Teens’ lives are defined by a mix of dependence and independence, as well as by developmental realities that can put them at odds with the adult world. Their main task in life, which hits with an intensity that can feel like life and death, is to find out who they are, how they feel, and what they can be. They generally try to find the answers to those questions by connecting with (or trying to connect with) other teens. Popular culture, technology, and electronic environments help them connect with each other in their own, self-created worlds where most adults will fear to tread or at least not know the way. Both adults and teens have the same basic library needs for information, recreation, and connection, but the differences in their life stages require some specialized skills and knowledge for working with teens.
While it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to turn away from adults, and to at least appear to actively disregard adult authority figures, the process has the disadvantage of relying for answers on other teens—who tend to lack the clarity and perspective that would be most helpful. Teens still need adults, both to provide practical things like material security and transportation, and to provide the positive role models for what adulthood might look like and the structure and support to help them get there. Teens need mentors. They do not need adults to be their buddies, and heaven help adults who try to be “cool” with teens. What they need from adults includes respect for their abilities, energy and talents, and room to express and create themselves freely; but they also need clearly defined and consistently reinforced boundaries. Teens deserve adults who recognize the great things they are capable of, and trust them with meaningful responsibility, while remaining present for guidance and support. I rely on these standards in my own work with teens. If the library can welcome and engage teens, librarians are well-positioned to mentor them at a time when other adults in their lives (parents, teachers, school administrators) have a harder time sustaining trust.
The brains of young adults are still developing neurologically in the areas that govern what adults think of as good sense and good planning. In your teen years you are especially inclined to risk-taking and thoughtless behavior with or for your friends at a time when you can’t always see where it might lead, partly because of inexperience and partly because your brain isn’t quite there yet. Hence the need for mentors. Research has also shown another great Catch-22 of adolescent brain development: teens have difficulty accurately interpreting emotional states in facial expressions and body language. At the very moment when knowing what other people think of you is one of the prime mortal organizers of your world, you cannot rely on your ability to do so—and you don’t know it.
A key difference between working with adults and working with teens is understanding and embracing these developmental realities. The basic principles of library service remain the same for both age groups: you fulfill information requests without judgment, you respond to the interests and tastes of your audience with appropriate and appealing activities that fit their schedules, and you reach out to them with meaningful services and resources. To work well with teens you need to be attuned to their specific needs, familiar with their world and their priorities, and ready to demonstrate both your respect for them, and your requirement that they respect you and the needs of other library users.