Adolescence is by definition a tumultuous time in one’s life. This is likely especially true now, given academic, social, and psychological pressures that are even more compounded than usual by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young people have lost a measure of independence, according to Dr. Ken Ginsburg, expert for the Center for Children and Youth, at the exact time in their lives when they need to explore and have experiences beyond their comfort zones in order to grow. Adolescence is the time to answer the question, “Who am I?”, Dr. Ginsburg says, and to do so independent of parents.

One of the ways in which adolescents form identities separate from their parents is through deciding what it is they value, and how they wish to act on those values, which in turn helps them formulate ideas about the kind of adults they want to become. Research shows that teens who have a strong sense of right and wrong are more likely to become stable, healthy adults.

Exploring values and putting them into action can help young people of all faiths and backgrounds learn about themselves, while making a positive difference.

“It is a developmental milestone for young people to find out who they are,” says Linda Karlin, Director of Youth Development at the Center for Children and Youth.

How can parents best support the efforts of young people to discover their values and put them into action?

“Ask them probing questions,” advises Linda Karlin. “Give them space to share their opinions. Make it okay for them to ask questions if they don’t understand what’s going on.”

Dr. Ken Ginsburg agrees. “Be a sounding board,” he writes, adding that when we answer teens’ questions for them, we reinforce the idea that they are not competent to embark on their own explorations. Dr. Ginsburg offers many other tips for parents to help their teens and pre-teens discover who they are and the values they wish to act upon.

As parents, we often walk a line between imparting our values to our children and allowing them to find their own values, even if we may sometimes disagree with them. Read how to communicate your values to your tween or teen in age-appropriate ways that help them grow.

In our YouthFirst program, “teens decide what matters to them,” Linda Karlin says. “Choosing issues that they care about, and giving voice to those issues by planning projects and inviting other teens to participate in them, is a way to put their values into action.”

YouthFirst helps teens develop the necessary life skills to move into young adulthood smoothly, successfully, and responsibly. Through service-learning, leadership skills development, and career exploration, teens answer the question “Who am I?” which will ultimately guide them to be positive contributors who help bring about change in the world. Impact Year give teens an opportunity to take part in service events and advocacy projects that help them explore their own identities through a Jewish values-based lens. These values include tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (an obligation to give back to one’s community).

The teens in YouthFirst have organized multiple events recently, in addition to ongoing efforts such as writing letters to homebound seniors through JFCS’ Seniors at Home. In conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they participated in the workshop, “Make Your Voice Heard: Responding to Racial Inequities in the Prison System”, to learn from longtime advocate Kat Morgan about her experiences working at San Quentin Prison. Kat shared how she makes an impact, and how others might learn about and put into action their own strengths to combat racial injustice.

Learn more about YouthFirst’s Impact Year program and check out our list of upcoming events and advocacy projects.

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