What advice would you give your younger self?
During the week leading up to New Year’s 2020, I decided to send out my first ever Instagram survey. The idea came to me late one morning as I lay in a hazy fog, the kind that happens right before you fully wake up from a decent night’s rest. I was looking for a way to reach teen girls, to pose questions to them, to know what they thought about life, their lives and the future in general. Then it hit me to just ask — via a survey. Teens love taking surveys, right? Yes. But I also knew that teens don’t have the attention span for a longer than short survey :-).
So, the Instagram inquiry I sent out included only two questions: 1. What advice would you give your younger self? And 2. What would you tell your older self?
I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I would get, but by the end of the week I had over 1,000 takers. Feedback came from every state in the country (except West Virginia). Comments ranged from boys to body image. The bulk of responses were submitted by 15 and 16-year-olds, although I also received input from 13, 14 and 17-year-olds. This was all very exciting and right off the bat it told me several things:
- Teens do like taking surveys (duh);
- Teen girls actually want to be asked about what they think and feel; and
- Teens have a lot of advice to share!
Granted, I did put out my request at a very reflective time of year when many people are taking stock of their lives and deciding what things they want to change or keep the same. Can you say New Year’s resolutions? I also like to believe that the great response rate simply had to do with the innate and natural insightfulness of teenage girls. This is something often overlooked by society in general and in particular by adults who don’t give teens nearly enough credit for it.
Take for example, this pearl of wisdom from Kat, only age 13:
“I would tell my younger self to realize that what other people think of you is not worth pretending to be something that you are not.”
Or what Rachel, also age 13, had to say:
“My advice is that I’d tell her not to settle. Don’t deal with people who can’t be bothered to care about you. I’ve put up with so much more than I should have, and I’d make sure she nipped that in the bud immediately.”
Or Miley’s insight, age 15:
“I would say that the ‘I’m not like the other girls’ attitude is a toxic mindset. You should be yourself, but other girls are not the enemy.”
And then Amy, age 17:
“I’d tell my younger self that whenever given an opportunity to do something, do it. Even if you’re unsure if it’s ‘the thing for you’, do it anyway. You’ll regret not doing these things and all your chances at branching out as a person and gaining life experiences will slip away.”
I have pages and pages of this stuff but rather than dig into too many details, I wanted to share just some of the key take-aways. For example, while combing through the girls’ advice I noticed that there was not much of a difference between the guidance girls gave their younger selves and what they advised their older selves. It did stand out, however, that the advice to their younger selves often sounded like regrets, meaning things that they wish they’d done differently like “stop wasting so much time on people who aren’t true friends” or “don’t let people walk all over you”. The girls’ comments often contained the words “don’t” or “stop” and for the most part were phrased in the negative, as in, the things they no longer wanted in their lives.
On the other hand, I found that girls’ advice to their future selves used more encouraging expressions, like “you’ve got this!” Or focused on issues that were going well such as “keep your grades up”. It’s as if the change in perspective allowed these teens to convey their help in terms of what they do want, instead of what they don’t want. Overall, with each age group, the advice got wiser and wiser, as the teens seemed to observe more and demonstrate an increasingly wholistic view of themselves and the world.
Another notable point from analyzing the feedback was that certain themes emerged based on age and some were ageless. The most popular overarching themes regardless of age were:
- Don’t care what people think or say about you - be yourself (a whopping 25 percent);
- Stress less and enjoy the moment; and
- Surround yourself with good people and avoid the toxic ones.
So, what did the girls have to say by cohort?
Age 13: Find Your Voice
Aside from their #1 piece of advice being don’t care what people think or say about you, 13-year-olds emphasized not being afraid to say how you feel, to speak up, stand up and stick up for yourself. Kind of makes sense for a time in life where social dynamics rule and learning to find and use your voice in a relational context is a necessity.
Age 14: Be in the Moment
By contrast, 14-year-olds primarily counseled to just “be in the moment” and stay a kid as long as you can because life gets pretty busy and complicated in a hurry. Interestingly, juxtaposed next to these comments were others about body image, such as “don’t worry about your looks”. It’s probably no coincidence that 14 is the age at which most teens start high school. The chances are fair that these teens could be simultaneously longing for a simpler time while also comparing themselves to the older girls.
Age 15: Love Yourself
With 15-year-olds, again, the #1 piece of advice was to stop caring what other people think or say about you. However, this time, many teens couched the suggestion by saying “don’t let it get you down”. What this says to me is that these girls are starting to feel the weight of years of listening too much to others’ opinions and it’s having an effect. In some cases, it’s getting them down, which in turn may be impacting how they feel in multiple ways and possibly decreasing their motivation to be their best and do the things they love.
The 2nd most common piece of advice 15-year-olds gave to their younger selves was to “not be so hard on yourself” and to be kind. In other words, to love yourself. Interestingly, this nugget didn’t show up much in the 14-year-olds’ feedback, just a year younger. Again, I think the burden of caring too much about what other people think and say finally starts to catch up with girls by age 15 and they’re realizing that it’s just not worth it. A bigger-picture-perspective moves in and it’s becoming increasingly clear that what really matters is what they think and say about themselves, and treating themselves well as a result.
The 3rd most frequent recommendation 15-year-olds gave to their younger selves had to do with stressing less, slowing down and not overthinking things (like their future). As before, I believe a broader outlook enters in at age 15 as many teen girls start to see the value of just trusting that things will come together and that it’s ok to not have life all figured out, even when everyone around them seems like they do. Here’s a hint: they don’t.
Another category that changed a lot between 14 and 15 years old was advice about boys. Only 2 percent of 14-year-old teen girls even mentioned boys in their guidance whereas 6 percent of 15-year-olds did with comments like “don’t focus on boys” and “love friends over boys”. That’s a triple difference. Even though the topic was notably pretty far down the list for both age groups, its relevance clearly increases quite a bit in this one year.
Age 16: Stay Strong
Several interesting items emerged in the 16-year-old survey responses. Once more, coming in at #1 was not caring what people think or say about you, emphasizing this as the core piece of advice teen girls give themselves. But tied for #2 with “don’t be so hard on yourself” was a somewhat new category — “it will get better, don’t give up, just be patient and strong”. What’s so remarkable about this is that while 12 percent of 16-year-old girls said it, the notion barely showed up for 15-year-olds. It almost feels like teens at this age are finally appreciating the values of resilience and determination, which we hadn’t seen so far in the survey responses. It also leads me to think that these girls must have persevered through some important challenges over their past year.
Two other notable categories of responses for 16-year-olds were comments about boys, including, for the first time, respecting yourself and your body, e.g. “don’t let boys pressure you” and “it’s ok to say no to boys”, and comments about emotions. At 11 percent, boy-related remarks almost doubled as compared to the 15-year-olds which, not surprisingly, tells you girls are dating more and specifically, they’re becoming more physically involved. Body image comments such as “you’re beautiful” were also at their highest at 9 percent.
Advice about emotions, while only at 7 percent, was the most it’s been so far and almost double what it was just a year younger. In particular, I received a lot of feeling-related comments such as “emotions are ok” and “it’s ok to be sad”, but also suggestions to not bottle things up and to definitely get help by talking to family or friends. This advice could very well be related to the increase in boy comments and relationships. But without a doubt, it’s something to notice.
Age 17: Take Risks
The 17-year-olds’ advice tended to focus on believing in yourself and being confident, with comments like “listen to your heart” and “trust your gut”. This also included advice such as “get outside your comfort zone” and “look at the big picture” (as in, don’t sweat the small stuff). Makes sense, right? Most 17-year-olds are thinking about what their future after high school will look like, whether it’s going to college, getting a job or something else entirely. These girls may also especially see the value of all the experiences they’ve had up until now. In some cases they probably wish they had soaked up even more opportunities and taken more risks to learn from their mistakes and to help with making important life decisions.
I did want to point out that in asking teen girls “what advice would you give your younger self?”, I realized that there were two perspectives from which the girls could answer. One, which is the lens I chose to use, is what’s the most important advice I can give my younger self in light of all my experiences so far? This perspective affords a variety of viewpoints but the presumption is that the most front-of-mind advice relates to the respondent’s current age because they are at their most mature. I prefer this interpretation because it allows you to draw certain conclusions about what teen girls experience in a progressive sense.
The other lens through which to view the girls’ advice is that each teen considered what they needed to hear most at some specific earlier age. For example, one 16-year-old advised “your parent’s divorce was not your fault”. Now, by 16, she may have already come to this conclusion, but in her mind she could be picturing herself at, say, eight or ten, when she thought her parents’ split was because of her. Just something to contemplate, but only a small percentage of the advice was phrased in a way that led me to think that the survey-taker was answering from this latter position.
So, what do these results all mean? Like me, you probably found some of the comments surprising and others not so much. If nothing else, it’s interesting to note the changing arc of girls’ advice from 13 to 17 years old: find your voice (13), be in the moment (14), love yourself (15), stay strong (16) and take risks (17). In my opinion, the greatest and most useful shifts seem to come at ages 15 and 16, when teen girls begin to realize that they need to put themselves first and be resilient. Also fascinating is the consistently #1 piece of advice across all age groups to not care what others think or say and just be yourself. I delve further into this universal theme in a future article based on a follow-up survey with the same group of teen girls. Finally, the most important insight I gained from this undertaking, which I think we can all learn from, is this: if you ever want to know what a teen girl is thinking or feeling, just ask her. She wants to tell you and she knows what she’s talking about.
Reflection: What advice would you give your younger self? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org