Writing YA? What you need to know about adolescence

I love writing YA, and I mean LOVE writing YA. I’ve worked with adolescents my entire career, from a youth worker to a high school teacher to a school psychologist. It’s a time of extremes, a time of firsts. You experience some amazing highs and some crushing lows, and (unless you’re a ten year old reading this because you want to write YA) we’ve all been there. The media emphasises all of its challenges – gang violence, school shootings, alcohol related accidents, drug abuse and suicide. These are all realities of our lives and theirs, but is it really what adolescence is all about? What do psychologists know about adolescent development, and how can it shape our writing? Let’s take a look.

  1. It’s a time of transformation

Adolescence is a time of multiple paradigm shifts, all happening at once. We all know the exciting and overwhelming physical changes of puberty, the ‘hormone storm’, but it’s also the second time in the human life cycle that the brain undergoes significant development (the first period is birth to three years). Impulsiveness is common as the brain begins the difficult shift from focusing on short term gain (gotta love instant gratification) to balancing it all with long term costs and benefits.

But it’s not just biological. Socially they start high school, middle school, college, and we all remember how tumultuous that was. They venture into the workforce and have to start pseudo-adulting. They start to develop independence, defining themselves outside the family unit, their peers now a major influence on their identity and choices. They begin to explore their sexuality, and for most, this is where they will experience their first romantic relationship.

They can feel things intensely, and love to be absorbed in intense experiences. It’s validating and invigorating. Which is probably worth remembering if you’re writing YA…

  1. Risk taking is normal

Scientists did this great experiment where they built a maze for rats to explore, but they added a little adrenalin inducing upgrade. At one side they included a ledge, a great big dangerous drop off, then they put three different groups of rats in to explore. The young rats, the equivalent of kids, stayed away from the ledge. The adult rats saw it and stepped away. The adolescent rats, the teenagers? Yep, you guessed it. They were drawn to the ledge, they WANTED to play on the ledge. They danced along the dangerous precipice, probably revelling in the adrenalin rush.

Why? Because, in an evolutionary sense, adolescence is the time we branch out, we test boundaries, and see what we’re capable of. We’re drawn to big wide world and what it can mean for us. Yes, that can mean fast cars and drugs and one night stands, but it also means your first kiss, discovering the choices you make when offered a joint, and trying the cinnamon challenge (YouTube it peoples, it’s hilarious).

  1. Who am I?

A famous psychologist, Erik Erikson (cool name huh?), split our life into discrete stages, and he believed that during each life stage we have a crisis that we must resolve if we’re to move successfully onto the next one. Each acts as a foundation for the next. Decades of research has supported his theory. Erikson put a great deal of emphasis on the adolescent period, feeling it was a crucial stage for developing a person’s identity, the period where we grapple with the existential question of ‘Who am I?’. It’s during this time, more than any other in our life cycle, that we are tasked with reconciling who we are, who we want to be, and who society expects us to become. No mean feat let me tell you.

What this means is adolescence is a time where teens begin questioning their self-concept (and if they’re anything like me, they never stop), they begin to explore who they are and who they want to be. It’s a writer’s character arc embodied in one developmental period. Questions like ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I want to stand for?’ are likely to pop up as you throw them in a post-apocalyptic world, when they find out their best-friend is gay, when they develop feelings for a vampire…

4.  They hold our world, and your book’s world, in their hands 

In some ways teens don’t have a lot of agency. Where (and with whom) they live, what school they go to, their socio-economic status, are all factors they don’t have much control over. But in so many other ways their world is a world of possibility. Of hope.

For starters, the incidence of everything has increased, and the teens of this era live in our world of diversity and constant evolution. In many ways they’ve driven it seeing as every generation of teens are the adults of the future. In today’s times the seeds of acceptance have finally germinated, and teens are open to, no, want to celebrate diversity. Multiculturalism, politics, LGBTI, disabilities, darkness, love. They explore it all and more.

And it’s readily available to them. Where does the most discussion about current events happen? Yup, social networking. Where do teens spend so much of their time socialising and educating themselves? You got it, social networking. The teens of today are far more connected with world events than we ever were. All that information is available at the click of a Facebook icon – the world is literally at their fingertips.

Adolescents may be too young to vote, but they know what they’re talking about when it comes to politics, health-care systems, disadvantage, climate change, and the strengths and flaws of our education systems. Our teens of today are aware, informed (yes, sometimes misinformed), but ultimately deeply passionate about real-life issues.

If you write a YA book that captures some or all of these issues, you’ve got a captive audience. You’ve shown that you empathise and understand how a teen thinks and behaves, the multiplicity of challenges they face and the strengths and potential they hold in their hearts. You know that adolescents are the faces, hearts, and promise of our future.

These are the reasons I love writing YA, love reading YA, and love working with young adults. What a unique stage in our lifespan, one defined by fast changes and big decisions, what a wonderful rollercoaster to explore and mould onto a page. What an invigorating and uplifting world of words to immerse myself in. And finally, what a profound privilege to walk alongside these individuals that straddle childhood and adulthood, to learn from and look forward to seeing in my office tomorrow.

What do you think? Do you see these points in the teens around you? Have you come across these issues in the YA books you’ve read? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

2 comments

  1. I loved the Article. As I read, I wonder if I really am in touch with today’s young adults. It definitely is a different era than I was brought up in. Your advise into the thinking of this generation is both enlightening and useful for all young adult writers.

    Like

    1. Hi Paula, you’re right, teens of this generation face a whole set of new challenges we never did! It’s a challenging genre to write in, but very rewarding. Have a great day, Tamar 😊

      Like

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