Teens have a great advantage in preparing for college because they are already striving to develop their own identity, independent of parents, family members, and other influences. Every teen charges into that disruptive process armed with his or her genetic make-up and life experiences. This is a dynamic time when fresh ideas from wide-ranging sources confront the established self. New options get a good look, some are tried, and a few find a good fit and become part of the growing repertoire of attitudes and behaviors. This change process is vital to young adults' ability to strive and thrive in the world as independent, self-reliant, and responsible individuals. The college search, stressful as it is, provides a critical focus here. It’s a practical opportunity to consider the implications of many decisions.
Two big questions challenge the thinking of teens: Who am I? And who do I want to become? The quest for some answers may take a lifetime, but most young people will achieve some satisfaction with developed conclusions within a few years. Our teens face more ideas and more options from more sources than any generation in history. Parents, family, school, peers, community, online friends, news and social feeds, and seemingly endless digital mediums and formats pour information and opinions continuously into their view. Each one competes for attention, response, engagement, and connection. Some request fleeting thought and instant reply. Others invite permanent linkage and deep relationship and affinity. Sorting all this out, and fitting together the new with the established in one's personality, is actually a pretty hefty challenge. Fortunately, most teens are up to the task and will struggle through to a successful and healthy adulthood.
Readers may recall their own effort to create an acceptable definition of self. I remember how resolutely I wanted an identity separate from my family. Our parents did their best to give us a good start in life, but we rebelled against some of their efforts to 'program' us in their own image. And, indeed, we should. As the joke declares, “You have to be yourself - everybody else is already taken!” The joke is on us in adulthood, however, when we hear ourselves saying or doing things just as our parents did or said. We carry their legacy every day. Our children will do the same. For good or ill. It’s a notion to consider when you’re wondering how much you matter to your bristling teen.
Becoming a mature, resilient, confident, self-reflecting, and socially responsible adult takes a lot of concentration and work. It helps when important others give meaningful support. A teen has to figure out what's worth holding and what needs to be let go. What's missing and what to seek. A search for beliefs is under way - belief in self, in principles, and in others. This reflects an active conscience grappling with moral and ethical issues. Good examples help. Defining may mean building some walls, tearing down others; accepting some ideas and rejecting others; moving toward and moving away. It's nice to fit in, but not to be hemmed in. Expectations may be perceived as encouragement or as inconsiderate demands. There will be long roads into the future and there will be dead ends. Success and failure. It really does take a lot of work and a little celebration of progress sure helps along the way. Honest acknowledgement and praise from valued others have lasting effects.
All the considering and sorting out and experimenting and deciding and adapting can really get on the nerves of parents, siblings, peers, and school teachers. Sometimes one doesn't know what a teen will demonstrate or believe from one day to the next. These are the famously irrational years when it appears that teens have subscribed to the three i's. That is, they fantasize themselves to be Invincible, Immortal, or Infertile. Huge risks may be undertaken in the throes of any of those mistaken beliefs and the outcomes produce some of the greatest disasters of the adolescent years. Even aside from disastrous behaviors, some unpredictability must be expected from teens. Mistakes will be made in the ongoing research and experimentation that is taking place in the hearts and minds of every one. The pendulum will swing from the most conservative, self-preserving actions to the most liberating, freeing, and experimental trying-out of wild and crazy options. But, to succeed with joy and strength, all teens need to know that someone believes in them.
Adolescent development and the college search share common themes. Students are only somewhat prepared for the process. The destination is unknown. Information is abundant and overwhelming. Opinions flow, whether sought or not. It’s not clear to the student (or the parents) as to what can or cannot be taken for granted. Questioning is constant. Some criteria and standards are desperately needed, but choosing them is confusing. The future is unknowable, but students feel an urgency and momentum toward it. Sorting out all the options feels overwhelming and mistakes are likely. Ultimately though, some level of acceptance and satisfaction are found. The stress and pressure and worry subside and students move forward, informed by the struggle.
The promise of college is the gateway to adulthood and self-sufficiency. It is clearly defined and celebrated as an approved period of searching, learning, growing, and refining. What a relief (and privilege) to have a period in life devoted to self-governed, yet institutionally supported, formation and preparation! All the hopes and dreams that are poured into a child, all the good wishes and anticipated accomplishments, are untethered in the college years to find their own way in the world of competing possibilities.
Fortunately, the growing teen brain has tremendous potential for increasing judgment, while the developing reasoning power of the social conscience grows in its influence every day. More on these two concepts and their advantages in future blogs.