Archive for July, 2009

I’ve been thinking about adolescence

July 4, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the Christian community views:


In the course of my counseling practice, I have observed that we believers do not, in general, do a good job in regards to adolescent rebellion, and I wonder what that is about. I invite input from any readers who might care to weigh in.

We tend to either write off adolescence as a time of miserable rebellion to be endured by both the adolescent and those around him or her, or else a time of hedonistic indulgence to be winked at and ignored, because adulthood and sober living is coming (fast). Or, we adults see our adolescents as overgrown children whom we need to “herd” into appropriate behavior. I say that none of these is the case.

Adolescence does, indeed, have its share of misery and rebellion. But both misery and rebellion appear to be logical parts of the dismantling and reassembling process that are necessary and normal adolescent developmental phase tasks. They are not characteristics of an age bracket that we must merely grit our teeth and endure. Rather, they are vital facets of a job that teenagers must complete in order to become balanced, healthy, happy, and productive adults.

There are no two adults who see exactly eye-to-eye on all issues, down the line. My husband and I agree pretty closely on most things that are really important in life. If we hadn’t, I doubt that we’d have been all that interested in each other, and happily married now. But there are things that we will never agree on. These most notably fall into the category of gender differences. He doesn’t understand the tender, exhausting joy of midnight breastfeeding; I can’t grasp the deep elation of defeating the other guy at the latest contest. And there are basic personality differences, as well. I’m a detail person. I’m fascinated by the shape, color, texture, and design of the bark on the tree. He’s a big picture person. He sees the beauty and the possibility of the forest’s vastness. The point is that all individuals are unique and wonderful in and of themselves. Adolescents are no different. And the adolescent developmental experience, although it has many things that are pretty common from person to person, is still distinct to each individual.

What I’m saying is that adolescents have a job to do, and the misery and rebellion are tools with which they do that job. As the adults around them, it’s our responsibility to help them with their job. While our kids are little, we train them with the values we embrace. We teach them basic morality, personal, social, and familial values. If they don’t meet our expectations, we guide them back into the flow of those expectations. This is what we refer to as discipline. By this process we teach them what is important in life, and we give them the basic building blocks for successful and God-honoring living. In a sense, we “herd” them in the direction that we see life pointing. It’s an external directive process. The goal is to move that motivation from outside the child to inside as they mature. Think of it in terms of a Lego toy. I give my child a plastic block car to play with. It’s made up of red, blue, yellow, and white blocks. If he continues to play with it as it is, year after year, I wonder where his imagination is. Why isn’t he taking it apart and reassembling it? But if he takes it apart and makes something different, or even better, I’m gratified, and even proud of him for his creativity. The blocks are the same. They’re just arranged differently. This is what adolescents are doing; they’re taking the blocks we gave them and arranging them to look like their own design. It won’t look like ours. But that doesn’t make it wrong. It might even be better than what we could have imagined.

By nature, teenagers look around them and examine what others are doing. They find the observed behavior as either intriguing and mimic it (typical of peer pressure), or repulsive and shun it (rebellion, usually toward adults). This is the process of dismantling and reassembling that we refer to as adolescence. It’s a trial-and-error means of arriving at their own design. If we have appropriately done our job as parent when they were little, they have the blocks they need to achieve the goal relatively intact, and we now have a different job, that of leading and guiding rather than ordering and directing.

What is it that provides the motivation for dismantling the block toy we gave them and assembling something that is truly theirs? Curiosity is part of it. But there needs to be an even more powerful motivation, or they end up merely being inquisitive, without action and therefore with no results. Remember, the motivation has to be moved from external to internal or an individual will always need someone telling them what to do, taking action for them. It takes something even more powerful than curiosity to bring that about. There needs to be a passion that makes the blocks into a personal thing. This is where the misery and rebellion come in. It can be seen as a source of power that propels the adolescent into adulthood. As such, it is not merely a state to be endured. It is a resource to be harnessed toward the goal of balanced maturity.

More to follow. . .

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July 4, 2009

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