Adolescents Today: Pressure in the Wrong Places 

Part 2: Putting Pressure in the Right Place  by Tim Elmore


Everyone I know has an opinion on “kids today.” Most observe that they’re addicted to their cell phone or tablet, which has fostered a “slacktivist” (and an even more entitled) mindset in teens. Research tells us that high school students are more narcissistic than ever and that college students spend about half their waking hours on a cell phone. Most adults just smirk and say, “Ah, kids today. What can we do?”

Many of us, however, have failed to gain a historical perspective.

The term “adolescence” is only about a hundred years old, created by G. Stanley Hall to describe the sexual maturation of young people. Prior the 20th century, adults viewed youth with different expectations than they do today. For example, the play Romeo and Juliet was radical back in Shakespeare’s day. It was a show about teens rebelling against family traditions, lost in young love. Back in the 16th century, there was no such thing as adolescence. Young people the ages of Romeo and Juliet (around 13-14 years old) were adults in the eyes of society—even though they were probably pre-pubescent. Paradoxically, puberty came later in past eras, while the departure from parental supervision came earlier than it does today.

In short, a sexually mature person was never treated as a “growing child” in centuries past. Today, however, sexually mature folks spend perhaps six years—ages 12 to 18—living under parental authority. What’s more, since the mid-1800s, puberty—the advent of sexual maturation and the starting point of adolescence—has inched back one year for every 25 years elapsed. It now occurs on average six years earlier than it did in 1850—age 11 or 12 for girls; age 12 or 13 for boys. The bottom line: kids are entering into puberty earlier, but adolescence is extending longer. Their lengthy time in “adultescence” becomes a source of anxiety and depression.

How Can Today’s Kids Be So Full of Angst?                     

So how can our kids today, who are more educated and resourced than any in history,be so full of angst and so unready for mature adulthood? University deans continue to affirm that “26 is the new 18.” But why?

It seems we apply less pressure on them today than adults did over a hundred years ago. Certainly, adolescence has always been a time of risky behavior and emotional decisions. But today’s teen pressure has drifted from pressures that really matter in life, such as preparing for a job and family, experiencing various work scenarios, interacting with dissimilar generations, and developing a work ethic. As I observe thousands of high school and collegians today, this is pressure I see:

Grades – The pressure to make excellent grades to get into the right college. The reality is, no one except mom cares about them twenty years later. More and more workplaces, including Google, believe they’re not a reflection of success on the job.

Sports – The pressure to excel on the field and make the traveling team. Dads push sons in soccer or baseball and scold them when they don’t perform well. The truth is, that kid will be a software developer one day—not a catcher for the Yankees.

Prestige – The pressure to gain notoriety on social media. Kids feel the need to build a platform full of Followers, Likes, and Views. Popularity has a whole new scorecard. It’s intense. And the truth is, it’s all fleeting and evaporates faster than a Snapchat video.

The truth is, these pressures are unsuitable for most adolescents. They’re the wrong scorecard. No wonder they feel angst—they are playing a game that’s virtual and temporal and emotionally unhealthy. The reason teens could handle the pressure of a job and a spouse and other weighty responsibilities a century ago is because they were adequately prepared for these real responsibilities. Unfortunately, teens today aren’t being prepared the same way.

Pressures That Matter

So what can adults do to change this trend? A great start is to help today’s youth focus on principles that really matter, such as:

Strengths/Identity – Who am I? What problem am I gifted to solve?

Character – How can I experience integrity—alignment of who I am and what I do?

Work Ethic – What can I do to build a reputation from service to my community?

These all feed realistically into adulthood. They are weighty but appropriate as a teen approaches adulthood. Their significance compels a young adult to be fulfilled in the pursuit. She doesn’t have time or the desire to get preoccupied with social media because she’s doing something incredible.

Further, the kid who’s pushed to be an athletic star will likely never play beyond high school (certainly not beyond college). As leaders push him to be consumed with a sport, he often fails at developing the skills sets he’ll need as an adult—like emotional intelligence, communication skills, creativity and problem solving. While I believe sports can teach timeless virtues like discipline, resilience and attitude, they do only when coaches tie virtues learned on the field to practical applications beyond the field. Otherwise, they are mere facsimiles.

Yesterday, I 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?

  1. Talk this issue over with your students.
    Discuss positive and negative pressure and what it does to them emotionally.
  1. Help them remove negative, self-imposed pressures.
    List items that create destructive emotion or angst and help them cut what they can.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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