A Definition for Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Adolescence has achieved objective status as an obvious stage in human development in our culture. It is probably un-American and maybe even un-Christian, depending on what circles you’re in, to dispute it. And though this attitude toward teenagers is not surprising from the world since the secular culture is always looking for ways to excuse behavior, it is inexcusable that so many in the church have adopted the same mindset.

Webster defines adolescence as, “the state or process of growing up; the period of life from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority.” It categorizes the time period beginning at puberty and ending in adulthood, typically designated somewhere between the ages of twelve and twenty. Of course the high-end number continues to climb and entire books now suggest that the end of adolescence is closer to 25.

Growing up is a process. It would be foolish to suggest that a person should or could skip straight from 12 to 20. But there is more to the term adolescence than simply as a handy label to catalog the days, months, and years of a teenager.

The entire idea of adolescence is built on a mindset. A mindset is “a fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations.” Parents assume that their teenager will have a certain mindset, and teenagers typically believe what adults tell them they will act like.

So what are some of the characteristics of this mindset? Though not organized in bullet form, Thomas Hine helps describe this mindset in his book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.

  • A teenager is incompetent. “The concept of the teenager rests in turn on the idea of the adolescent as a not quite competent person, beset by stress and hormones.” (p.4)
  • A teenager is irresponsible. The period of adolescence is a time for experimentation and prolonged preparation. It is a deferring of responsibility. “Inevitably, the teenagers is a disappointment, whose combination of adult capacities and juvenile irresponsibility sows personal heartbreak and social chaos.” (p.8)
  • A teenager is in a perpetual identity crisis. Every adolescent is always in a constant struggle to find self-esteem. “Who am I?” “Why do I have pimples?” “Why don’t other people like me?” “Why don’t I fit in?” Their struggle is one just to survive by adapting to ever changing situations.
  • A teenager is a problem waiting to happen. There is a kind of mystique surrounding teenagers that “encourages adults to see teenagers (and young people themselves) not as individuals but as potential problems.” (p.11) In addition, adolescence assumes that what teenagers do doesn’t really count.
  • A teenager will be rebellious. Rebellion is not a question of if, but when. An adolescent always wants to break out of the cocoon and get out from under the umbrella of parental authority. They will naturally want to challenge their teachers if not the law. They have no desire for accountability from anyone, including the church.*
  • A teenager is at the mercy of their hormones. There is a bias against teenagers, “expressed in the two-word term that serves as the vernacular explanation for almost everything teenagers do: Raging Hormones” (p.29).

The greatest danger of these descriptions of the adolescent mindset is that they are presented to as timeless, universal, and inevitable. The culture, and many in the church, have swallowed these definitions hook, lies, and sinker. This is precisely the way Hollywood portrays teens on television and in movies. This is exactly what popular music assumes life is like for teens.

And the result is that teenagers cannot be held responsible for what they do. An adolescent cannot possibly be expected to function like a reasonable, normal human being, they are just victims of their hormones.

Some have seen through the smoke of excuses, even non-believers.

[W]hile endocrinology (the study of glands and hormones of the body and their related disorders) is a field where fundamental discoveries are made regularly, there is not yet any biochemical explanation for surliness (uncontrolled anger), self-absorption, or rebelliousness. (ibid., p.30)

But sadly, the facts seem to have far less power than what people believe is true. Parents, teachers, church leaders, and teens themselves believe the lies.