How does a teenager become an adult?

How does a teenager become an adult?

How does a teenager become an adult?

Is it something intrinsic? Like, does a person become an adult because of the way they think of themselves? Is it when they except responsibility for themselves internally and start making adult-like decisions? Is it putting them on a pathway towards independence? (Vocation, education, relationships)

Or is it extrinsic? Do you cross a threshold physically to become an adult? Does turning 18 years old make you an adult? Does achieving some physical characteristic make you an adult? Does some level of educational achievement or military service make you an adult?

These are all the questions we, as a society, can’t seem to agree on.

On the one hand we have a hard-and-fast chronological rule that an 18 year old is an adult. At the same time, most only give a wink and a nod to that as the law says one thing but society doesn’t use that as a real indicator for anything.

This morning I read some research from the University of Nebraska which was trying to answer the question, “What puts a teenager on the road towards becoming an adult?” In their study, they measured something they called “future-oriented cognitions” with a working assumption that if a teenager could articulate what they want to do when they become an adult, they would work towards that behaviorally. Specifically, they measured future-orientation of marriage, education, and occupation as they are relatively easy to measure.

Of course, anyone who actually works with teenagers knows that the entire premise is deeply flawed. Even the most mature, future-oriented teenager is capable of doing something which will ruin that future-orientation simply because they lack wisdom or their immaturity leads them to chase an impulse. A college-bound junior could get pregnant. Or a teenager who wants to be a doctor might get in a car accident preventing their pursuit of that.

Nonetheless, this finding in their research is important as we think about the question, “How does a teenager become an adult?” The researchers assumption is that future-orientation is intrinsic, that is isn’t measurably (at least not in the documentation) impacted by family or faith or anything else. It’s just waking up one day and knowing what you want– then making the choices needed to achieve that. That’s a notion I both agree with and disagree with simultaneously.

Here’s what I mean:

The reciprocal relations between expectations and behaviors indicate that adolescents are capable of adjusting their future expectations based on feedback via their experiences (Eccles et al., 2003). That the effects of expectations were mediated (at least partially) by behavior suggests that adolescents can use their projections about the future to inform their behaviors in ways that promote later achievement. Finally, the fact that the effect of occupational aspirations was not mediated by any of the behaviors examined suggests that some future-oriented cognitions may operate in ways other than goal-directed behavior, pointing to a potentially important difference between aspirations and expectations. Taken together, these findings provide evidence of the significance of adolescents’ cognitions about the future, showing that what adolescents think about their futures is relevant for their development in adolescence and adulthood.

Source, emphasis mine

In other words, according to this research, what a teenager thinks about their own future is the loudest voice in their life which impacts their everyday decisions. Ultimately, how a student talks to themselves, internally, drastically impacts where they end up.

Question: In what ways does your work with teenager help them shape what they think about their future occupation, education, or marriage? 


One response to “How does a teenager become an adult?”

  1. Laura Novak Winer Avatar

    We have a unique role in helping teens develop their sense of “future orientation”. In the work I have done in the Jewish youth world, we have found that the adults with whom the teens interact in their youth groups help them immensely with this area of growth. We need to ask our youth to think about what role they want to play in the world – what do they want to give to it? what is their unique contribution? what is their purpose?

    As religious leaders and guides for our youth, we can help them have these sacred and deeply personal conversations without the pressure of making the good grades, getting into the right university, without the fear of disappointing others who have certain expectations of them, etc. We can help them find the answers to these questions.

    Of course, we know that teens will made bad or unhealthy “in the moment’ decisions, but if they have this sense of “future orientation” they sometimes are able to see beyond “the moment” and keep themselves on track for a future goal. And most importantly, as guides in their lives, we are there for them when they fall off course and to help point them back in the right direction.

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