Adolescents Today: Putting Pressure in the Right Place
In the past, I've alluded to the fact that adults today put pressure on kids… but often in the wrong places. Students feel pushed to keep score on academics, sports, and social media—none of which are evil, but all of which are impractical areas for youth to be pressured. As a child enters their teen years, they actually have it in them to accomplish significant, real-world outcomes. Just look at teens a hundred years ago, or more: Thomas Edison was managing a telegraph office at 15; Mother Teresa began serving the poor at 19; Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Italy at 26; and Thomas Jefferson was still a young man when crafting the Declaration of Independence. The challenges were real-life, meaningful and important.
Consider this. As adolescents mature, their desire expands to demonstrate:
- Autonomy – “I want to do this independently. I am my own person.”
- Abstract Thinking – “I want to think outside of the concrete box.”
- Ability – “I want to try my hand at new things to test my strengths.”
Sadly, it seems that all we give to millions of students today are virtual ways to experience these things…
- Middle- and upper-middle class homes give teens autonomy without proportionate responsibility, creating brats as they enter adulthood. (Many get cars, clothes and gadgets without learning to pay for them.)
- Their abstract thinking, which begins expanding during adolescence, has no good place to go to express itself. We dumb down the tasks to insure a happy kid with good self-esteem.
- We fear for their safety, so we often don’t give them a chance to explore their abilities in projects that really matter. We give them contrived projects in a classroom.
It’s no wonder so many teens experience such confusion and angst as they age. We have created a virtual world for them that doesn’t sufficiently enable them to mature in a healthy way.
And the worst part is that this trend has been growing for nearly three decades.
What Negative Pressure Does
A 1988 study reported that although the under-18 population declined from 1980 to 1984, adolescent admissions to private psychiatric hospitals in that time period increased by 450 percent! What’s more, the study suggests three realities: First, a growing sense of negative emotions in teens; second, a staggering cultural tendency for applying mental health care to any problem life presents; and third, a rise in negative feelings toward adolescence—we began to consider students’ struggle a disease.
It is my belief that young adults want to solve problems, but if our culture only offers them virtual outlets to do this—like video games, social media, sports or classroom projects—they often become adrenaline junkies. (Please understand—I don’t believe these outlets are bad, just facsimiles of the real world).
The bottom line? If we don’t call out the best in students, they frequently wander into trouble, negative emotions, or narcissism.
Pressure in the Right Place
The answer, of course, is not to remove all pressure from our adolescents. With no pressure, people become weak, lazy and often lack ambition. Instead, I believe the answer is to right-size the pressure and place it appropriately. When a young adult is given a meaningful and genuine (real world) problem to solve, they come alive. When that problem aligns with the gifts they possess, they become passionate, and suddenly, their incentive to listen to lectures or read books that enable them to solve the problem goes up. Their application of autonomy, abstract thinking and abilities forms a positive pressure instead of a negative one. So what do we do?
- Talk this issue over with your students.
Discuss positive and negative pressure and what it does to them emotionally.
- Help them remove negative, self-imposed pressures.
List items that create destructive emotion or angst and help them cut what they can.
- Ask them to take a week and study the problems our world faces today.
Have them watch the news or go on-line and get familiar with current events.
- Challenge them to identify one real-world problem that intrigues them.
Help them spot a problem that matches their passions and gifts. Talk about it.
- Ask them: If you were in charge of solving this problem, what would you do?
Encourage them to take this on as a project and see what becomes of it.
Over the years, I have met teachers, leaders, coaches and youth workers who’ve helped students transfer their attention from negative to positive pressure. As a result, not only are those students rescued from the wasting time on irrelevant pursuits, but they come alive as they apply autonomy, abstract thinking and abilities to something that matters.