they were feeling in school and how they wanted to feel. In the first morning session of the Emotion Revolution Summit, the results were revealed:

  • Students surveyed reported that they are not feeling well at school. 80% of the top ten feelings were negative: tired, stressed, and bored, followed by anxious, annoyed, sad, alone, and depressed. (The remaining 20% was accounted for by "happy" and "good" or neutral.)
  • Students said they would rather feel happy, excited, and energized, along with safe, comfortable, valued, respected, connected, supported, balanced, and contented.

In response the Center, along with the BTW Foundation and Facebook, created a website called InspirED. There, teachers and students can find classroom activities of every size designed to foster exactly the feelings that students said they want to have. 

But it's going to take more than a resource center. Like any great change, helping teens feel good at school is going to take attitude shifts, policy changes, funding, and more.

I gave a talk at the Summit which laid out ten reasons, based on adolescent development, for why a revolution is necessary to bring a greater and more sophisticated investment in teens themselves, and in the environments they move in.

My 15-minute talk is here:

If you don't have time to watch, here are my points in a nutshell:

  1. Compared to teens in other developed countries, American teens are struggling in most spheres that matter.
  2. Developmental scientists, who study child and adolescent development, are calling the teen years the new Zero-To-Three. Zero-To-Three was an effort to pour money, policies, and programs into the first few years of children's lives, founded when the science revealed that what happens in a child's environment affects critical brain development. Well, now we're understanding that the brain changes that happen in the teen years are just as critical--and they need just as intense a focus. Never again in a person's life will there be such a window of opportunity.
  3. Beginning in puberty, the brain undergoes tremendous "pruning" of neuronal connections. The neurons that are necessary, and are still used, remain. The unnecessary ones get pruned, or cut out. ("Use it or lose it.") This means that teens' environments are important--what they are paying attention to becomes entrenched in the brain.
  4. A number of changes happen in the brain to make teens more emotional. They need strategies to deal with this intense emotionality.
  5. Due to imbalances in the development of brain systems, teens are "all gas and no brakes," which makes them take uncalculated risks, for better and worse.
  6. Teens are more sensitive to other people than are younger children or adults, and could benefit from more skills for handling their greater depth of feeling.
  7. Teens want to become independent, but they also want to stay connected to their parents--and have been telling researchers so for decades.
  8. This current generation of teens has strong values. They are less materialistic than earlier cohorts of teens, they care more about others, they are concerned for the environment, and they have progressive attitudes.
  9. Most human rights documents concerning youth give them the explicit right to have a say in the matters that affect them.
  10. Teens have led revolutions before.

If we give teens the skills they need and the respect they crave, who knows what force for good we could unleash?