Adolescence is as much a perplexing time of life as it is an amazing one. Running roughly between the ages of twelve and twenty-four (yes, into our mid-twenties!), adolescence is known across cultures as a time of great challenge for both adolescents and the adults who support them. Because it can be so challenging for everyone involved, I hope to offer support to both sides of the generational divide. If you are an adolescent reading this book, it is my hope that it will help you make your way through the at times painful, at other times thrilling personal journey that is adolescence. If you are the parent of an adolescent, or a teacher, a counselor, an athletic coach, or a mentor who works with adolescents, my hope is that these explorations will help you help the adolescent in your life not just survive but thrive through this incredibly formative time.
Let me say from the very start that there are a lot of myths surrounding adolescence that science now clearly shows us are simply not true. And even worse than being wrong, these false beliefs can actually make life more difficult for adolescents and adults alike. So let’s bust these myths right now.
One of the most powerful myths surrounding adolescence is that raging hormones cause teenagers to “go mad” or “lose their minds.” That’s simply false. Hormones do increase during this period, but it is not the hormones that determine what goes on in adolescence. We now know that what adolescents experience is primarily the result of changes in the development of the brain. Knowing about these changes can help life flow more smoothly for you as an adolescent or for you as an adult with adolescents in your world.
Another myth is that adolescence is simply a time of immaturity and teens just need to “grow up.” With such a restricted view of the situation, it’s no surprise that adolescence is seen as something that everyone just needs to endure, to somehow survive and leave behind with as few battle scars as possible. Yes, being an adolescent can be confusing and terrifying, as so many things during this time are new and often intense. And for adults, what adolescents do may seem confounding and even senseless. Believe me, as the father of two adolescents, I know. The view that adolescence is something we all just need to endure is very limiting. To the contrary, adolescents don’t just need to survive adolescence; they can thrive because of this important period of their lives. What do I mean by this? A central idea that we’ll discuss is that, in very key ways, the “work” of adolescence—the testing of boundaries, the passion to explore what is unknown and exciting—can set the stage for the development of core character traits that will enable adolescents to go on to lead great lives of adventure and purpose.
A third myth is that growing up during adolescence requires moving from dependence on adults to total independence from them. While there is a natural and necessary push toward independence from the adults who raised us, adolescents still benefit from relationships with adults. The healthy move to adulthood is toward interdependence, not complete “do-it-yourself” isolation. The nature of the bonds that adolescents have with their parents as attachment figures changes, and friends become more important during this period. Ultimately, we learn to move from needing others’ care during childhood, to pushing away from our parents and other adults and leaning more on our peers during adolescence, to then both giving care and receiving help from others. That’s interdependence. In this book we’ll explore the nature of these attachments and how our need for close relationships continues throughout the life span.
When we get beyond the myths, we are able to see the real truths they mask, and life for adolescents, and the adults in their lives, gets a whole lot better.
Unfortunately, what others believe about us can shape how we see ourselves and how we behave. This is especially true when it comes to teens and how they “receive” commonly held negative attitudes that many adults project (whether directly or indirectly)—that teens are “out of control” or “lazy” or “unfocused.” Studies show that when teachers were told that certain students had “limited intelligence,” these students performed worse than other students whose teachers were not similarly informed. But when teachers were informed that these same students had exceptional abilities, the students showed marked improvement in their test scores. Adolescents who are absorbing negative messages about who they are and what is expected of them may sink to that level instead of realizing their true potential. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.” Adolescence is not a period of being “crazy” or “immature.” It is an essential time of emotional intensity, social engagement, and creativity. This is the essence of how we “ought” to be, of what we are capable of, and of what we need as individuals and as a human family.