September 20, 2021

Good News for Youth: At Least 9 in 10 Have Supportive Adults in Their Lives

According to new data in the KIDS COUNT® Data Center, 90% of U.S. teens ages 14 to 17 had at least one adult mentor in the community who could be relied on for advice and guidance, and 94% of youth could share ideas or talk about things that matter with parents in 2018–2019. These estimates, which have held steady since 2016–2017, are based on parent reports and are the latest figures from the National Survey of Children’s Health.

Youth Need Supportive Adults to Thrive

This is heartening news for America’s youth, as supportive adults at home and in the community play a vital role in fostering positive outcomes for youth. It is encouraging, too, that just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the vast majority of teens ages 14 to 17 were bolstered by adults whom they could rely on for guidance and safe communication.

Adolescence is a critical stage of development, when major changes in biology and brain functioning occur. It also is a formative transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, when young people need adult support as they navigate increasing autonomy, forming their identity, forging new relationships, gaining socioemotional and life skills, obtaining education and training and more. Young adulthood is a window of opportunity for parents, caregivers and adults in the community — as well as for programs, investments and policies — to support youth and help put them on a positive path for the future.

Inequities Exist in Access to Supportive Adults, Particularly Community Mentors

While the findings are hopeful for teens as a whole, the data by state and race and ethnicity reveal disparities in access to supportive adults. For example, at the state level, estimates of youth with at least one adult mentor in the community ranged from 85% in California and Arizona to 97% in Maine and Vermont. Among racial and ethnic groups at the national level during 2016-2019, the greatest need for access to adult mentors was indicated for Latino youth, with only 81% having a community mentor, compared to 95% for white youth. In some states, the percentages for Latino teens were even lower, including Texas (73%) and California (79%).

The measure of youth and parents being able to talk about issues that matter varied less by state (88%-97%) and race and ethnicity. But given that parents and caregivers play a critical role in youth development, every effort should be made to ensure that families have equitable access to the resources and support they need to help their teens thrive.

In Addition to Supportive Adults, Youth Need Opportunities for Community Engagement

The National Survey of Children’s Health also found that 56% of youth ages 14 to 17 participated in community service or volunteer work at school, church or in the community during the past year, according to parent reports in 2018-2019.

This kind of work is important for youth, not only because they can contribute to their communities in meaningful ways, but also because it can help them develop a sense of purpose and other capabilities, such as critical thinking and socioemotional and leadership skills. In addition, it serves as a proxy to indicate how many children are in households with the financial resources that allow children the free time to volunteer, rather than requiring them to work or provide child care to help the household make ends meet. However, not all young people have access to programs that offer community service, volunteer projects or other youth engagement opportunities.

Differences at the state level on this measure were especially pronounced, ranging from 40% of youth in Nevada participating in community service in the past year to 67% in New Jersey and Maryland.

Among racial and ethnic groups, figures ranged from 46% for Latino youth to 67% for Asian and Pacific Islander youth at the national level. These data highlight the need to expand opportunities for youth participation in community service and engagement.

Adolescence: A Time for Support, Engagement and Equity

While adolescence is a time of significant cognitive, biological and psychosocial transformation, the future trajectories of young people are greatly influenced by environmental factors, such as family, community and educational support and resources. Today’s youth also face 21st-century issues like the increasing role of social media, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent cultural movements, including the uprising to address police discrimination and violence. Given the complexity of the current environment and long-standing systemic inequities leading to more challenges for youth of color, young people need equitable access to supportive, caring adults and opportunities for meaningful community connections and engagement now more than ever.

These three indicators on community mentors, talking to parents and community service are part of a new large dataset on the KIDS COUNT Data Center describing youth and young adults ages 14 to 24. The dataset covers topics including demographics, employment, poverty, education, health, mental health and family and community factors. Learn more about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s increasing focus on this important population in the Thrive by 25 announcement.