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Leading Adolescents Through the Paradox of Their Teenage Years

Teenagers experience a strange paradox.

During adolescence kids feel two chemical tugs on their heart that can seem contradictory. On the one hand, they feel pulled toward independence and autonomy as their brains are being pruned and they seek to find their unique place in society. It’s during this period of life their neuropathways are being laid that may cause them to dislike items they once liked and vice versa. This biological development enables them to carve out their own path. This is not only normal, it is necessary. Adolescence is the bridge from childhood to adulthood. It is natural for a teen to want to spread their wings to become their own person, independent of the norms their family has set in place. They often test limits and seek out an alternative lifestyle, if for no other reason than to be different than the people around them. This can show up in unique hair colors and styles; piercings and tattoos, clothes and shoes.

At the same time, adolescence is also a time for seeking connectedness to others. There is usually a distinct need for acceptance from people; the need to fit in and be part of something larger than themselves. Humans are social creatures, and this is never more visible than during the teenage years, where kids long for a link to others. Social media is a vivid example of this: they become brilliant at posting content and seeking views, likes and shares. Two big desires for millions of teens are described by: “like” and “subscribe.” Young teens in our focus groups told us this is a primary source of their identity. They experience a tug toward association with peers they identify with and want to be like. So deep is this emotional pull, that kids often find a community of friends they fit right into the middle of socially. Some are just ahead of them and some are just behind them. It’s like a wolf in a pack and it is natural.

The paradox is—they are pulled toward both individualism and interdependence.

How to Lead Teenagers During this Paradoxical Season

Because they both “push back” and “pull toward” themselves, adult leaders need a game plan as they guide adolescents. For many of us, teens can be frustrating. At times, those teens cannot even explain their own behavior. Some are actually aware of this paradox. Let me offer some simple ideas to launch you into a thoughtful response to your teens:

1. Acknowledge their desire for uniqueness and give them boundaries.

Because these kids are somewhere between childhood and adulthood, they may need a leader to give them guardrails as they seek creative expression. Teachers, coaches, employers and parents can all furnish these boundaries that communicate to them you are open to their creativity, yet desire to prevent them from getting derailed by a decision that could be perceived to be anti-social. You can see what actions can lead to harm more clearly than they can. Let them stretch and learn in a safe and supportive environment.

2. Create space for them to find their “people” and experience community.

As their brain experiences the greatest period of growth since their early childhood, they’ll be seeking out peers with whom they can identify. Curiously, finding that peer group can change rapidly. Adult leaders can help them by creating spaces for teens to invest time face-to-face with others to find “their people.” Depending on their level of emotional security, they may need help in selecting healthy people, not just intriguing people to hang out with. This is where you come in. Acceptance is key. Allow them to migrate within various peer groups, then debrief their selections afterward discussing the influence of those peers.

3. Play the role of a guide, not a god.

When my two kids journeyed through their teenage years, I recognized that I needed to pursue “connection” not “control.” I believe I’ll never be able to control a teenager’s attitude or preferences, but I can seek to connect with them at the heart level and find some level of relationship with which I can communicate with them. In fact, I believe the only way to genuinely influence them is through relationship. When we connect with teens, we build trust, which makes any kind of conflict resolution measurably easier.

And we must pursue this—building bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth.

We owe it to them to offer wise guidance through these paradoxical years, where their minds change often and they find it difficult to even explain themselves. It’s part of the confusing maturation process. I love the way Dr. Aaron Sterns put it:

Adolescence is a time of maximum resistance to further growth. It is a time characterized by the teenager’s ingenious efforts to maintain the privileges of childhood, while at the same time demanding the rights of adulthood. It’s a point beyond which most humans don’t pass emotionally. The more we do for our children, the less they can do for themselves. The dependent child of today is destined to become the dependent parent of tomorrow.

I love the metaphor of teaching a child to ride a bike. Most young kids don’t start with a bike, but with a trike. The three-wheeled tricycle enables them to get used to peddling without much risk of falling down. Later, however, this gets boring. They want to upgrade to a bicycle, which has only two wheels. But because this requires balance, we launch them with a bike that has training wheels. They then get used to peddling and balancing themselves. Eventually, however, they want the wheels to come off. At this point, our leadership is a tender balance of support and letting go. This is precisely what’s required of us to lead teens. Support and letting go.

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Leading Adolescents Through the Paradox of Their Teenage Years