Adolescence: that wonderfully awkward, existentially tumultuous, AND centrally formative stage of life.
If you are reading this, chances are that you are yourself a recovering teenager. Whether you are a parent, mentor, or someone serving teens in parish or school ministry, it can be very helpful to remember that you were there once yourself.
What really motivates the teen heart? What are teenagers looking for? If we want to truly reach teens, we must understand this if we want to actually reach them.)
Yes, teenagers want release and fun and all of that, but that’s not really their driving engine. Even the “fun” of teenage rebellion and the fuel of the party scene are motivated by something deeper.
A recent conversation with Jason Evert and Mari Pablo got me thinking about three primary things that the adolescent soul really craves. By accompanying teens on their quest for these three things, we can reach their hearts.
The first thing teens are seeking is identity.
Figuring out who you are, how you look to others, and what makes you you: this is why middle school can be so awkward and why the teen years make a central impact on our story. There is a certain restlessness about finding our identity that is at the crux of the human condition. And in our teenage years, that restlessness is in overdrive. This is why adolescents are particularly vulnerable to anything that promises to establish and project a clear and unique identity and sense of self. They are hungry for the answer to one of the deepest aches of the heart: who am I?
This ache runs so deep because there is a rupture in our identity at the center of our fallen nature. The shame that we inherited from our first parents (Genesis 3) causes us to turn inward. We are exposed and vulnerable and often confused about who we really are.
The age-old problem is that we seek to grab and assert our identities rather than patiently discovering, receiving, and giving ourselves as a gift. Especially in our teen years, we are tempted to project a self that we don’t really understand out to the world so that we can have a sense that we are being seen and—this is important—in control of how we are being seen.
The second thing that we are looking for in our formative adolescent years is relationship and belonging to a community.
Teens still love their families deep down, but there is also this intense tug toward finding a tribe beyond the home—one that connects with you and helps you to discover your identity.
We want others in our lives to affirm who we are and to accept us for who we are.
There is a drive toward relationship, and, yes, there is a strong sexual reality here, but even that reality is about relationship and belonging even more than it’s about hormones and urges.
Forging ties and finding like minds and hearts to be with is so important, and the pain of feeling alone is so intense.
Third,– we crave purpose and a mission that we can set our energy towards.
This sense of mission points back to who we are and who is in our tribe. Teens find things to get fired up about and injustices to remedy. Teens are discovering their talents, competencies, and passions; and feel stifled when they believe they are jumping through hoops, learning about things that don’t really capture them, and doing things that only pass them along from one stage to another.
Do you remember asking the deeper questions about your place and purpose in the world? Do you remember having a sense of calling? Granted, there is a whole lot of “meh” and apathy in teen life, but it’s most often because the matter at hand hasn’t yet connected to that deeper sense of purpose and mission.
What This Means for Us
The world knows all of the above and offers, often in false and inauthentic ways, to give our children what they crave.
Identity is marketed, and labels that promise identity are being stamped on children before they even get to high school. There are many groups that promise a sense of belonging and identity, and there are a host of things to get fired up about. Much of this can be found right on the screens that dominate so much adolescent time and attention.
What we have to offer, though, is the authentic path to identity, the most genuine form of community, and the mission that has been stamped on our hearts since the beginning.
Jesus called his disciples by name (identity); incorporated them into a community; and sent them out into the world with an extension of the mission that he himself received from his heavenly Father.
If we are real and intentional about these three things in parenting and teen ministry, then we can set our teens on a path to thrive. St. John Paul II knew this; as a young priest in post-World War II Poland, his work with youth as a young priest in Poland—at an incredibly difficult time post-World War II—was to establish a real zone of freedom where young people could encounter their identity and mission.
Today, we need to do the same.
If we just pass young people along through programs, tell them to make “good choices,” and keep the status quo, we will lose them. We have to do more stepping back to reflect, understand, and form a game plan is vital.
Summer is a good time to do that. A course inspired by the ministry approach and teaching of St. John Paul II is a great way to go deeper and to develop a more effective vision for serving your teens.Theology of the Body offers deep insights into who we are, how we relate to one another, and to what we are called. With the tools offered in this certification course, you can bring that vision into your parish, school, and home.
You can now offer ongoing support for this content with a recurring gift.