Guiding Teens Into Adulthood in the Modern World

Why is it so difficult raising adolescents nowadays? I understand that it's supposed to be a process of gradually letting go, granting them more independence, and setting them free to become the adults God wants them to be. But while I know all this in my head, there are days when I just can't put it into practice. Don't get me wrong. My teenagers are good kids who basically have their heads on straight. Even so, in situation after situation I find myself swooping in and seizing the reins despite my determination to adopt a more "hands off" approach. Is this normal? Why is it so hard to resist the temptation to take control?

Raising teens isn’t simply “a process of gradually letting go.” Nor is it a question of implementing ten easy steps or following the shortest route between two points. It’s always complicated and messy. Instead, it’s a lot more like a whitewater rafting trip. If whitewater rafting were just a matter of floating downstream, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure.

The same thing can be said about your kids’ journey toward adulthood. Just as every interesting river contains rocks, waterfalls, and “strainers” that threaten to trap travelers underwater, the path you and your teens are trying to navigate includes some big obstacles. That’s truer than ever in the challenging social context families are facing today. Here are five such obstacles that make it especially hard for parents to keep their fingers off the “control” button:

Teen brains aren’t finished yet. Teenagers can and do act like adults at times. This is normal. And they can and do act childishly at times. This is also normal. Why? Because their brains are still in the process of growing and maturing. According to Abigail Baird of the Laboratory for Adolescent Studies at Dartmouth, the human brain continues to grow and change into the early 20s. “We as a society deem an individual at the age of 18 ready for adult responsibility,” she states. “Yet recent evidence suggests that our neuropsychological development is many years from being complete.” This doesn’t mean that your teens have an automatic excuse for wrong behavior or poor decision-making. But your relationship will be less troubled if you realize that yo-yo behavior and erratic thought patterns are to be expected.

We’re overstimulated. We live in an overconnected society. You can take the entertainment industry with you wherever you go. You can surf the Internet on your smart phone, or just talk or text on it constantly. Thanks to cable and dishes and DVRs you never have to miss a TV show. The assault of advertising is relentless. And that’s not to mention after-school sports, scholarship contests, piano recitals, and laser tag parties. The point here is that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Overstimulation is a formula for agitation, rudeness, “edginess,” irritability, and impulsivity. And when people react on impulse, they lose control of their own behavior. Not a good idea, whether you’re a teen or a parent.

We’re tired. The mayhem of modern life keeps many of us from getting enough rest. Sleep deprivation leads both adults and teens to exhibit chronic mental and physical fatigue. It wears down a person’s ability to reason. In extreme cases, it can even lead to psychotic episodes. If you think that either you or your kids may be sleep-deprived, talk to your family physician about how you might handle that problem. Ignoring your need for rest affects the level at which you can make sound judgments and control your own reactions.

Young adults have been granted permission to stay irresponsible. Due to the number of people in the workforce, some people seem to think that your teenagers’ generation isn’t necessary, at least economically speaking. The workplace is already so crowded and competitive that there’s no rush to bring young people on board. This is just one of several factors contributing to the acceptance of a much longer stage of adolescence. Our culture now grants teens permission not to grow up. It encourages them to avoid independence. Meanwhile, you’re trying to guide them to become responsible adults. No wonder you’re encountering some tension.

The culture doesn’t support your values. “Growing up” isn’t the only subject on which teens are hearing mixed messages. Parents try to steer them away from drugs and alcohol while sports celebrities pitch beer. Youth groups teach them to abstain from sex before marriage while TV shows present premarital sex as the norm. This issue isn’t new. The tension between Christianity and culture has always existed. But the impact of overstimulation and the permission to remain immature make the problem much worse.

Obviously, you’re not going to eliminate these obstacles simply by reading our response to your question. But recognizing them will give you an advantage as you seek to guide your teens through these difficult years. The currents may be making your job harder, but it’s important to resist the urge to fight the river. To some extent you’ll have to go with the flow, so just keep paddling in the right direction. And if you need help, don’t hesitate to call our staff counselors for a free consultation.

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