Am I an Adult or Not? There’s More to Being a Teenager than Just Growing Up

September 17th, 2009

When someone asks Jennifer's mom how old her daughter is, she often replies with a smile, “She's 14…going on 24.” Apparently wise beyond her years, Jenn certainly looks older than her ninth-grade counterparts. She's already had two boyfriends and is intensely self-conscious about the way she looks. Make-up matters and the clothes she chooses blatantly accentuate her newly discovered sexuality. Most of the tension in Jenn's home results from her pursuit of independence and her parents' attempts to maintain some measure of control. There is a corner of Jennifer's life, however, that most people don't see. Back in her room, a large Barbie collection remains carefully guarded. When the door's closed, she loves to pull out the old coloring books and—with her 64 crayolas—bring her Saturday morning childhood friends to life. Pictures of kittens and puppies share the bulletin board with the latest boy bands and sit-com heartthrobs. When things don't go her way (and it seems like recently they don't), her temper tantrums resemble her preschool outbursts. Who is this schizoid creature that can switch between little girl and grown-up at will?

She's an adolescent. There are millions of Jennifers (and Jimmys) trying to figure out this tumultuous transition from childhood to adulthood. Is it possible that the way we've defined adolescence has made it tougher for kids to navigate this challenging journey? “No longer a child, but not yet an adult.” That's how most of us have come to understand adolescence‹but how do teens see themselves when they're defined by what they're not?

Erik Erikson, a key thinker in developmental psychology, suggests that the adolescent years contain the majority of kids' wrestling with their sense of self. According to Erikson, failure to accomplish a well-defined self-identity results in role confusion and creates an unstable foundation for adult relationships. He was definitely on to something. Now may be the time for us to rethink the way we define adolescence and consider more carefully how our definitions shape our work with students.

Global demographers are predicting that by the year 2010, there will be more than a half billion teenagers in the world‹and they'll represent the largest single consumer group for marketers to manipulate. In spite of the fact that adolescence is a relatively recent sociological phenomenon, it's become an increasingly significant factor in understanding our world. Teens are shaping the future of art, media, fashion, and technology with their unpredictable spontaneity and unquestionable creativity. When adults see them in their herds and clusters, they project an air of confidence that makes their ranks at times seem impenetrable. They look so urbane…so grown-up…so together.

But those of us who know and love kids have, at times, found ourselves welcomed behind those walls of protection that keep most adults‹even parents‹at a safe and comfortable distance. What we find is a picture far less sophisticated and refined than some might expect. Often, we see Jennifers who are as much children as adults. We sense the fear that comes with having to function like grown-ups when there's such a strong need to retain the safety of childhood.

Defining Adolescence

Look into a few developmental psychology textbooks, and you'll find definitions of adolescence that all have a similar ring. In the most basic terms, it's the phase between childhood and adulthood. That window has historically been equivalent to the teenage years; but with puberty arriving earlier and financial dependence lasting longer, it seems as though the length of adolescence is being stretched at both ends. All sorts of negative images have been conjured up to try to make sense of this developmental never-never land: the teenage werewolf who, suddenly and without warning, morphs from docile to demonic; the sweet little princess who switches to the role of the wicked witch overnight; the familiar advice from Mark Twain to lock them in a barrel and feed them through the plug hole until they finally grow up. Often, parents are advised to just hang on: Things may get worse before they get better, but we're all in this together…Ride it out like a hurricane; when the storm's over, maybe the sun will shine again. It's no wonder some parents rush their children through this phase of life.

In the previous images, childlikeness is viewed in negative terms‹like a dreaded disease to get over or a bad habit to break. “Why can't you just grow up,” parents lament, “stop acting like a baby.” I knew a17-year-old girl whose boyfriend unceremoniously dumped her the week of the prom, only to be chided by her dad when she cried over the loss: “The fact that you can't handle this is proof that you're not ready for a real relationship.” Sadly, adulthood is inadvertently painted for teens as the absence of emotion, the elimination of spontaneity, and the exclusion of wonder, fun, and laughter.

So what's the alternative? I'm convinced that instead of defining adolescence as being neither childhood nor adulthood, we must begin to see it as the wonderfully chaotic fusion of both. Perhaps one of the reasons we have so many dysfunctional adults in our culture is that they arrived at the end of their adolescence having “successfully” eliminated all the vestiges of their childhood. They forgot how to laugh, how to play, how to cry, and how to dance. During their adolescence, most of those wonderful components of healthy humanness were eradicated.

A redefinition of adolescence that includes room for some childlikeness will have advantages at every level of a person's life. “Unless you become like a child,” Jesus says, “you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Some qualities of childlikeness must be worth retaining. The very spiritual health of an individual seems to relate in some significant way related to “keeping the child alive.”

Which qualities of childlikeness, then, are to be protected in the journey to adulthood (or rediscovered if they've been lost)? Obviously, we're not talking about irresponsibility and lack of judgment In fact, Paul talks about the importance thinking like an adult in 1 Corinthians 13. Perhaps a short theoretical side trip would be helpful.

How Kids Think

Jean Piaget, accomplished French developmental theorist, has described the cognitive transitions that occur during adolescence as the implementation of “formal operations.” His concept has nothing to do black ties and tuxedos; instead it centers on the adolescent's emerging capacity to think abstractly. The defining characteristics of formal operations include:

  • The ability to process ideas, hypotheses, and concepts rather than only tangible facts. Kids particularly enjoy taking two competing ideas and letting them interact with each other. 
  • The ability to be introspective; analyzing one's own thought process. This allows kids to see themselves in the third person. It makes memories more readily available; but because of the subjectivity of such thinking, the perspectives are often distorted. 
  • The ability to think about possibilities at a more sophisticated level. Teens can think about things they've never experienced, both good and bad. 
  • The ability to think ahead and deal with hypothetical problems. Children tend to fear things they've experienced, while adolescents begin to fear things they can imagine. At times, this fear becomes the biggest single hurdle in allowing themselves to think formally.

How does all of this work out in the lives of our kids? Gradually, a whole new world is opening up to them‹and the trappings of that world are not always positive. With the ability to think in new and sophisticated ways comes a series of adult dilemmas:

  • Adolescents have the capacity to be disillusioned. “What if?” thinking becomes a normal part of their rational processes: “What if my parents never divorced?” “What if I made the cheerleading squad?” “What if my uncle hadn't abused me when I was little?” The possibilities are endless, and some of the potential answers and insights can be devastating. Often bitterness and cynicism are the end result of unresolved disillusionment. 
  • Adolescents gain the . They become sophisticated in their denial of reality and in manufacturing layers of deceit to hide behind. They see flaws and inconsistencies in their own lives and in the lives of people around them. The easiest way to deal with the dissonance is to deny that it exists. They become dishonest with themselves and with others.
  • The capacity to deny certain emotions is often used to survive difficult relational circumstances. Painful experiences are accompanied by negative feelings that may be frightening because they create the anxiety of lost control. When we ask an adolescent how she feels, and the answer is, “I dunno,” she may very well be telling the truth. 
  • Because failure can be imagined, the capacity to avoid responsibility and commitment becomes a valuable tool for survival. “If I don't try it,” they speculate, “I can't screw it up.” Procrastination can be deeply rooted in either a fear of failure or in a fear of success with its raised expectations and increased pressure to perform.
  • The capacity toward self-consciousness, self-centeredness, and self-reliance is rooted in the basic human predisposition toward pride, arrogance, and independence. Adolescents are often absorbed with themselves, guessing what others are thinking, anticipating what others will say or do, and convinced that the world revolves around their experience. 
  • Perhaps the subtlest yet most powerful implication of the shift to adult thinking is the capacity to be profoundly influenced by negative images that help adolescents make sense of childhood experiences. Now that they're able to process memories of events from the safer vantage point of a “third person,” they're also able to view their life history in a whole new way. To make sense of the painful experiences, most adolescents begin to describe themselves in remarkably self-deprecating terms. “I'm nothing but a filthy, disgusting, discarded rag,” one 15-year-old sexual abuse victim told me. A 17-year-old son of an alcoholic described himself as a bag of trash. These images become the framework within which adolescents learn to live out their lives and relationships.

Putting the Brakes on Growing Up

As we review these new capacities that come with adolescence, we see a potentially dismal‹but all-too-familiar‹picture: disillusionment and bitterness, dishonesty, deceit and denial, fear of failure, self-centeredness, pride and autonomy, and a distorted sense of self that hides behind carefully manufactured masks. Sadly, it describes many adults who've left adolescence with this smorgasbord of dysfunction deeply entrenched.

We return to the simple words of Jesus: “Unless you become like a childº” How could becoming like a child change the picture? Jesus' words are spoken in response to a question that posed by the disciples (Matthew 18). They argued about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and they wanted Jesus to settle the argument once and for all. In his typically cryptic way, Jesus recruits an object lesson in the form of a child who'd been playing nearby. “This is what you need to aspire to,” he tells them. The disciples saw success purely in terms of power, control, and position‹but Jesus reminds them that true greatness is found in humility, dependence, and simplicity.

The adult predisposition to disillusionment and despair is balanced by a childlike hope and confidence in one who can be trusted. Deceit and denial are kept in check by a simple commitment to honesty. A willingness to acknowledge and embrace emotions, even those that are unpleasant, leads to a deepening sense of healthy dependence. Instead of choosing a safe middle ground for fear of failure or success, children try new experiences, take risks, and embark on adventures, even though they may not be able to predict the end of the story. This is an approach to life worth calling people to. Arrogance is replaced with humility‹a simple acknowledgement that one cannot control the outcome of every circumstance and situation. Even the sometimes elusive images of family, royalty, and intimacy we're asked to imagine can become reality when we read the Scripture with childlike eyes of faith.

Tragic, indeed, would be our young people's futures if those of us in youth ministry sought to eliminate all their childlike qualities. Instead we must nurture these fragile characteristics and celebrate the kind of childlikeness Jesus was talking about. Here are some practical steps we can take in our work with students that can help facilitate this kind of balance:

1. Change the way you view the adolescent journey. If you've bought into the standard definition, “no longer a child, but not yet an adult,” with its underlying agenda of eliminating all evidence of childlikeness, let me encourage you to begin looking at the adolescents around you as both rather than neither. It will make sense of some of the inconsistencies you see and solve many of the mysteries that can make teens so hard to understand.

2. Be trustworthy in your relationships with kids. The only way that they'll be able to take the risks necessary to stay soft and humble is if they're in relationships that don't take advantage of their vulnerability. The assumption that comes with a healthy childhood is the existence of a safe place to experience it. Provide your students with that kind of safety.

3. Leave plenty of room in your program for laughter, play, spontaneity, and surprises. Create a ministry framework filled with opportunities for kids to be kids. Most of them live in highly structured and intensely demanding worlds that force them to discard their childhood long before they're ready. Just keep in mind that there's a huge difference between child-ish and child-like. I'm not advocating a program of frivolous immaturity that will cause the solid kids to run; it's a balance that may take a bit of time to achieve.

4. Be especially sensitive to kids who fear taking on adult responsibility  especially those who've been wounded. For them, the cautious forays they make into the adult world seem as risky as any space walk ever attempted. Be patient as they repeatedly scurry back to the safety of straight-line childish thinking. If we help them realize that some components of their “child-world” can be legitimately brought into the “adult-world,” the transition may not seem as daunting.

After living in the world of adolescents as long as I have, I've come to realize that staying healthy and balanced isn't as easy as I once thought. I'm spending so much time with broken kids from broken relationships living with broken promises that I find myself becoming a little jaded. I don't laugh as easily as I used to. I often find myself overlooking the mischievous twinkle in the eye of a healthy junior higher and seeing only the hollowness of the kid standing next to him. I need to rediscover the joy and wonder of my own childhood. I need to stop and enjoy the miracle of the sunset, to take the time to be fascinated by the busy bug on the flower, and to rediscover the wonder of what it means to be me. The only place I can be a kid again is in the presence of my Heavenly Father.

Certainly, working with kids in the midst of these transitions can be chaotic, unpredictable, and even relationally dangerous at times; but for those of us who love them, nothing brings more satisfaction than living with them through all the confusion and sharing experiences that will eventually allow them to emerge as healthy, balanced adults.

(Two books we recommend are David Elkind's All Grown Up and No Place to Go (Addison-Wesley, 1998), and Mike Yaconelli's Dangerous Wonder, (NavPress, 1998).

©2005 Youth Specialties

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