What am I passionate about?
Am I a jock, a brain, a theatre kid, a goth, an artist, part of the popular crowd? Some teens fit easily into one of these cliques; others float between them, trying to find something that fits. Still others sit with the popular crowd and yearn to try out for the school play, or sit with the jocks while wrestling (pun intended) with the question of whether it’s okay that good grades are important to them.
Some people have the time and resources to pursue their passions and interests, and others grow up in families where they don’t have this luxury. Frequently, the interests developed in adolescence are the interests that follow someone into adulthood.
How do I feel when I follow my heart instead of the crowd? How do I feel when I don’t?
What are my values? Do I believe that every man is an island, or do I think we’re all responsible for helping each other? When confronted with the choice of whether to conform, what happens if I do? What happens if I don’t? Should I try the joint the prom queen just passed me (because YOLO) or should I stick to my conviction that this situation makes me uncomfortable? Should I join in bullying the kid who’s different, or should I stand up for him?
Or, as your dad used to say, “If one of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too?”
What is my relationship with my parents?
In the Human Development text book, there’s a graph charting reported marital satisfaction over the course of a child’s life. It’s no surprise that during adolescent years, this takes a nosedive.
Redefining a relationship with parents is one of the biggest tasks of adolescent identity development. No longer are most teenagers satisfied to let their parents define who they are, what they should do, and which choices they should make, so they push back. This can lead to a great deal of conflict, and rebellion for the sake of rebellion. Teenagers who fare best through this stage are those who find their unspoken question of “do you love me, even if I’m not like you? Even if I’m difficult?” answered with unconditional positive regard: “I don’t like what you’re doing right now, but I love you no matter what.”
What is this adulthood thing all about?
Do you remember the thrill of being dropped off at the movies for the first time to see a film with your friend while your parent ran errands nearby? With increased independence comes increased responsibility, and teens are learning this at home, at school, and in social situations. As the leash grows longer, teens are tasked with navigating their own consciences.
As parents take the effort to step back and try to let their kids grow the wings that will be necessary to take them into adulthood, teenagers are encountering fewer parental interventions and more “natural consequences.” If your mom drops you off at the mall and you shoplift, she won’t be there to tell you what you’re doing is wrong, but if you get arrested that’s likely to teach you about whether to make the same decision next time. If you get drunk at a house party, your father may not be there to pull the bottle out of your hand, but as you battle the next morning’s hangover, you get to make an informed decision about whether that was really worth it.
How do I choose to wield my sexuality?
You can’t talk about becoming a teenager without talking about hormones. Adolescence is when most people discover that they are sexual beings. When teenagers start to be interested in others in a sexual way, lusty thoughts are like a faucet they can’t turn off. While we might talk about “kids these days and their sexting,” this has been the case across generations.
Some people may discover that their sexuality makes them uncomfortable. This might be because their family or culture taught them that sex is “dirty” or “bad”. It might be because their sexuality doesn’t fit with the majority or mainstream depiction of what is “normal,” either because they discover their attractions are to members of the same sex or because they fantasize about less culturally normative things. Others may have body image or self-esteem problems and wonder who could ever be attracted to them. Still others find that while all their peers whisper about body parts and hooking up, they have little to no interest in sex.
What are relationships all about?
Related to but separate from the above, a lot of teenagers enter relationships and learn important lessons from these experiences. Who am I in a relationship with another person? What do I need from a partner? What is my value in a relationship? When my significant other treats me poorly, how does that feel? Do I want a relationship like the one my parents have, or do I want something that is decidedly different?
Most people don’t marry their high school sweethearts, but for teenagers who date in high school, there’s a lot to be learned. Many adults in their 20s and 30s can point to lessons from adolescence that helped them to make choices about who they want to be with and how they want to engage or invest in their relationships.
Who am I?
This is the core question that encompasses all of the other questions and more. By testing limits, pushing boundaries, and increasing independence, teenagers gain an increasingly refined idea of who they are.
While this is often one of the most challenging phases of life, it can pay dividends in the creation of a confident and successful adulthood.