Engage with life or escape from life, that is the adolescent question?
Should the adolescent face another challenge in the long trial and error process called growing up, or avoid the encounter and seek temporary relief?
Work or procrastinate, attend or space out, admit or lie, show up or skip, get to work or get high, respond to daily reality or retreat into electronic entertainment, these are just some of the ‘engage or escape' choices adolescents have.
For the teenager who is mostly concerned with pleasure or comfort now, escape from challenge feels like a good short-term strategy; but when it comes to growing up this proves to be a bad long-term solution. Growing up was never made to be easy or to be without duress. No matter how much fun you have along the way, the challenges are always hard.
And hardest of all is this: only by engaging with these challenges, not running from them, can growing up occur. Escape engagement and an opportunity for growth is lost as development toward maturity is delayed, sometimes even arrested.
Why arrested? Because with each attempt at engagement, successful or not, comes a new measure of responsibility. And increments of responsibility are the building blocks of growing up. Escape is the enemy of responsibility.
Consider an extreme case of arrested development in a young person whose chronological age is eighteen, but whose operating age, based on his or her lack of responsibility and consequent immaturity, is maybe thirteen or fourteen. What forms does this persistent escape take?
When it comes to COMMITMENT, he keeps breaking promises to himself and others. By repeatedly not keeping his word, he has lost some faith in his capacity to be reliable and in his being self-reliant.
When it comes to COMPLETION, she rarely finishes what she begins. By starting much and getting little accomplished, she has lost some confidence in her capacity to follow through and meet personal goals.
When it comes to CONSISTENCY, he doesn't maintain continuity of constructive effort. By repeatedly being unable to keep up a healthy regimen, he has lost some capacity for self-discipline and self-care.
When it comes to CONFRONTATION, she avoids and puts off dealing with painful situations. By repeatedly choosing not to deal with emotional discomfort, she has lost some capacity to work through personal hardship.
When it comes to COURAGE, he hides from telling the truth by taking refuge in dishonesty. By repeatedly choosing to lie about what is really happening, he has lost some capacity for dealing forthrightly with reality.
When it comes to CONTROL, she lets impulse rule judgment. By repeatedly giving into the lure of immediate gratification, she has lost some capacity to resist temptation for the greater good.
When it comes to CONSEQUENCES, he disowns the results of his actions. By repeatedly denying the connection between bad choices and bad consequences, he has lost some capacity for personal accountability.
When it comes to CLOSURE, she decides by default (making no decision) when deciding gets hard. By repeatedly letting circumstance dictate difficult decisions, she has lost some capacity for mental toughness.
When it comes to COMMUNICATION, he shuts up about or acts out painful feelings. By repeatedly refusing to honor and speak about hard feelings directly, he has lost some capacity for open and honest emotional expression.
When it comes to CARING, she gives up what truly matters to herself. By repeatedly betraying what has had and still has core value for her, she has lost some capacity to maintain her sense of personal integrity.
So what can parents say to keep encouraging their adolescent to directly engage with the demands and challenges of life? They can offer some simple advice that, if consistently followed, can strengthen the young person's growth of responsibility.
1."Keep your promises and agreements."
2."Finish what you begin."
3."Maintain what's good for you."
4."Meet your problems head on."
5."Tell the truth about what is really going on."
6."Use good judgment to resist bad temptation."
7."Own bad decisions so you can learn from your mistakes."
8."Learn to choose between hard choices."
9."Admit hard feelings and talk them out."
10."Don't betray what you truly believe in or you will betray yourself."
During adolescence, engagement with the challenges of growing up is always in competition with the temptation to escape. In my novel about the adventures of adolescence, "The Helper's Apprentice," police Officer LaSalle explains this to the young boy who has been trying to escape his troubles.
"Running off or running from is all the same. Just running. Further you go never's far enough ‘cause there ain't no away. Whatever's chasing you keeps catching up. No...Running won't keep you from getting caught, not when it's you you're running from. I've seen a lot of runners and I know. Fastest man ain't been made that can outrun his self."
Next week's entry: Adolescence and the limits of parental responsibility