The Three Goals of Adolescence and What Parents Can Do for Their Teen
Each Teenager is a Unique Flower, but the Goals of Adolescence are not Unique to Them
Let me get this out of the way. I am not, and have never been the parent of a teenager. I will never claim to speak from experience or what it is like to be the parent of a teenager who lives in my house. I learn from parents regularly about what that experience is like. I sometimes say that I am "sympathetic, but I am not empathetic."
What I am able to offer is a broad experience interacting with thousands of teenagers, combined with a top-fight education on adolescence. And, what I've learned is that while each teenager is a unique special flower who needs personalized attention and care, the goals of this stage of life share some common characteristics across region and context. As a parent, you can help your teenager accomplish these goals, tailor-maid in your situation. When I meet with parents I describe these goals of adolescence as three questions teenagers need answers to. I didn't invent these, I'm just describing them to you.
The Three Questions or Goals of Adolescence
The question of Identity: Who am I?
- The question of Affinity: Where do I belong?
- The question of Autonomy: Do my choices matter?
Let's discuss these questions in more detail and what you can do in assisting your teenager in answering these questions.
Help your teenager answer these three questions
But don't answer the questions for them!
Question 1: Identity
Perhaps the most well-known task of adolescence is that of identification. Teenagers are beginning to individuate themselves from their parents. This means they are wondering who they are apart from mom and dad. This can be scary to parents, as you will always see them as your children. In my experience, you can rest assured that your teenagers will always see themselves as your kids. They just also want to know who they are apart from that.
This can be a frustrating process for parents, as your teenager seeks to find out who they are, you may feel like you don't know who they are either. Each time your child seems to settle on something, you feel like progress in your relationship has been made. Then they decide that's not for them anymore and you feel like you went backwards! I remember working with one family, whose teenage son would spend about 2 weeks on different sports teams and extracurricular activities before moving on to something else. Football, choir, boys & girls club, and more. It was several months before he settled into volleyball for a longer session.
The search for identity is like trying on different hats. Each hat is an identity. Your student may try on several hats over the course of adolescence. They may wear that hat for a season before deciding to try a different hat. As a parent, you can give them opportunities to try several hats. You can encourage them to give each hat an honest effort. You can direct them towards hats that you think match them (but be careful). But you cannot pick the hat for them. One of the goals of adolescence is for a teenager/emerging adult to be able to self-identify who they are.
As much as you might want to
You cannot pick your teenagers identity for them
Question 2: Affinity
The Allure of Gangs
The drive to find belonging is so strong that it can obscure the drive for identity. Adolescents may find that they choose an identity that helps them feel like they belong somewhere. I saw this up close partnering with a gangland ministry in Southern California. Besides not seeing an alternative, belonging drove kids to make choices and choose an identity that older loved ones would not have chosen for them. The gangland ministry I got to see helped students see they could belong in a college classroom, they could belong in a legitimate job. They could belong in mainstream society. The problem they had to solve was a problem of belonging.
Some parents will struggle with this stage as the types of groups you can belong to have shifted over the decades. As someone on the tail-end of one generation, I remember my friends in childhood being the friends within walking distance of my house. Nowadays, teenagers may feel affinity with friends on Xbox-live who they have never met in person. I've talked with countless parents who can't relate to this new affinity that teenagers may feel.
School social structures have also flattened. In the 70's para-church youth organizations would go after the high school quarterback, knowing that if they could bring him in, much of the school would follow. Today it is just as "in" to be part of a gaming community, musical theater, arts, math or chess club as it is to be on the varsity football team in many schools across the country. This means students may feel less pressure to belong to traditional groups of yesteryear. They may seek to belong to groups that mom and dad struggle to relate to.
As a parent, ask yourself if concern over who your teenager is connecting with is related to your own preconceived notions about where your teenager "should" belong. Have you kept up with the times? There are definitely groups that are unhealthy for your teenager to identify with, so keep your eyes open and do the hard work of learning who your students friends are. At the same time, keep an open mind about what belonging looks like in the 21st century.
Make sure your teenager always feels like they belong in your family
They'll experience uncertainty everywhere else, help them experience certainty at home.
The Three Questions of Adolescence and What Parents Can Do
What you can do
Who am I? (apart from my parents)
provide opportunities for teenagers to "try on hats"
Where do I belong?
Learn who your teenager is connecting with and be honest about your own preconceived notions
Do my choices matter?
give your teenager structured chances to have control over their own life
Question 3: Autonomy
Do my choices matter?
It seems like each generation of parents likes to do the opposite of what their parents did (I'm speaking to the broad generational level, not specifically to you reading this article.) A generation-ish ago, parents could have been described as the "me-generation." This may be why children of the me-generation have given rise to terms like "helicopter-parents." Parents who were maybe not indulged as children are now tempted to over-indulge their own kids. Again, I speak in broad terms here.
This trend means I've talked with a number of parents who are scared to let their children experience the consequences of their own choices. They rightly protect their children from outside danger, but perhaps also protect children from learning from their mistakes as well. And with good reason! It might be tempting to say "Alright, just fail that class if it doesn't matter enough to you to study!" But it will still be mom who has to figure out how to get that student to summer school in the midst of an already crazy summer schedule.
I can sympathize with a parents desire to protect their teenage children from the consequences of their own actions. I simply ask them to also look for ways to help their teenage children develop a sense of autonomy. One of the tasks of adolescence, across culture, is for students to learn and develop meaningful decision making. Becoming an adult is knowing how to make meaningful choices and to live with the consequences of those choices. Wherever your teenager is today, look for ways to make progress towards this goal.
Are you picking all their meals? Can they have some choice over lunch options? How much control do they have over their own schedule? Could they have a little more? (choosing which extracurriculars, or whether homework will be before or after dinner, or something else?) As you start letting them make safe choices, they'll begin to develop the decision making skills they need to make those more meaningful choices later on (college and career type decisions).
- Most parents I speak with are sure their teenage child knows that they love them no matter what. My recommendation is to tell them anyway. 15-year-olds do not have fully developed brains (the latest research suggests that doesn't happen until your mid-twenties!) and so if all they hear from you is concern about their choices and your exasperation with their actions, that will form what they think that you think about them.
- Never give up fighting for the relationship. You may disagree with their choices and their actions, but they have to see you demonstrate that you still want a meaningful relationship with them no matter what. Resist the urge to give ultimatums. When was the last time an ultimatum really worked on you?
- Seek help. If you're a religious person you probably know that God didn't intend for you to parent alone. If you're not, someone wrote about it taking a village. Many parents I speak with have figured out that sometimes its not just enough to say the right thing to a teenager, it has to come from the right person too. Two or more influences working together for the good of a teenager are more powerful than those two or more influences working separately. Enlist your extended family, coaches, teachers, family friends and faith communities to invest in the life of your teenager.
- Connect with other parents. Whenever I held a parenting seminar one of my favorite outcomes was parents of teenagers talking with other parents of teenagers. As I said above, I know the shortcomings of my own experiences. But if I could create a space for parents to talk to each other, I knew good things would happen. You've probably heard some version of "But Billy's parents don't make him go to bed at 9!" Imagine how helpful it is to talk with Billy's parents directly instead of hearing about it third-hand. Now step back from the specific issue and imagine the benefit of just getting a wider perspective on how others are approaching this amazing task of raising teenagers. What are they doing that's working? What are they struggling with? Share ideas, brainstorm, and encourage each other.