Teen Culture – Helping Our Teens Thrive p. 2

“When I reach down into my inner being trying to grasp hold of who I am, many times I find myself dipping into an empty abyss.  I’m not saying I find my life insignificant.  Rather, I feel like is a competition, one that forces me to be someone I’m not.  In high school, everyone hides behind masks of insecurity trying desperately to be cool, leaving the search for true friends a long and bumpy road.”[1]

As we continue to talk about Adolescent culture, another major shift happening among teens is the increasing feeling of loneliness.  More and more teens feel isolated from adults and one another.  Instead of searching for adult relationships teens have pushed further away from adults and rebuff superficial advances of adults for relationships.  They have turned inward among their peers looking for advice and wisdom to navigate the dangerous waters of teen adolescence.  There are at least three shifts adults can make to counteract this shift.

1)  Adolescence lasts longer, it is a marathon.  Thirty to Forty years ago teens were considered adults at the age of 18 and were expected to pretty much have there life together.  Kara Powell, an adolescent researcher, has said 23 is the new 17.[2]  She, along with most researcher in the field, recognize the protracted adolescent time frame.  Teens are taking longer and longer to grow up and launch into life.  This is not necessarily their fault.  They are only a product of their culture.  It is unfair to expect teens to have everything figured out at 18 years old.  Some teens do, they are the outliers, but that is not the norm. 

An aside:  When we say teens are taking longer to grow up, we are not saying, “They don’t make them like they used to,” or “They just need to try harder and then they will grow up.”  Our culture has altered the growing up process and it just does not happen like it used to.  For example, puberty for girls is starting around the age of 10 that is five years earlier than a century ago.[3]  But while puberty starts sooner there is a growing body of evidence that brain development is much slower.  Teens are self-centered and are not able to think abstractly because their brain does not have as much of the fatty coating called myelin in their brain.  This causes them to not think about effects of their behavior on other people. 

Also, not only is physiological changes different, there are many social changes that slow teens growing into adulthood.  Adulthood happens when a person is able to think reasonably and rationally and are able to provide for themselves.  This is called individuation.  For a person to be able to do this they need a stable environment with adults who model this behavior for them.  However, as our culture and adult schedules have gotten more chaotic teens have not had the emotional support or stable environment in which to develop.  It is this idea of a plant needs good soil and the proper food to make it grow.  However, our culture (the soil) and adult teen interaction (the food) have radically changed in the past 50 years so teens are taking longer to sprout.

This means 2 things.  As parents we must realize that our job is not complete when they graduate high school.  These teens still need help and guidance well past their 18th birthday.  We don’t tell them what to do, but they still need hands on help and support because an 18 year olds brain is literally not as developed as the brain of an 18 year old 50 years ago.

Also, it means just because a teen fresh out of high school doesn’t know their major in college or what field they want to work in does not mean they have “failed to launch.”  Teens are taking longer to figure out what they want to do in life and what type of job they want to have.  Parents need to be patient and realize this is normative.  It doesn’t mean we let them live in our basement till they are 40, but we realize adolescents across the board are taking longer to figure out life.

2)  We can’t be thrown off by conflict.  While conflict is inevitable, we have to balance our nagging and wagging finger with fun and friendship.  If parents want to be available to their teens they can’t be seen as primarily the kill joy, the one always getting on to their teen.  Sometimes we have to table a point of conflict or put aside a difference for a time to have fun and spend quality time together.  Building relational capital is paramount to be able to speak effectively in the life of a teen.

3)  Parents have to strive to understand their world, this leads to rules and boundaries.  If we want to reach our teens we have to enter their world.  It is impossible to empathize with them when we don’t understand what is going on in their life.  We have to walk with them daily, ask the hard questions, put down our phone and listen to them, and make our time purposeful.  Knowing their world is not a trump card we use but it changes the way we interact with them, understand their problems, and work through conflict with them.

Boundaries must be set to help them from making poor choices that will lead them to further bad decisions.  But, when we understand their world it helps us to understand where the boundaries should go and what they should look like. 


[1] Hurt 2.0, Chap Clark, 55.

[2] Growing With, Kara Powell.

[3] https://www.sciencealert.com/girls-are-going-through-puberty-earlier-than-ever-before-with-long-term-effects

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