How Scientists Say You Can Foster Your Teen’s Dreams
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How Scientists Say You Can Foster Your Teen’s Dreams

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Long before the pandemic, Harvard University researchers did a study on how parents can support the dreams of their high schoolers. In many ways the research results weren’t particularly surprising.

Professor Nancy Hill from the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that it is really important for parents to help their teens set goals and explore interests. She noted three parenting practices that play a large role in this process:

  • Autonomy Support – Giving teens opportunities to make decisions and develop solutions to problems
  • Monitoring – Providing guidelines and keeping track of where your teens are, what they’re doing, and who their friends are
  • Warmth – Having a positive, supportive relationship

Traditionally, travel has made it easy to pursue these goals. It gives teens a chance to explore interests and ideas. It helps them make choices. They have to learn to follow the rules and expectations of different cultures. And they develop many warm and supportive relationships.

But portions of this formula fell apart during the pandemic. Teens could not pursue many interests when doors closed. Their chances to try something new and make choices dwindled. In some cases, they lost the support of the larger community.

But the Harvard Business Review has since featured studies that show how it is possible to overcome life challenges – how to deal with so-called identity paralysis or the feeling of being stuck. This state of being can cause anger, hopelessness and frustration.

In one key study Canadian researchers spent ten years analyzing how people deal with drastic changes. Their results suggest that finding a new path through something like travel is a great way to help teens overcome pandemic doldrums and reignite their interests and their dreams.

The New Formula for Success

The researchers focused on five steps people who overcome challenges tend to take.

1.) Find a Divider

The first step to success that the researchers noted was finding a way to break from the past. It can be something symbolic that represents the end of a life chapter.

People may commonly use big events like graduations to move forward, but we can’t always have something like that. So the people in the study would find other moments they could use to represent a divider between the past and the present.

A post-pandemic trip is a perfect divider. Students who travel right now are able to move on from the confinements of the pandemic – the virtual learning, social distancing, etc. – to see a broader world.

It gets them out of their comfort zone so they can see other ways of living and meet new people. It gives them something to look forward to and can reopen their minds to new possibilities as they move forward in their education and beyond.

Alumna Annabelle Bragalone, who is finishing up college, says her four trips with Rustic helped build her confidence and leave the wary side of herself behind.


“Before traveling with Rustic, I wouldn’t say I was shy, but I was definitely cautious. I was scared to even zipline, and then a couple years later I went skydiving!” Bragalone said. “I started stepping out of my comfort zone, trying new experiences and things that I never thought I would ever try in my entire life.”

2.) Create a Story

In this process of moving forward, psychologists often note the importance of the stories we tell ourselves. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that the Canadian researchers found that those stories make a difference. People who overcome challenges are often able to fashion stories about how they got over past hardships to get to their present lives.

For teens, this could be a story about how they used the challenges of the pandemic to motivate themselves to get out in the world now that is opening up and find ways to make an impact on communities in need. As the research article called it, “darkness leading to the light.”

 3.) Work through Emotions

Strong emotions can make it hard to move forward even if we fashion positive stories in our minds. The pandemic triggered many emotions in teens. A large number of teens have dealt with fear, anger and even hopelessness.

Researchers say it’s important to recognize these emotions and how they can hold you back. Program leaders have seen their share of cases where emotions like fear make it difficult for students to try something new. But traveling ultimately often helps teens overcome fears.

Rustic alumna Sydney Layton, who traveled to Puerto Rico in the summer of 2021, said her program leaders and fellow students encouraged her to break through these emotions, which made a huge difference.

Photo: Sydney Layton

“I have never felt more alive than I had in the moment I faced my fears and jumped off the cliff into the water,” Layton said. “All of the strangers and my group cheering me on made me feel loved, and I will never lose that feeling because of it.”

4.) Focus on Meaningful Activities

A deeper level of change can happen from finding purpose, so it is a key element of mental health and efforts to overcome adversity. However, it can be challenging sometimes to feel like you are making a difference in a job or school. It is certainly possible though with volunteer work.

Meaningful service is a core of a number of Rustic’s student travel programs, and it is frequently mentioned by alumni as being a travel element that helped them define their future.

Alumnus André Mershad found this when he did his service work in the corn fields in Vietnam during his travel program.

“I remember feeling so eager to contribute, and putting my entire being into these fields. This strenuous day sparked my interest in agriculture,” Mershad said. “One of my dreams is to provide more people with local and sustainable foods.”

5.) Use Your Imagination

The last aspect the study mentioned is using your imagination to envision what is possible in an ideal world. Even if it is actually a fantasy, this process of dreaming of utopia somehow helps.

A number of alumni are able to turn their dreams into reality, but even if that doesn’t happen, having an active imagination about achieving a worthwhile goal can help with other aspects of life.

Alumni Kristen Gadbois is an example of this. Traveling prompted dreams of working for Doctors Without Borders. Even though she hasn’t gotten there yet, it has directed her career in healthcare as she works for Milwaukee Health Department as part of their Covid-19 response.

“The spark created almost six years ago continues to inspire me daily,” Gadbois said.

That is a spark that is much needed as teens work to move beyond the pandemic to healthier and more promising futures. Today parents can help by providing the autonomy, monitoring and warmth that has long been helpful while adding new twists to get their teens back on a path to success.

View our programs for more details on service programs that will help your student get on their way to a brighter, long-anticipated future.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.