Helping Adolescents Manage Their Power

There is something about adolescence that asks to be met by greater power. I'm not quite sure how else to say it. Teens sense their growing power. They can make fun of an adult, in a way that might even cut deep. They are physically powerful. They can procreate. They 'get' jokes. It feels to them like adulthood is increasingly easy to imagine (and often, lame). And so they swell up in power and wait for something to meet them. What is still a greater power than me? I have the sense that in our time and place, it is the lack of meeting any greater power that creates the most psychological distress in teenagers. For most adolescents, neither parents nor teachers can qualify as potential 'greater powers." By the time adolescence arrives, parents and teachers don't generate the awe they used to.

I suspect that this "meeting" with a greater power, which is so important for adolescents, comes best from nature, and second best in the form of exposure to the "real world."

First, natural power. I've observed what happens to teens when they encounter some simple, obviously powerful or vast element of nature. The ocean. A fire. A forest whose boundaries can't be seen. A large animal - horses in particular. From my non-scientific viewpoint it appears that the nervous system of teenagers shifts in response to this, calms down a few notches. Yes, some part of their fear-sensing may accelerate, but they also lean into this power in a way that seems to soothe them. For some I imagine they are putting down the burden of being the most powerful and important thing around for a little while. For the less confident among them, they are finally relating to something powerful which seems more obvious and trustworthy than the confusing, swirling power of social dynamics around them.

Second, the real world. I've also observed how teens take real adult skill, from objective (read: not parents or teachers) adults very seriously. At my school I've seen many times how the proximity of a real-world presentation - say, pitching your business plan to a panel of real investors, or describing your scientific findings to a panel of scientists - makes most students step up their game greatly. Most of them respect that these objective, highly skilled adults are not beholden to them, and the teens realize that their powers have a long way to go. Sometimes there is even awe in the air when it comes to imagining adults as skilled and experienced as these.

So where does this leave us? Parents, teachers - I think this is another reason to re-envision our roles as kids transition into teenage years. Position ourselves as advisors, wise mentors even, but not as the power that they are testing themselves against. Assist them in reaching out to the powers that they need to feel real resistance from. A horse, a fire, a workplace mentor. This is what they're tuned to. Don't fight it!