There’s one thing we know about mental health that applies to people of any age, from children to teenagers to full-grown adults: people who are actively engaged in life report high levels of life satisfaction and overall wellbeing. That’s not only true for their mental health, but also true for their physical health. For the purposes of this article, though, we’ll focus on mental health.
What do we mean by actively engaged?
People who are actively engaged in life do things almost every day that give their lives meaning.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they have an overarching grand goal or a lofty, world-changing purpose. It means that almost every day, they have something to do that interests them, excites them, and makes them feel good. For some people, the work they do keeps them engaged. They find a profession or trade that’s simultaneously fulfilling and gives them the resources to provide the essentials for themselves or their families. For others, the thing that keeps them engaged may be a hobby, an interest, or a passion that’s unrelated to their job, trade, or employment.
This article is about finding things that keep your teenager actively engaged in their life, as a protective factor for their long-term mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing. Teen mental health is a primary concern in our society at the moment. Two and a half stressful years dominated by the coronavirus pandemic disrupted their lives – and we want to help you find ways for them to reconnect, if they disconnected, and restore their enthusiasm for life, if it has waned at all.
In other words, we want to help you find ways to support their interests, so they can enjoy the long-term benefits of being connected to the world around them.
What Counts as Active Engagement?
In many cases, active engagement involves other people. Humans are social creatures, for the most part. That’s why the things that keep people active and engaged in life often involve close interaction with others that share the same or similar interests.
For instance, spirituality can bring people together in a variety of different contexts. So can the arts. Music, visual art, crafting, reading, and writing all include opportunities to commune with others in a shared, fulfilling experience. The same is true for sports or outdoor activities. People bond playing team sports, people bond over individual sports done collectively – think running or cycling – and people bond over watching other people participate in sports.
However, active engagement doesn’t necessarily mean being social or involving other people. While most of us are social, many of us are not – and that includes teenagers. People who aren’t social find hobbies and interests that include quiet, solitude, and a break from other people, rather than activities that bring them into contact with others.
Either way, what counts as active engagement meets these requirements, which are all subjective, and person-specific:
- Durable (you can keep doing it for years)
Think about those requirements. They seem simple, but finding something that meets those requirements is not always easy – but it is definitely possible. The list we provide below contains suggestions for you to do two things at once: bond with your teen during some quality time, and help them find a hobby, interest, or pursuit that will last a lifetime – and serve as a protective factor for their long-term mental, emotional health.
You and Your Teen: Stay Active, Stay Interested, Stay Engaged
Here’s our list.
Top Twenty Ways to Support Your Teen’s Interests – And Help Them Find a Lifelong Passion
1. Go to a Concert Together
Remember how important music was for you as a teen? Teens are just as interested in music now as they were 20, 30, or 40 years, ago, but of course, everything has changed. The tip here it to take them to a concert they want to see. This is not a walk down memory lane for you: this is for them. If they’d rather go with friends, you can make that happen, too: apply family rules, check out the safety at the venue, establish clear rules, designate a drop-off and pickup time, and let them go. If they want to do this with you, you can take them to a concert in the town where you live, or you can make a big deal out of it and take a weekend trip to see their favorite band in a city neither of you have visited.
2. Go to a Con (vention) Together
By con, we mean fan convention. Most of us have heard of Dragon Con in Atlanta, which is a weekend-long event that happens every year. The ancestor of all Cons, though, is the San Diego Comic-Con International, which began in 1970, and is still going strong today. In 2021, there are a variety of Cons to attend all over the world, including:
- Comic Conventions
- Gaming Conventions
- Anime Conventions
- TV Show Conventions
Fair warning: we recommend accompanying teens at Cons, especially at night. Behavior at Cons can get very adult when the sun goes down. We do not recommend sending a teen to an out-of-town Con unsupervised, nor do we recommend allowing them to attend evening events at a local Con unsupervised. Everything else Con-related gets a big “Yes.”
3. Baking, Cooking, and Culinary Exploration
Really? Yes, really – but only if your teen is interested in cooking, baking, and food in general. This topic is far broader than you might think. You can start with something easy that has a guaranteed positive payoff: baking cookies. Then you can move up to baking cakes. If they like baking, you can move on to bread, biscuits, pastries, and anything you can dream up. And if they like cooking – the list is endless. A passion for food and cooking can last a lifetime, and one great thing about it? Food brings people together.
4. Be A Tourist in Own City
If you live in a big city that’s world famous, you and your teen may be jaded to things other people find fascinating. Or, if you live in a small town, you may not realize how many amazing things your home has to offer. In either case, a fun, bonding activity you can do with your teen is to pretend you’re from out of town, and give yourselves a nice family tour. If you’re in New York City, try a fresh-eyed visit to the Statue of Liberty. If you live in Los Angeles, consider The Getty. And if you’re in a small town, go to that diner where they serve the best apple pie on earth – and count your blessings.
How does this help you learn about your teen’s interests? You’ll find out when you compare your town’s “must see/do” lists.
5. Binge Watch Something They Love
This one is easy. Here are the rules: it has to be something your teen chooses, your teen loves, and wants to binge with you. Most important rule: no matter what you think, do not criticize the show. Use it as a jumping point for conversation, whether they’re deep or superficial. The content doesn’t matter. The actual conversation does.
6. Backyard Camping
What was an incredible adventure as a young child can be an incredible bonding experience for you and your teen now. Or it can be a baby step toward any interest they may have in doing actual camping in a state park, a national park, or a wilderness area. If you don’t have camping equipment, you need to watch the weather and wait for a clear night. If you have equipment, then weather can add to the fun of the whole experience. You can also arrange this for just your teens and their friends: a backyard campover, as it were. Or, if no own wants to sleep on the ground in the yard, you can create a similar experience by sleeping out on the back porch or patio: if you’re under the stars, it counts.
7. Actual Camping
This is something you can do as a family, or you can send your teen to learn to do on their own. No, we don’t mean dropping them off at a trailhead on a Friday and saying “See you Sunday!” We mean considering an outdoor adventure program with a reputable company like Outward Bound or the National Outdoor Leadership School. If your teen has never been in the wilderness, or hiked past the sound of the freeway – this is a great idea, and can change their lives.
8. Adventure Travel/Adrenaline Activities
Camping is a real outdoor activity that doesn’t have to be extreme. Adrenaline is not required for camping. However, if you have a teenage thrill seeker on your hands, there are a wide range of extreme activities they can try – with your help and guidance – that are as safe as possible, given their nature. Consider these:
- Indoor skydiving
- Go-Kart Racing
You can try all these together, or arrange for your teen to try them solo. Either way, they may discover something brand new that they love.
9. Huge Jigsaw Puzzles
This is literally the opposite of an extreme, adrenaline-infused adventure sport. If you have a quiet teen who likes to take time and excels at detail-oriented activities, this is perfect. You can find puzzles with a thousand pieces or more, clear a space on the floor or on the dining room table, and make a weekend of it. You can call it puzzle-binging, pulling an all-nighter, or whatever you like: the time you spend will connect you to your teen, and you can use it to talk about anything you like, or simply enjoy the quality time spend engaging in a shared activity.
10. Bedroom Makeover
Admit it: there are still books, toys, and clothes in your teen’s room that are more appropriate for a first grader than a high schooler. That’s okay! We’re not judging. And you don’t have to get rid of all of it. Keeping some of that stuff around reminds teens who they were and how far they’ve come. However, doing a bedroom makeover or refresh with your teen can reveal a great deal. You can learn how they see themselves – i.e. their concept of their identity – by planning what their ideal living space might look like. Are they classic? Modern and minimalist? A postmodern hodge-podge? Engaging them in a full bedroom makeover can clarify things for you and your teen – and it’s practice for that dorm room, if college is in the cards.
11. Help Them Be a Creator
Creating has evolved over the years. You can still create art with the simplest of tools – like the human voice or a sketch pad and pencil. However, in the 21st century, there are a million and one ways to leverage technology to harness – or discover – your teen’s creative instincts. Various apps and platform help them create the following types of content:
- Visual Art
Ask them what they want to create, how they want to create it, and set their imagination free: you’ll be amazed at what they create.
12. Face a Fear
You can learn a lot about another person by identifying what they fear. The same goes for your teen: you can learn about your teen by identifying what they fear – and helping them overcome that fear. It may be heights, it may be public speaking, or it may be something simple you’d never think of. Please keep in mind we’re not talking about therapeutic exposure to clinical phobias: leave that to a professional therapist. We’re talking about things like, “I’ve always wanted to try scuba diving, but I’m afraid of being completely submerged underwater.”
13. Spa Day
What can we say? Manicure, pedicure, massage, hot stone treatment, mud mask, facial makeover – if your teen is into looking good and being pampered, a spa day is an excellent opportunity to spend quality time, laugh, and connect. It’s an excuse to spend time with them, and a pretext for engaging in deep conversations about life, the universe and everything – including what they want to be when they grow up.
14. 48 Hour Media Blackout Challenge
Can your teen go 48 hours without a phone, without the internet, without television, and without connecting electronically to anything at all?
If your teen accepts this challenge, pay attention. The way they spend this 48 hours may reveal their true interests, unmediated by the influence of the ceaseless barrage of digital information they encounter every day.
15. Drive-In Movies
Yes, they still exist. And yes – they’re still fun. This is another activity that’s a pretext for the bonding time you have during the movie. You can go as a family, or take your teen and a group of friends. They way you use this as a way to support your teen’s interests is letting them choose the movie and guide any casual conversation. They’re likely to relax, be themselves – and reveal aspects of their identity that may be new to you.
16. Take Them to Museums
If your teen shows an interest in art, history, art history, or anything related to art or history, a museum is a great place to let them roam and learn everything they can about whatever it is they love or are interested in. This is another activity that can be low-key – if there’s a museum in your town – or a big deal. You can take a life-changing trip to New York to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Washington, D.C. to see the Smithsonian, or The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Did you know there’s a Dali museum in Florida? Now you do. And if your art-loving teen finds out about it, taking a trip to see it may become a family priority.
17. Music Festivals
This is like our first suggestion, times a thousand. If there’s a festival nearby, or better yet, in your town, then it’s like our first suggestion times a hundred. In either case, let your teen research all the music festivals happening in a given year, and if possible, let them choose the one they most want to attend, and make it happen. If it’s out of town, go with them and make it a trip. If it’s in town, go with them and learn what they’re into by suspending all judgment and enjoying it alongside them. Same rule as with binging a TV show: no matter what you think, do not criticize the music. Instead, use it as a point of contact to initiate conversation.
18. Rocky Horror Picture Show
We include this because it’s an iconic, timeless classic – and much safer for your teen to attend with supervision for the first time. If your teen thinks they know what fandom is, then let them experience Rocky Horror for a taste of the true, original fandom: the people who dress up for an know every single line of the film.
19. Spontaneous Road Trip Navigator
Do you have an empty weekend on the calendar? A Sunday with nothing planned? Then get out a map – yes, one made of paper – allow your teen to choose a destination, then get in the car and go. The rules? They navigate. Meaning you can’t take a turn unless they tell you to. The destination they choose will reflect their interests, and when they get the hang of navigating with a map, they just may discover something new that they love: the fine art of old-school road tripping.
20. Make A Dream Come True
Have you ever heard your teen say something like “I love sea mammals” or “I’ve always been fascinated by the rainforest”? If so, you can plan – either in secret or with them – an activity or trip that fulfills that lifelong desire or interest. Perhaps they’re interested in sea mammals. In that case, you can take them on a trip to swim with dolphin or register them for a marine biology class. If the rainforest is their thing, you can take a trip to see one in person – did you know there’s a rainforest in Olympia, Washington and at El Yunque, Puerto Rico? Or, if a trip isn’t in the cards, you can find a summer academic program in rainforest biology – and give them as summer they’ll never forget, which may lay the foundation or a career in environmental science.
The Secret: Open Mind, Open Communication
You may have noticed a theme in the twenty suggestions we offer above. Many of them are really pretexts for you and your teen to spend quality time in a context that’s outside of your typical, daily lives. When you create an atmosphere that’s novel yet relaxed, intriguing yet pressure free, exciting but not stressful, and educational but not demanding, you may find your teen opens up and talks about things in ways you’ve never heard. They may talk about things in fresh and interesting ways, share their latest insights on life, and reveal parts of themselves that are new to both of you.
When you want to learn about your teen, the two best things to do are listen to what they say and watch what they do. To accomplish that, you need to create situations where they feel free to talk openly and be themselves one hundred percent: that’s when the show you who they really are. When you learn who they are – which includes who they think they are and who they want to be – then you can support them in finding an interest that enriches their lives for years to come.
The interest, passion, pursuit, or hobby you help them discover can keep them active and engaged in the process of life and living. Which, in the long run, will support their overall psychological, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing. In other words, when you help your teen find something they love, you not only improve their self-esteem and self-confidence in the here and now, but also create a template for life-affirming choices they can use as they move past adolescence and into adulthood.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.