What does it mean to be a teenager – the modern day myth of adolescence

What does it mean to be a teenager – the modern day myth of adolescence

The word adolescence comes from the Latin word adolescere meaning to ‘grow up’.

When I ask groups of 11 and 12-year-old children – “what does it mean to grow up? . . . what does it mean to be a teenager?” . . . they frequently respond with, “being able to do what you want: drinking, sneaking out, not listening to your parents, hanging out with your friends, sleeping in, not doing much, not caring, and doing risk-taking stuff.”

This was their picture of adolescence. They did not see this as a period of developing into an adult. It was all based on the concept of adolescence being your ‘reckless years’.

There is currently a perception in our society that the teen years or ‘your youth’ is ‘your time’, a time to be carefree and ‘find yourself’ in the world before you have to take on adult responsibilities.

Our society encourages a culture of irresponsibility under the guise of your ‘free time,’ and this idea is vigorously promoted with current advertising and culture glamourising youth and the ‘care-free’ years. There is very little accountability asked of our young people.

It is alarming how quickly extremes are becoming normalised and accepted in society. This is seen in the level of aggression, violence, murder and rape in computer games, in the glorification of sexual violence in video hits and movies, as well as ‘hate speak’ as a means of communication on the Internet under the guise of freedom of speech. Celebrities and sporting heroes are being idealised and promoted as role models and something to look up to or aspire to, even though the personal lives of many are in crisis.


One of the large groups of 11 and 12-year-olds that I have spoken to described what they saw teenagers doing – abusing others online, creating cliques, threatening to bash or intimidate others, generally taking their issues out on each other, creating conflicts or not caring about others, and acting tough or ‘gangster’.

A number of these children were already starting to go into some of these behaviours. When they were asked why they were choosing these behaviours one boy said, “If we don’t do this now, how will we know how to get through high school; we will be crushed on day one”.

The children were asked, “At what age do these behaviours stop?” Their responses varied – some said 18, some said when you leave school, some said 25.

They were then asked, “Do these behaviours stop instantly, like the moment you turn 18? When you want to be an adult, are you suddenly one?” They laughed and said “Of course not”.

One kid commented that “If you have been treating your family or friends however you wanted for years and just doing what you wanted, you would have hurt them a lot so you would need to spend time showing them you could be trusted again and it could take a long time, and if you became a lazy teenager then it would be hard to get into work and doing stuff again”.

They agreed that if you have been living in an irresponsible or reckless way then you would need to spend some time rebuilding relationships or learning how to live another way and getting used to working, being responsible, doing things for yourself, being committed to life.

The kids were then asked, “What would it be like if you didn’t waste your teenage years and you worked towards building the person you wanted to be as an adult, what would that be like?” One child said, “You then wouldn’t have to waste half your life”; another kid said, “Not many people stop this, a lot of adults are like this too, lots of them can still be irresponsible”.


So as a society why don’t we ask our young people to be accountable, grow them up and raise them in this way? This would require a level of accountability from those who are raising them, from the media, from those in government, from celebrities, and would require all adults in the community to live a reflection of this integrity and responsibility in their own lives if they are to support this in our young.

We need to consider that when we make comments such as ‘typical teenager’ to describe a mood or reckless behaviour, we are saying to young people ‘this behaviour is normal, it’s okay’. It gives them an out and they don’t have to be accountable or responsible. This does not actually support the development of young adults.

If it is natural in this stage of development to become more responsible and we ‘let them off the hook’ so to speak, with the excuse of it’s your ‘teen years’, we are allowing if not promoting a period of irresponsible behaviours to run. If we have lived those patterns of irresponsibility where do we have the foundation of a real and tangible life experience to draw on to know how to deal with life?

We need to challenge these messages when we see them and not accept them as the truth of how things are.

It is actually very natural in this period of life to start to be more accountable, to learn how to contribute and give back, and to develop the skills and have the opportunity to build confidence in one’s abilities as competent, committed and loving people. When we offer these opportunities with support, guidance and a knowing that it is in young people to do this, they will step up and develop, and hold themselves in this way too.


Filed under

YouthParentingRaising childrenTeenagersEducation

  • Photography: Leonne Sharkey, Bachelor of Communications

    For Leonne photography is about relationships, reflection and light. She is constantly amazed by the way a photo can show us all we need to know