Teens Know What They Need to Be Healthy and Thrive. It’s Time We Listen.

We asked teens, "what does it mean to thrive?" Their answers and wisdom expand our definition of teen thriving and instruct our next chapter of co-creation.

By iThrive Games
August 4, 2022

What does it mean for teens to thrive?

At iThrive, we use games and game design to support teen thriving. In our 2017 white paper, we defined teen thriving as teens' "accumulating intrapersonal and interpersonal assets while progressing forward through adolescence." This is true, but it's not sufficient.

We see and hear firsthand that teens are uniquely positioned to see injustices and hold society to a clear and higher standard. Over the past 5 years, we have asked hundreds of teens what thriving means to them, and what they most want and need to thrive. We have listened deeply as we've worked side-by-side with them to envision and design elements of a more just, supportive world.  

Our revised definition reflects the heart, admiration, and dedication we see and feel when we do this youth-centered work. They come away from it saying things like, "I realize now the change I can have on the world" and "This process ... has given me the empowerment not only to make decisions in my daily life but also to learn about how the systems that have already been created work and how to disrupt them through games. I feel very happy to be part of this and help promote social change." 

Our revised definition also incorporates the latest scientific advancements in the teen brain and evidence about what works in positive youth development, social and emotional learning, and mental health.

The world and our perceptions of it have undergone seismic shifts in the years since iThrive was formed, and the ways we define and aim to support teen thriving have adapted in kind. The work of adolescence has always been social and emotional, but it is uniquely demanding for teens today who are navigating unprecedented social issues, all of which require action and accountability. At the forefront of movements demanding both are young people who are imagining what a just, supportive world could be and who are diligently and inventively pushing for new possibilities in the world they'll inherit. But their vital engagement in the world is being threatened by a youth mental health crisis that has been deemed a national emergency, so there is great urgency for adults and society at large to do more to support teens' mental health and well-being.


Teens thrive when they, and the settings that serve them, take full advantage of the unique magnificence of the teen brain to optimize personal growth and well-being, establish healthy interdependence in supportive and affirming communities, and propel progress toward a more just world and a healthier planet.


What's uniquely magnificent about the teen brain? Research in the last two decades has revealed that the teen brain changes at an astonishing rate and is more "plastic" than it will ever be again. When teens have supportive relationships, experiences, and settings, the brain changes they're undergoing result in young people who, compared to adults, are generally more zestful and vibrant, more willing to take healthy risks, better positioned to think creatively about innovative solutions to problems, and more driven to engage and connect socially. In a world in which teens are thriving, both teens and the settings that serve them are aware of and supporting the development and healthy channeling of these amazing superpowers. 

Of course, a magnificent teen brain exists within an individual self, nested within a community of people and resources, further nested within the world at large. Teen thriving needs to consider and encompass what is happening in each of these domains.


Teens who are thriving in the domain of "SELF" feel physically and emotionally healthy and "alive" and are engaged in regulating their behavior and pursuing and accomplishing things that matter to them. OR, they have the internal awareness and tools they need to notice when something feels "off" and to skillfully manage difficult emotions or advocate for extra help. Settings that support teens to thrive in the domain of "SELF" meet their physical and emotional needs (including the need to build social and emotional skills) and provide meaningful opportunities to learn, achieve, and grow on each teen's unique path.

In teens' words: Thriving is "passion," "feeling confident in themselves," "being happy with where you are mentally, physically, and socially," "having goals and working towards those goals," and "being organized" and "able to deal with pressure."


Teens who are thriving in the domain of "COMMUNITY" can make meaningful contributions to social settings where they experience caring and connection with people who affirm their evolving identities by offering them freedom and time to be themselves. They are also learning and using the skills of interdependence, balancing trust and reliance with satisfying levels of autonomy. OR, they are noticing a mismatch between their needs and available resources and are learning the skills to identify and advocate for how their communities could better support them. Settings that are supporting teens' thriving in communities see and affirm all teens for who they are, connect them with services and resources they need, and set high expectations for teens accompanied by the guidance and opportunities to meet those expectations.

In teens' words: "Teens thriving means that they are in an environment where they can be completely themselves," and "where their needs, both mental and physical, are heard, understood, and met." Thriving means having "a space of love" and "sharing your ideas with each other and helping people in need," like through "volunteering, cleaning up places, or advocating for small-scale reform." It also means "having a healthy balance between home and school life," "time for activities one enjoys as well as opportunities to recharge," and "time to process and explore our identities."

At the PLAY (Policy, Leadership, and Advocacy by Youth) Program last month, high school students from across the Piedmont region of Virginia gathered with staff from iThrive Games and UVA Batten for a week-long program. There, they used game design activities from our Game Design Studio Toolkit to explore policy issues that impact them and today's teens along with potential solutions. In response to one of our world-building activities, teens shared and illustrated their visions of thriving (pictured above).


Finally, teens who are thriving in the domain of "WORLD" show a curiosity and striving towards understanding the "bigger picture" and having an impact beyond their immediate lives and surroundings. OR, they can notice a desire for greater meaning and purpose and seek guidance on healthy ways to establish that meaning. Settings can support teens' thriving in the "WORLD" domain when the adults within them model ethical and effective leadership and informed and prosocial cross-cultural engagement, and when they remain open to the innovative and out-of-the-box solutions to global problems that teens are uniquely positioned to try. 

In teens' words: Teens who are thriving are "going out of their comfort zone to give their input and effort to a situation or problem that needs help" and "advocating for change where we can and when we can." Some teens said, "My friends and family and getting to learn and experience new things gives my life purpose or meaning" and "I derive meaning out of my everyday life, I have goals that I would like to achieve..., I have friends and family I care for, and I have things I enjoy doing....I'm just alive so I might as well find purpose in the things that come my way every day."

The question of 'how do we support teens?' cannot be answered unless we are in community with teens and commit to actively listening to them. Their perceptiveness and ingenuity inspire us and guide the programming, resources, and partnerships we put into the world in support of their thriving.

Stay tuned to learn more about how our work is supporting this vision of teen thriving and sign up for our newsletter to receive updates on ways to get involved.