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When Mattering Really Matters

March 2, 2021
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We talk with adolescent climate activist Jayden Foytlin, Cornell Professor Anthony Burrow, and San Francisco youth making a difference for their peers about the hunger to matter during adolescence, and how adults can support youth to develop a sense of purpose that can carry through for a lifetime.


Ron Dahl We all like to feel respected and admired, but most of us can remember a period in our own adolescence when wanting to matter—to our peers, families, or to the wider world—became more compelling. When mattering really mattered.

Brendan When you’re a kid, you don’t really feel like you’re doing a whole lot to help the world.

Ron Dahl This natural desire to feel admired, respected, and valued increases in the adolescent years, as does our aversion to being diminished, disrespected, or ignored. This attention to mattering during this developmental period is sometimes judged as selfish or self-centered. Yet, these powerful feelings are actually part of an adaptive learning system, one that can motivate youth to contribute to the people and world around them.

Sophia People are actually listening to us. and that means a lot as someone who’s low income. I feel like my voice really matters now.

Ron Dahl I’m Ron Dahl, founding director of the Center for the Developing Adolescent, and this is Adaptivity, where we explore the science of adolescence, untangling misconceptions about the years between childhood and adulthood. We explore new insights into the rapid cognitive, emotional, and social changes that happen during these years, and how the developing adolescent brain is primed to promote healthy and adaptive learning.

On this episode of Adaptivity, we’re talking about the importance of mattering during adolescence.

As we develop, often beginning in early adolescence, particularly by the middle school years, the importance of feeling like we matter becomes amplified.

We tend to become more self-conscious. We become more sensitive to being left out and easily humiliated but also thrilled by social success. And it isn’t simply about being popular. It’s about motivation, a natural hunger for social value.

Hormones that increase during puberty cause some of our neural systems to become more sensitive to social evaluation. We take things very personally. Words or behaviors that tell us we don’t matter very much can evoke powerful negative feelings.

When we’re going through this period of development there are many factors that can stir up feelings of uncertainty and insecurity about whether we really matter in the larger scheme of things. And this is further compounded for young people facing racism, bias, and other forms of discrimination.

Without messages that we matter or positive avenues to earn prestige and respect, the negative feelings from being ignored, rejected, diminished, put down, or discriminated against can be damaging to our developing sense of self. This can drive us toward reckless or destructive behavior, perhaps as part of a desperate need to feel as though we have some impact on something.

Yet the intense emotions related to this increased sensitivity can also energize and motivate us to learn healthy ways to matter by contributing, in meaningful ways, to family, friends, the community, or the world.

Jayden Foytlin I think for me, it was definitely seeing the changes in Louisiana and how much change even a small voice of like a teenage girl can do for your community.

Ron Dahl Seventeen-year-old Jayden Foytlin is a climate activist who joined a lawsuit against the U.S. federal government alleging violation of young people’s rights to a livable planet by its policies promoting the use of fossil fuels. She did this when she was just 12 years old and living in Louisiana. Jayden also spent time protesting a pipeline being built through southern Louisiana and its wetlands, designed to bring Dakota access crude to the Gulf Coast.

Jayden, thanks so much for joining us here on Adaptivity.

Let’s start with how you got involved in activism. I’d love to hear you share some of your reflections on the feelings that motivated you, that pulled you to this, that drew you to take on some of these really important issues.

Jayden Foytlin I’ve been a child/youth activist since I was 11 years old. It first-off started in Southwest Louisiana, which is where I’m originally from. We faced a lot of climate disasters like the BP oil spill and what happened after that.

I just saw what was happening in my community. I saw what was happening to the wetlands in Louisiana. And I saw how, with the flood in 2016, my house had half a foot of floodwater going through it. I saw how it ruined my brother’s toys. I saw how it ruined some of the furniture in my house. I saw how it ruined my own belongings.

Ron Dahl The 2016 Louisiana floods that devastated your home lasted 10 days and killed 13 people. That’s a lot to experience when you’re 11.

A lot of times when people have bad feelings, they tend to avoid or pull back. But you engaged with the feelings. What made you feel pulled toward them and wanting to do something?

Jayden Foytlin I think, honestly, what made me strive to, like, learn more about it and what pushed me to do that was the fact that I did feel defeated and I did feel like I couldn’t do anything. and I did feel sad. I was so sad. I remember seeing that and thinking this is what Louisiana has come to and what it’s going to continue to be like when I grow up.

I just couldn’t stand feeling helpless anymore. I just had to do something about it.

Ron Dahl How did the feelings change as you became an activist?

Jayden Foytlin It started off with such grief and such sadness for southwest Louisiana, but then it turned into, like, happiness and relief because I saw how many people actually stood up and how many people actually stood up for me. It went from grief and sadness to just pure joy. I feel like that’s, that really made me realize who I am today and what I stand for and what I want to continue to stand for.

Ron Dahl What advice would you give to other young people who are facing challenges, who want to make a difference, but who are still feeling that helplessness that you described?

Jayden Foytlin You are definitely allowed to be upset. It’s OK to cry. But as soon as you’re OK, as soon as you’re done crying, do not let that stop you. If you know what you’re doing is correct and you know that you have a passion for it, all I can say is just push through.

Ron Dahl One of the things that we are really interested in is that all of us in many ways want to matter, and I think particularly in key times in our youth, the feeling of mattering is so important and valuable. And when you put in that kind of effort to overcome those difficult feelings and then it was joyful and had an impact, did that help you feel like you mattered?

Jayden Foytlin I feel like it definitely made me feel like I mattered. It really pushed me to become more confident about myself because I was a very shy, timid little girl. You could ask anybody in my family. I would like, hide behind my mom, even at 12, you know. And it made me feel like I was allowed to express myself, and it made me feel like I could open up in that way, and it made me realize how much of this has grown into my personality, and how much this has made me grow as a person.

Ron Dahl You identify as Diné or Navajo, and this is another important part of your identity. Do you think other young people in indigenous communities struggle to find messages that they matter when they’re 11 or 12 years old?

Jayden Foytlin I feel like especially in indigenous communities, they’re always told that, like our voice doesn’t matter, that nobody cares, especially those in the rez [reservation]. We really felt, like, silenced out, like native children, native kids a lot of times feel like they don’t really have that place to grow, to be better, and be who they want to be.

Ron Dahl When you are part of a community that you feel is not getting respect, helping the community recognize they can have a voice and be effective is so important. That must have been really powerful for you. Can you remember specific moments when you felt really strongly that you do matter?

Jayden Foytlin If you’re talking about a moment that has happened, I feel like my Aunt Wenea, she isn’t my actual auntie, but we call her, I call her my auntie because of what she has done for me. I remember one of my first-ever marches with her. She always took care of me, she always made sure I had water. She always, she handed me the megaphone. She let me talk. She let me, she told me to just let my heart out. It made me feel like I had a purpose and made me feel like I had a voice, even though I was growing in a really poor community.

Knowing that the Bayou Bridge Pipeline was going to be set only seven miles away from my house had put me in so much grief that I just didn’t even feel like fighting anymore. I just felt so, so destroyed. I didn’t sit around. I did as much as I could for my community. There was blockades and there was like people even putting their bodies on the line to stop the pipeline. It still got put in, but knowing that we took up that space and they were first to hear us and they were first to stop, really filled me with passion.

I think as I move this forward, I’m still going to forever be an activist. I plan to do environmental science and learn way more about climate science so I can have a deeper understanding; if there is something to fight for, I’m going to be there.

Ron Dahl Jayden isn’t the only young person whose personal challenges led to a sense of purpose. San Francisco high school students Lana Nguyen and Susanna Lau, both 17, co-founded an organization called Supply Hope Info, inspired by their experiences of needing help to afford school supplies. They have raised more than $37,000 in donations and distributed supplies to more than 1,400 students around California.

We talked to Lana from her family’s studio apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, an area with one of the highest poverty rates in the Bay Area, that is home to hundreds of low-income and immigrant families and as many as 3,000 children.

Lana Nguyen Supply Hope Info was started by my co-founder and I—so Susanna Lau and me. And we just got together one day and decided that we are seeing a lot of educational disparities, especially heightened from the pandemic, and we also had experiences of being low income and also not having these supplies once before. And at this time it was very crucial and we wanted to make a change within our community.

Ron Dahl Susanna and her friend Sophia Hernandez also talked about the project at Balboa Park in the city.

Susanna Lau It feels very rewarding, and I feel like I’m almost like giving back to the community because I’ve had similar experiences, probably just like other low-income students. So I feel more in tune or connected with the low-income community because I’ve been able to help other students that are also part of this community.

Sophia Hernandez People are actually listening to us, and that means a lot as someone who’s low income. I feel like my voice really matters now. I’ve always been super timid and really reserved, so it’s kind of showed me that I can sort of speak up and make a difference in my community and I’m capable of that. And so I think it’s really helped me get out of my shell. I definitely feel good. It’s sort of like a full-circle moment, I guess, because, you know, like as a low-income student and then I get to help other people that are also in need, so it’s like I’m also helping them while helping myself, you get what I mean?

Ron Dahl Their example inspired 14-year-old Brendan Cunningham to reach out to his school and other schools to try and help Susanna and Lana.

Brendan Cunningham I got really inspired by what they had done, and so I decided to write an email to them asking what I could do to help. And then from there, I went on and wrote an email to my school, and I’ve emailed a couple of other schools, private schools in the Bay Area, to try to see if they want to help with this.

Ron Dahl Giving school supplies to low-income students gave Susanna insight into her own interests, goals, and potential.

Susanna Lau I think that Supply Hope really made me think about, like, different pathways I can take in my life. Like, for example, I realize that I’m, like, super passionate about helping students and just education in general. I think that a sense of purpose is also finding something that you’re passionate about, but also being able to, like, help out the community.

Ron Dahl To find out more about how this pull to feel like we matter can motivate us to help others and even evolve into a larger sense of purpose, I spoke with professor Anthony Burrow.

Anthony (Tony) Burrow I’m Tony Burrow. I’m a faculty member in the Department of Human Development at Cornell University.

Ron Dahl Tony’s also a member of the Center for the Developing Adolescent’s National Scientific Council. One of the things he studies at Cornell, among other facets of adolescent development, focuses on purpose, especially for youth who have experienced marginalization.

Anthony Burrow So purpose—what it is may depend heavily on who you ask, but I think where there’s some convergence is that purpose is a forward-looking life aim. It is a forward, in-front-of-you gaze directing your behaviors, your thoughts, and the resources that you have available to allocate.

Ron Dahl There are real benefits to feeling a sense of purpose, especially during the often intense highs and lows of the adolescent years, when we can feel grandiose one moment, and painfully diminished a few minutes later.

Anthony Burrow One of the interesting insights around purpose, particularly youth purpose, is that it appears that purpose helps people persist longer, affectively, cognitively, behaviorally, in the context of stress. Where people actually report challenge, purposeful youth seem to be able to persist in those environments like the rest of us would if there was no challenge. They say, “You know what? Where I’m going is so far beyond this particular moment, I can think my way around this.” And you can see the adaptive nature of that.

The same thing works on the positive side. So when people are experiencing uplifts, on days when they experience an abundance of really good conversation, to get invited to the party, they’re told that, “Hey, that’s a really nice shirt you’re wearing.” Purposeful youth actually don’t react as extreme in terms of as positive as youth who score lower on measures of felt sense of purpose in life. A sense of purpose is an internalized narrative, is the “I’m good no matter if you like my shirt or not.” And that’s the real power of this internalized, prospective view that purpose affords, is it helps you feel less contingent on the world around you. You know where you’re going. You’ve got your eye on the prize. What’s happening day-to-day for the better or for the worse is not actually derailing your path.

Ron Dahl A sense of purpose can be an especially important asset for young people who don’t typically get societal messages that they matter, such as those facing racism or whose families are struggling financially, like Lana and Susanna, or like Jayden, living in poorer communities facing environmental justice issues like disproportionate impacts from climate change.

Anthony Burrow I think having a sense of purpose, like any other resource, a lot of money, an abundance of rest, energy, is good for whoever has it. But for people for whom their environment is constantly excluding them, taxing them, asking of them, ignoring them, harming them, threatening them, all of the threats that we may think of accumulating for some youth, it’s there where an abundance of a single resource could be really, really helpful. You can imagine why having access to some, to a renewable resource like a sense of purpose in life, could be hugely beneficial, because you’re going to need it.

Ron Dahl So a sense of purpose helps youth persist through challenge. But also, when young people are able to persist through challenge, especially if they feel that they’ve contributed something through their perseverance, their sense of purpose increases. This is one of those positive spirals of adolescent development.

We can’t give a sense of purpose to a young person; but maybe there are ways that we, as caring adults, can support youth not by preventing their struggles, but rather by helping them persist through those struggles to discover the joy and feelings of purpose.

Tony, you work with 4-H, one of the largest youth development and mentorship organizations in the country, running programs for more than 6 million young people in rural, urban, and suburban areas. Any insights from your work with them about how adults can support young people in finding a sense of purpose?

Anthony Burrow Where my work has sort of run into this is in a 4-H program is built around brief but meaningful educational opportunities. So young people learn about sustainability, they learn about energy, they learn about food deserts, they learn about tech coding.

And some of the kids are really engaged, but many may not be. And so what we’ve done is we’ve worked with 4-H to engage youth around their sense of purpose, sometimes just measuring it as a sense and looking at, well, who in this room really feels a strong sense of purpose? Other times we engage with the content, we ask young people to write about their sense of purpose for just five or ten minutes.

And so the benefit there is by first asking the question, it’s a mindset shift: “Who are you? What are you trying to accomplish here? What direction are you heading in?” Now you can tailor and fashion an entire program to be aligned with what that young person wants to do in the world, their sense of contribution.

In a way, one way of understanding it is, how can we build scaffolds that help young people make those connections? Oftentimes we know left to our own devices, we don’t build many of those opportunities for young people to see their impact. In fact, we say, wait a little bit. You have to be this age. You have to have this particular competency before you’re able to go out in the world and do this.

So do you have a teacher who’s written you a note? Do you have a parent who said, I think you can actually do this up here? Without those things, you may fail to meet the connections or draw connections about your role in the world, but with them, my goodness, you might be empowered to actually go out and do the things you’re setting out to do.

Ron Dahl Yes, and that brings up the point that it’s not simply empowering adolescents or granting them a moment of recognition, it’s about them earning it. Perhaps they have to experience the emotional ups and downs and persist through the challenges they face. It’s not just the positive experience of being affirmed or empowered, it’s about doing this in a way that gets recognized authentically for the effort and success through their perseverance.

Anthony Burrow It’s not simply about helping young people feel better all of the time or removing obstacles or barriers. It’s about putting people perhaps in safer, safeguarded, scaffolded experiences that help them draw meaningful connections that we know you’re going to encounter out there. And when you do, this isn’t your first rodeo. This isn’t the first time you’ve seen this. You have the muscle memory. “Wait, I know that I can show up in this particular moment. I may be feeling down now, that’s a part of life. But I also, that’s also evidence that I may not always feel this way and I can become a co-conspirator in making sure I feel better the next time or helping other people get through what they’re going through.”

Whatever way this can happen, it seems like we would do well to recruit from young people questions about who they are, what they want to do.

It doesn’t mean that it’s all, that they’re going to win as a result. It doesn’t mean you make their path easier, but you’ve allowed them to participate in the construction of the road that you’re asking them to eventually walk on. And I think that there’s … whatever role people will play, if you’re a teacher, do students get to create the assignments? If you’re a parent, what about the policies and rules of the household? Do young people, are they invited to show up?

Ask them and then build experiences that are based upon those things and use that as a context for learning, and a context for engagement, and a context for driving policy, because I think if we do that, we’ve invited really innovative thinkers to potentially make those connections that we were just talking about.

Ron Dahl Thank you so much, Tony. This has been an amazing discussion. There are so many valuable contributions about these important issues. We are so deeply appreciative.

Anthony Burrow Well, thank you for the invitation. This is an important and fun conversation to be a part of.

Ron Dahl Why does this appetite for wanting to matter increase in adolescence? It’s a bit like the increase in our appetite for food during the pubertal growth spurt. In this case, it is our sense of self that is growing, our sense of self in relation to others we care about. Our sense of self grows larger through our actions—when we give, when we contribute, when we care, when we connect to a heartfelt cause or goal, when we have the thrilling experience of others looking up to us and standing with us, because we are contributing, even in small, humble ways, to something larger than ourselves.

As Jayden and Tony described, these learning experiences increase our capacity to persevere when we might otherwise give up, or feel hopeless, or diminished, as though we don’t matter. But these experiences are not only building our resilience, they’re also shaping our individual identity and personal goals in specific ways.

On the one hand, the aversion to being put down or rejected or ignored is part of the reason it can be so painful to navigate the early stages of adolescence. Without opportunities and support to contribute in ways that are recognized, a hunger to matter may lead some young people to behave in reckless or harmful ways, perhaps to feel like they matter to someone.

On the other hand, the emotional dynamics of feelings like sadness and frustration and struggle that can occur in the face of challenge can become woven together through success in persevering, to powerfully positive feelings. Together these can develop into strong motivations for healthy, adaptive learning about how to matter in positive ways, contributing to family, friends, or larger causes that affect the wider community.

Our job as adults is to ensure that these positive opportunities to learn healthy ways to matter by making real contributions that are recognized are available to young people most in need of these experiences. We need to support them by asking what gives them a sense of purpose, and to show by our actions and words that their answers—and their actions—matter to us.

We can’t hand young people a sense of purpose, but we can help them build their own sense of mattering that can help them persevere through dark times in their own lives and be part of larger solutions to the challenges facing our fragile planet.

You’ve heard how Jayden, Susanna, Sophia, Lana, and Brendan found ways to matter, and you’ve heard about some ways adults can work to help inspire young people to find their purpose.

What can you do today, this week, and in the coming year, to help the young people in your life feel like they matter?

I’m Ron Dahl, thanks for joining us on Adaptivity.

If you’d like to learn more about the science of adolescence, visit us at Share your thoughts by emailing us at or using the hashtag #adaptivitypod.

Our podcast is produced at UC Berkeley for the Center for the Developing Adolescent. Our senior producer is Polly Stryker. Our producer is Meghan Lynch Forder. Shuka Kalantari is our consulting producer. Our engineer is Rob Speight.


​Additional resources:

The Development of Purpose in Life Among Adolescents Who Experience Marginalization: Potential Opportunities and Obstacles,” by Rachel Sumner, Anthony Burrow, and Patrick Hill

This episode of Adaptivity features the following songs:

  • “The Offensive Line” by Alex Gross
  • “Calling” (Instrumental) by Dexter Britain
  • “Interest” by Ketsa
  • “Buffering” by Tiny Music for Tiny Robots
  • “Lullaby for a Broken Circuit” by Tiny Music for Tiny Robots

All available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

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