Teenagers – Introduction

          What are teenagers? What are they like? What makes them tick? What are their needs? How can we best meet their needs?

About a century ago our society had two classifications of people – children and adults. Later adolescence emerged in our thinking. Today, there are those who use three subdivisions of adolescents – early, mid and late (though the last group is usually called young or emerging adults). In the 1970s girls reached puberty and developmental maturity at age 14 or 15 while today puberty is reached at age 11 or 12, but developmental maturity does not emerge until about 19 or 20. (Chap Clark, PhD at Parenteen event, November 2013)

Teenagers of today make up part of the group of individuals that we call millennials or Generation Y, those born between 1982 and 2002. These individuals are digital natives, pampered and generally overprotected. This age group distinguishes itself with the idea that “it is all about them (or should be);” “they want what they want when they want it;”and “If they are gamers, winning is important and they think they can make the rules change.” Skills that are difficult for them include: patience, making hard choices, problem solving, appropriate response to authority, synthesizing ideas, and self-evaluation. (“Millennial Conversations: Engage Them and Keep Them Talking” Kathy Koch, Ph.D. Celebrate Kids, Inc. from Care Net training notes).

According to Chap Clark every child and adolescent needs: a family influence, attachment and a trajectory of community. He has proposed a Project 5-1 which means that each child or adolescent should have 5 adults with which he has a meaningful connection. (Chap Clark, Ph.D. Parenteen event, November, 2013)

Ms. Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley wrote for The Wall Street Journal, January 28-29, 2012. Her article articulated the question, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” She also asks, “What was he thinking?” Summarizing her thoughts she says, “If you think of the teenage brain as a car, today’s adolescents acquire an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake.” One of the systems in the brain that contributes to the adolescent mind resides in the part that governs emotions and motivation. “It is very closely linked to the biological and chemical changes of puberty and involves the areas of the brain that respond to rewards.” (p. C1) Individuals can go from placid to restless, exuberant, emotionally intense” at 10 and back to placid as adults. “Recent studies in the neuroscientist B.J Casey’s lab at Cornell University suggest that adolescents aren’t reckless because they underestimate the risks, but because they overestimate rewards – or rather, find rewards more rewarding than adults do.”(p. C1) This fits with the fact that human children remain under the care of their parents for much longer than non-human children.

Second, the crucial system involved in the maturation of child compared to that of an adult, is the prefrontal cortex where control originates. “That is the system that inhibits impulses and guides decision-making that encourages long-term planning and delays gratification.” (p. C2)

In the past, these systems were more in sync. Examples of maturity emerging earlier include: Jane Eyre – teacher at 16, Joan of Arc led French troops at 17, and Alexander the Great, left in charge of Macedonia at age 16. (p. C2)

Gopnik makes the case that contemporary young people lack experience. She recommends apprenticeships and AmeriCorps. She concludes by saying, “The good news, in short, is that we don’t have to accept the developmental patterns of adolescent brains. We can actually shape and change them.” (“What’ Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” Ms. Gopnik, January 28-29, 2012) (Writer’s Note: Children are not allowed to gain real world experience by working at any age before high school graduation, with rare exceptions, in part because of past fears of exploitation. While not without some justification, it seems the pendulum has gone too far in the opposite direction and balance needs to be restored. What happened, for the most part, over a hundred years ago should not be the basis of policy today.)

Finally, in this introduction, Chap Clark identifies the adolescent’s main task as Individuation which includes developing Identity, Autonomy and Belonging. (Chap Clark, Ph. D, Parenteen event, November 2013.

I have in mind to review at least three books in the next months and then to draw conclusions on this topic using Scripture as the standard. Your comments are welcome.

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