All change for teenagers

Teenagers are in transition from childhood to the adult world and experiencing one of the major changes a person will ever face. All too often, those who have made that transition, whether long ago or more recently, forget what it was like and show little understanding of, and patience with, those who are currently experiencing that journey for themselves.

Everything changes

During the teenage years, literally everything changes. Some seem to experience the changes with few problems; whereas others hit problems and suffer enormously. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but to give a summary of some of the changes that occur during the formative teenage years.

  • Physical appearance. Compare a photo of yourself aged 13 with one aged 19 and note the difference. In some cases it’s difficult to believe you’re looking at the same person! But what you can see is only part of what changes – a boy’s voice, for example, changes completely too! Accepting, shaping or fighting physical changes occupies a lot of teenage attention.
  • Gender & Sexuality. Gender consciousness and increasing sexual awareness have a major impact for many teenagers.
  • Levels of responsibility. Increasingly, teenagers need to take on greater responsibility, owning the consequences of their decisions and actions.
  • Outlook on life. During the teenage years, personal values are often developed, either confirming or replacing the parental values embedded during childhood. This can be a major source of conflict within the family, especially if it includes the rejection of the family’s faith or cultural values.
  • Relationships. Family relationships can be transformed as the teenager moves away from parental control towards independence. Peer relationships often take on a much larger influence than previously. Intimate relationships grow in importance and are explored by many.
  • Education. The nature of education changes, becoming more competitive and laying the ground for choices regarding life’s direction.
  • Career aspirations. These develop for many during the teenage years, providing confirmation for some of a long-dreamed-of future, but opening up completely new horizons for others.

The above is the kind of list that provokes responses like, “I’m glad those days are past!” and “Thankfully, I won’t ever have to go through those times again!” Perhaps such expressions of relief give us a hint as to why those who have completed the journey to adulthood can demonstrate little patience with those still struggling through that time of tumultuous change.

Many of us prefer to leave the more painful memories behind of what it was like for us, but today’s teenagers are a constant reminder, and all the more sharp when they are within our own family or our classroom. Parents and teachers are the two groups of adults in positions to interact most with today’s teenagers. Their roles are different, but complementary, under the overall aim of helping teenagers reach the world of adulthood. How that happens will be different for every teenager, parent and teacher, but here are a few pointers that I hope will stimulate some helpful reflection.

Three Basic Tips for Parents

  1. Accept that your teenager experiences the world differently than you did. Not only is it true that no two people are the same, but the world has changed greatly since you were a teenager yourself. The pace and pressures of life have increased; the attitudes and values of society have changed; advances in technology have revolutionized the way life is experienced. Taking the time to find out what life feels like for your teenager could be a great eye-opener, and one that could change the quality of your relationship with them.
  2. Take the risk of letting them go. The process of letting go needs to be gradual and spread throughout the teenage years, but it needs to be real. Independence is learned by experience, and wise parents will take the risk of passing increasing amounts of responsibility to their teenagers so that when the time comes for them to leave home they’re ready to embrace the challenge. When they fall, help them recover, challenge them to learn from their mistakes, but resist the temptation to hold on to them more tightly.
  3. Allow them to experience the consequences of their own decisions and actions. When their decisions prove to be good, give them the credit. When things go awry, resist the urge to take over. It can be painful for a parent to watch and support while their teenager experiences the consequences of their chosen course of action that has gone pear-shaped. However, the parent who always jumps in and shelters their teenager perpetuates the view that we live in a world where there are no consequences, and that is a delusion.

Those who travel regularly know the importance of dressing for their destination. In the journey through teenage, it is the destination of adulthood that needs to be allowed to shape the journey since that is the best preparation for a safe arrival.

Three Basic Tips for Teachers

  1. Treat teenagers as adults; not as children. The caricature of a teacher may say, “I’ll treat you like adults when you behave like adults”. In reality, I suspect such an approach may have more to do with the insecurities of the teacher than anything else as it feels so much safer to assert control. However, treating teenagers like adults often elicits adult behaviour. This is an important way of helping to ensure that those on the teenage journey are dressed for their destination.
  2. Give genuine responsibility. The giving of responsibility to teenagers is vital to them learning how it is handled. From taking responsibility for their own learning to taking leadership responsibility within the school community, teenagers need to be trusted with responsibility. It takes considerable skill on the part of teachers to develop the ability to trust teenagers with real responsibility and to help them learn from all aspects of it. It takes tremendous resolve to resist the urge to grab that responsibility back again as soon as something seems not to be working out.
  3. Fulfil the role of a teacher. It is sometimes thought to be a shortcut to teenagers becoming adults if their teacher becomes like one of them. Such confusion of roles rarely results in anything good. Of course you should be friendly, but they need you to be their teacher so that they can learn from your greater perspective, expertise and example. Trying to become just another of their friends is to shortchange them. Furthermore, in the long-term, they can come to resent such a move as a mark of disrespect, or can use it to take advantage of their teacher.

For all who seek to engage with teenagers, the importance of reassurance and encouragement, alongside appropriate levels of challenge, cannot be over-emphasised. In the experience of many adults, reassurance, encouragement and challenge are significant aids to growth. To those going through the enormous changes of the teenage years, they can make all the difference. They can even be life-savers.

(The intention of this introductory blog has been to sketch out an overall picture. Many of the issues touched upon could form the subject of individual blog posts and will do over weeks to come.)

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