Evaluating Adolescent Claims: Can They Be Trusted?

Together with my youth ministry students, one of the books I am currently working through is Hurt 2.0 by Chap Clark.  His stated theme:

…adolescents have been cut off for far too long from the adults who have the power and experience to escort them into  the greater society.  Adolescents have been abandoned.  They have, therefore, created their own world, a world that is designed to protect them from the destructive forced and wiles of the adult community. (3)

This may very well be.  Yet as I’ve been working through the first chapters, what strikes me again and again is how Clark quotes students who say things like, “No one really gets you, and you don’t even get yourself” (14) or “I wish my real life  were more like the person radiating from his smile.  Other people seem like actors and actresses in the same sick drama, almost unreal to me.” (29)

Sturm und Drang indeed.  Hearing things like this seemingly confirms all we’ve suspected about adolescents and their existential state.  It is meant, no doubt, to serve as a clarion call to action.

Now, please don’t get me wrong: I believe that adolescents are in a unique life stage and are in a precarious situation…but I’m starting to wonder whether we can actual take their words in situations like this at face value.  Whether, indeed, we as adults can point to the Shakespearean drama that is their stated lives and then reason from there.

In my number of years working with and observing adolescents, I wonder if a lot of the ways their particular existences are constructed ala POSTSECRET (warning: some inappropriate content) are simply scripts which the adult world has provided for them.  The afterschool special.  The in-school seminar on peer pressure.  The angsty teen stereotype in media.  I believe in some ways these and other societal cues have predisposed teenagers to process their now maturing (and often confusing) emotions in ways as dramatic as possible–and according to set patterns.  This, they think subconsciously, is how I am supposed to talk…so this is how I will talk.

Instead of allowing teenagers to process their thoughts in ways unique to themselves, have we in our therapeutic and media-centric world instead down them a disservice by shortcutting authenticity?  We invented in the phrase “peer pressure,” but they use it with aplomb.  Is it really true that “no one understand me” or “gets me,” or is this just something that teens are predisposed to say because of the limited interpretive world we have constructed?   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen teens post the most dramatic song lyrics as a Facebook status.

We know that the teen years are often ones during which many new identities are tried on like masks at a costume shop.  Do we, therefore, run the risk of putting too much stock in the face value of teenage statements borrowed from a list created by the adult world instead of attempting to determine why such things are being said in the first place?

Please know, of course, that I’m not saying we should ignore what adolescents are saying.  We should listen, but realize that what they’re saying may be a response to a certain existential reality as opposed to a strict explanation of it.

These are germinal thoughts, surely…and rather unquantifiable.  I’m just not certain that a lot of statements that adolescents make mean what we think or expect them to mean.  If this is true, it means that work like Clark’s (and others) needs to proceed carefully.

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3 comments on “Evaluating Adolescent Claims: Can They Be Trusted?

  1. Garland says:

    I’ve read Hurt, but not the revision. I’ll be interested in hearing what your students say.

  2. Kathy says:

    Teenagers can be very dramatic. They don’t need help in that regard. What they really need help with is gaining perspective on their own lives.

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