Nancy Deutsch was startled.

An associate professor at the Curry School of Education, Deutsch was working in a large Midwestern city with teenagers who were mentoring younger kids. She asked the teens what they thought was important about themselves.

One boy raised his hand. He said he never thought that kids would look up to someone like him.

“What was striking to me was when I talked to kids about what they thought was important about themselves, this idea of respect and of responsibility to other people was huge,” Deutsch says. “That boy had realized he had a responsibility to other kids.”

UVA researchers say that what teenagers are looking for is a chance to put their growing ideas and capacities to work. And teens may never feel as close to their parents as during these years.

It may come as a surprise to those who lived through it that adolescence is not the angst-and-acne-riddled rite of passage it’s often depicted to be. Hormones still surge and skin still erupts, but researchers at Youth-Nex, the University of Virginia’s Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, have found adolescence to be a rich mine of energy and imagination.

What teenagers are looking for, the researchers say, is a chance to put their growing ideas and capacities to work. And contrary to the cliché, teens are not consistently at loggerheads with their parents.

In fact, they may never feel as close to them as during these years.

“This idea that adolescents are people to dread is not supported by the science,” says Patrick H. Tolan, director of Youth-Nex. “Most feel close to their parents. There’s not this anti-parent attitude; it’s just that they’re moving to an independent value of these opinions. Most adolescents are very interested in doing what’s right, finding meaning in their lives and developing good relationships.”

Youth-Nex is trying to build on those very characteristics to help kids and their parents along, Tolan says. The program, now in its fifth year, promotes healthy youth development and tries to reduce developmental risk through research, training and service.

Patrick H. Tolan, Youth-Nex director

Its goal is to focus on the developmental changes that happen during adolescence as opportunities to produce young men and women who are healthy, intelligent and civically engaged. With the right tools, Youth-Nex members say, parents and educators can help avoid such pitfalls of youth as violence, physical and mental distress, substance abuse and school failure.

“We focus on youth competencies rather than what’s traditionally been the focus, the storm and stress of adolescence,” says Deutsch.“What we argue is that teenagers have a lot of inherent strengths and that when we focus on the negative, it becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People live up or down to expectations.”

In fact, Youth-Nex, which involves more than 30 faculty members across the University, has found that teenagers are much less troubled than we seem to think they are.

A recent Youth-Nex study on school climate in 423 middle schools in Virginia reported that students feel overwhelmingly positive about their teachers and their school: close to 80 percent said they liked their school.

“We were quite surprised to see how positive they are,” says Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist and education professor at Curry. “The prevailing view is that middle schools are a not very good time and that the students are largely unhappy, disgruntled and disobedient.”

That’s the sort of revelation that Youth-Nex researchers have discovered repeatedly. Other studies have found that when teens are given a choice about designing and participating in activities that are relevant to their lives, they thrive.

“This is something [that is true] across the socioeconomic spectrum,” says Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School. “This is a time of increased promise, where kids are highly motivated, extraordinarily capable and ready to mobilize and exercise their talents.”

So why do some kids have problems in adolescence? The short answer, says Tolan, is “We don’t know.”

Part of it may be a “developmental mismatch,” that happens between elementary school and middle school, Tolan says. “The children have to rearrange their friendships, the schools are bigger, puberty is occurring,” Tolan says.  “Kids are at very different places. It’s like going from a relatively clear environment that is organized for you to one you have to organize for yourself.”

“This idea that adolescents are people to dread is not supported by the science.”

—Patrick H. Tolan

And all this is occurring during a time of enormous physical and neurochemical changes. In addition to hormonal changes, a host of brain developments can make adolescents actually feel and respond to events more intensely, Tolan says.

“There is more emotional intensity,” Tolan says. “Things literally taste better and you feel more intensely.”

Adding to the problem is that decision-making capabilities tend to lag behind this sensory intensity. ”The accelerator is moving but the brakes aren’t in place yet,” Tolan says.

The good news is that as adolescence progresses, the development of the prefrontal cortex gets refined, allowing teens to be able to stop, think and manage their emotions.

But their brains aren’t the only roadblock to happiness and productivity. Deutsch insists part of the problem adolescents face is that society tends to shield teenagers from responsibilities that they actually crave.

“In past times, teenagers were quite productive members of adult society,” says Deutsch.

Joe Allen, a UVA psychology professor, agrees. “Adolescents are at the peak of their capacities in a lot of ways, but we give them almost nothing to do, so it becomes this aimless period,” he says. He likes to tell his students the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the major figures in the Battle of New York who became one of Gen. George Washington’s key generals—all before he was 19.

“You can’t really imagine somebody who is a teenager today in that role,” says Allen, author of Escaping the Endless Adolescence: How We Can Help Our Teenagers Grow Up Before They Grow Old. “Go back 125 years; adolescents were working side by side with the parents.”

His research and that of Deutsch has revealed that teenagers who are given responsibilities that are relevant to their world—tutoring younger kids, helping out in a soup kitchen, assisting the aged, becoming involved in a recycling effort—had higher test scores and fewer behavioral problems than those who did not. Dropout and pregnancy rates among such teens also dropped by at least half.

“You give adolescents a chance to contribute to society and they start to buy into it,” explains Allen. “They realize that they have some value in the larger world.”

None of that surprises Cornell, who studies juvenile criminal behavior. “The larger issue of juvenile delinquency is related to kids not having meaningful activities, a way to contribute to society, a way to feel good about themselves, feel good about society,” says Cornell.

Without that, he says, “what fills their time is what is available on the Internet and what’s available of popular media.”

All of the Youth-Nex experts stress the importance of broad, continual, evolving communication between parents and teenagers. While a parent might put the kibosh on violent video games because of concerns about their effect on children, evidence suggests that if parents engage children in discussions about violence—stressing, for instance, that when someone is shot in real life, they do not jump back up again, but die or are hospitalized—kids are more likely to respond.

“You need to help them learn how to manage media, just like we have to learn to manage sleep or eating,” Tolan says. “You need to know what they’re looking at or what they’re not. It needs to be an engagement, like any other part of their lives.”

Allen says parents of teenagers shouldn’t worry about overstressing their kids. “Adolescents are like thirsty people traversing the desert,” he says. “They just need a little bit of water to make it through.”