Why Are Teenagers the Way They Are?

By Sean Dalton

The teenage years are tumultuous. Would you want to do it again? Me either.

But why are teens the way they are?  

I would argue the reason is two-fold: Puberty and “Systemic Abandonment.”  Puberty is self-explanatory, but what do I mean by “Systemic Abandonment”?

Before Hunger Games, there was a classic work of literature with the theme of kids killing other kids. It is Lord of the Flies by Nobel Prize Literature Award winner William Golding. Marooned on an island from a plane crash and without any adults, a group of school boys attempt to create order while they await rescue. At first they start out civilized, but they quickly succumb to their fears and delusions and descend into savagery. At its climactic moment, a group of boys are hunting down another boy to kill him when they come upon a British Naval Officer. In that moment, the boys come to their senses and break down into remorseful sobbing. Why? Standing before them is an adult who represents the security, authority, and order that had been absent in their life on the island. Standing before them is an adult who can both save them from the island and also from themselves.

Teenagers behave the way that they do because so many have been marooned to a peer dominated island with few if any meaningful relationships with adults and they are hurting. Dr. Chap Clark, author of Hurt 2.0 and a widely-respected veteran of youth ministry, writes that young people are experiencing systemic abandonment. In his research with teens he has discovered that a majority of teens feel their lives are about conforming to the agenda and expectations of the adults around them whether they are parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, and even youth ministers. These adults manage, direct, teach, coach, supervise, and reprimand but these adults are not meeting teenagers where they are at. In other words, they are not seeking first to understand them, build healthy friendships, and attempt to relate to them as adults. As a result, the adults in their lives are failing to fulfill their primary responsibility to love and nurture young people to adulthood.

In sum, systemic abandonment by institutions and adults who are in positions originally designed to care for adolescents has created a culture of isolation. [116] It is into this world of retreat we must go, determined to listen, to see, and ultimately to understand the circumstances that adult abandonment has helped to foster. By the time children, even the successful ones, reach high school and middle adolescence, they are aware of the fact that for most of their lives they have been pushed, prodded, and molded to become a person whose value rests in his or her ability to serve someone else’s agenda. Whether they experience it from a coach, a schoolteacher, a parent, a music teacher, or a Sunday school counselor, mid adolescents intuitively believe that nearly every adult they have encountered has been subtly out to get something from them. When this for the world beneath. (Hurt 2.0, p. 54)

When fundamental, psychological needs of teenagers are not being met the pressures they face can become overwhelming and as a result the Lord of the Flies is played out in their lives.  Cliques, masks, rebellion, bullying, school shootings, substance abuse, promiscuity, addictions to pornography and video games, gangs, constant escape into the noise and distraction of media/technology, rebellion, vandalism, suicide, reckless behavior, and the list goes on.

But all is not lost. You can play a pivotal role by meeting their needs. Learn more here: 


Sean Dalton works for the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado.  He is a former Director of YDisciple.

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