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Adolescence and Repurposing One's Life

Redefining and re-energizing youthful purpose is an important part of growing up

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Start by appreciating the power of an adolescent having an anchoring and motivating sense of positive purpose in life.

Such sense of purpose can provide interest (“This calls to me”), meaning (“This matters to me”), direction (“This takes me where I want to go”), and challenge (“This makes demands on me to grow.”)

Without sense of purpose, young life can feel empty or boring or lonely or even depressing. “I have nothing to fill my life;” “I don’t know what to do with myself;” “I have no good way to connect to myself or other people or the world;” “I don’t know the point of living.”

Protracted lack of purpose can cause desperation, and desperation can lead some young people into degrees of risky escape – for example, into diverting Internet entertainment, into social mischief, into substance use to quell the pain.


Yet, in most cases one cannot accomplish the journey of adolescence without experiencing a loss of purpose, when the task then becomes: “How am I going to repurpose (redefine and re-energize) my life now?”

Typically, a young person repurposes along two dimensions of growth – detaching from childhood and parents to create a functional independence, and differentiating from childhood and parents actualize a more individually fitting identity. In both ways, normal repurposing from childhood into adolescence is accomplished.

Consider two major repurposing points during adolescence – at the beginning and at the end. At the beginning, separating from childhood, one has to give up some childish ways in order to grow up. And at the end, moving more out more independently of parents, one has to let go to take the lead for the journey through adulthood.

Just as the young adolescent has to find a new sense of purpose (“I no longer want to be defined and treated as just a child anymore!”) the older adolescent must grab the reins of self-management and begin to chart a way into the future (“I have to lead my life from here on!”)

So, at both the outset and end of adolescence, interest, meaning, direction, and challenge may need to be altered to redefine and reinvigorate sense of purpose for the next leg of the journey through life. Thus you might see a middle school student decide to try playing a musical instrument in band, and a college age student sign up for a summer internship to test out an occupational interest.

Of course, there are a few young people who have to repurpose very little during adolescence because some childhood fascination or passion continues to hold the girl or boy’s dedication all the way through growing up. “My life was always about making music and it always will be.” “As far back as I can remember, playing doctor and wanting to become one was what I intended to do.” However, I believe these young people are the exception to the general adolescent rule: young people must learn to repurpose as they grow.


Then there is repurposing to cope with major life adversity. Along the path of growing up, many young people experience some devastating loss, in the wake of which they find themselves asking the repurposing question: “What am I going to do with my life now?”

Maybe an injury has prematurely ended playing a beloved sport. Maybe a romantic relationship is broken up. Maybe rejection has ended a cherished ambition. Now repurposing is needed, and oftentimes parents can be supportive. “You are going to mourn the loss, you are going recognize the strengths that you developed in what you have accomplished and learned to do, and you are going to explore possibilities for repurposing your life, which has not ended, only changed. Doing so now will prepare you for future repurposing points in adulthood that shall likely occur.”

Repurposing can involve reaching back for what is valued and also reaching forward for what is possible.

Reaching back: “After my high school break-up I was pretty hurt, but I finally gathered the courage to date again. Looking around I also looked back and contacted an old classmate from middle school (we had been pretty good friends) and I found someone who turned out to be the love of my life.”

Reaching forward: “It felt so lonely giving up childhood closeness with my mom; but I knew it was time to build my own circle of friends. And just when I thought I had to live with that loss, my mom started treating me as nearer her age than I used to be, started talking more about her growing up, and now she’s a mom-friend and we do older stuff together we both enjoy.”

I see repurposing as one form of what people have called Resilience, what author Hara Estroff Murano defines as "the countless idiosyncratic , endlessly creative ways ways in which most people struggle with disruption, find a path through it and come out the better for it." (NYT Book Review, 1/14/2018, p.17.)


Sometimes a parent will personally share from hard repurposing points in their own lives that occurred in the wake of unwelcome loss, describe their path to recovery and redefinition, and what they learned. And this can be helpful.

“I took hard lessons and earned strengths from my past, carried them forward into my present, and then applied what I valued in creating a new sense of whatt my life could be about. Circumstances change. Hard stuff happens. Past purposes no longer serve. That’s just life. We want to support you in your sense of loss and also encourage your moving on. Negative repurposing can cause you to spend time on grievance, or giving up, or even fantasizing about self-harm. We want to encourage positive repurposing to redefine and carry on. The other side of loss, however painful, is often some degree of freedom – freedom from the old and freedom for the new. Your job is to start exploiting these opportunities now.”


Years ago in one of my books of Illustrated Psychology, PSYMBOLS – Logos of the Mind (2005), I wrote about the hardest kind of repurposing in the following way. “Disintegration” I called it.

Disintegration is what happens

When what happens causes life to fall apart

Creating voids bereft of what we counted on or loved,

Creating empty spaces without mattering,

Because we miss the missing,

Even what we didn’t know we’d miss,

Now valuing the worth of what we didn’t know we had.

How to recover?

By starting over,

Except there is no starting over,

Only reorganizing the shattered pieces left,

Puzzling them together into some new configuration

Finding odd fits and new possibilities,

Answering change with change.

When what we build comes crashing down,

What we rebuild is not the same.

If loss lets life continue,

Disintegration is part of how we grow.

For more about parenting teenagers, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Correcting Teenagers by Taking Away Freedom of Action or Use