A new look at today’s teenagers
“Just be yourself.”
Lilly finds this advice complicated. Despite being a senior and feeling pressure to have it all figured out by now, Lilly feels tension between who she is at school, home, and church. So on Instagram, she’s just “Lilly.” No pithy bio or descriptors.
For Lilly, no description is better than one that pigeonholes her. Or worse still, one that might repel a friend group—a fate Lilly tries to avoid at all costs. Lilly confesses, “I don’t know how to combine these personalities into one social media account. I don’t know what or when to post.”
The struggle to “just be yourself” raises all kinds of questions for this twelfth grader. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Like every teenager, Lilly is a walking bundle of questions.
Every teenager is a walking bundle of questions
For students you know, the questions driving them today may be about friends, race, money, grades, abuse, justice, sports, future, family, social media, or mental health.
Sometimes their questions leak out and are muttered aloud. More commonly, they remain bottled inside a teenager’s curious mind and conflicted soul.
We’ll never activate this generation if we don’t understand their most pressing questions.
At the Fuller Youth Institute, we love listening to teenagers’ tough questions, as well as the (equally tough) questions about teenagers asked by churches, ministries, and families. We’ve been on this journey since the research behind Sticky Faith and Growing Young, which paved the way for our latest work. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been conducting surveys and focus groups with over 2,200 teenagers, as well as in-depth multi-session interviews with 27 diverse youth group high school students nationwide, one of whom is Lilly, an Asian American 17-year-old from an urban community on the West Coast.
Out of this research, we’ve written our newest book, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, for adults like you who care about teenagers and want to disciple them well.
Among the questions tumbling through any teenager’s mind at any time, the following questions often float to the top.
Who am I?
The first question is one of identity, our view of ourselves. All too often teenagers like Lilly find that being “themselves” feels inches—or sometimes miles—beyond their reach. In part, this is because being yourself is too low of a bar. They seek a loftier goal; they want to be their “best selves.”[i] Lilly plummets emotionally when she makes a mistake. Mistakes “bum me out for like the whole day. I know it is human to make mistakes. But it just makes me feel really bad.” It’s not her best self.
But like Lilly, often a teenager’s self (best or otherwise) is actually a mixture of several selves. While being “yourself” implies a singular self, the average teenager is constantly shuffling through multiple identities—trying to figure out which of their “selves” to play at that moment. Who they are in the neighborhood or at home is different from who they are at school or at their after-school job. All those are different from who they are at church.
“Being yourself” is also tricky because young people are rarely the sole source of their identities. The identity of every teenager is partly formed by the collective influence of family members, friends, and other adult authority figures. This can add up to a lot of expectations, which was one of the primary themes we heard among teenagers in our study:
“I am what others expect.”
Where do I fit?
This is the question of belonging, our connection with others. It’s how we feel like we fit in with groups of people. We might say we “belong” when we’re with those who really know, understand, and accept us for who we are.
Belonging is one of the great spiritual hungers of our day. We are a society marked by loneliness and disconnection. We have friends and followers and fans on social media, but these connections often only remind us who isn’t following us or where we don’t belong.
Like Lilly, teenagers want to belong so badly that they will go to great lengths—even hiding or changing parts of their identity—to feel it. That’s why safety bubbled to the top in our interviews as the most important condition for belonging: “I fit where I feel safe to be me.” Teenagers feel belonging when they feel comfortable, with people who accept them without judgment. Where they’re included, and they don’t have to be fake.
Lilly feels the most belonging in her family. “I feel like we are really close to one another, and even though we fight, we’re always there if we ever need anything. They are the one thing that has been consistent my whole life.” She also feels safe at school, in particular in her student government group, where “I never feel out of touch or confused about what is going on.”
Unfortunately, her youth group doesn’t feel as safe. Because most of the students her age attend a different school, Lilly can feel left out of conversations. “Sometimes I find myself questioning whether they’re just being polite or if I’m actually close with them.”
What difference can I make?
The third big question relates to purpose, which is our contribution to the world.
Each person’s understanding of purpose evolves over a lifetime, but it plays a big role in adolescence and young adulthood. Across our research team’s discussions about identity, belonging, and purpose, we reflected that the students we interviewed felt a universal impulse to help others. Every single teenager we met with talked about “helping” at least once during our three interviews with them.
“I make a difference when I’m helping others” was the most common path to purpose among students. They feel like they matter when they’re caring about people, making someone feel happy, or being a hero.
Research shows that young people who channel their resources and skills to benefit others tend to have higher rates of happiness and well-being.[ii] But for many of the students we talked to, helping others also came at a cost. Lilly was specific in chronicling this cost: “My physical, mental, and emotional health sometimes suffer when I try to make others happy. As their happiness increases, mine sometimes deteriorates. But it’s like, I still want to keep helping, so I do.”
Purpose is also a pipeline for pressure. Especially for Christian teenagers who want to discover God’s plan for their future. Lilly nervously admitted, “I have a career in mind that I want to do, but I don’t know if that’s what God wants for me. What if I pursue it and it ends up not being God’s best for me? I will have spent four years studying something only to scrap it and start all over. I keep changing my mind about what I want to be. I’m wondering how many times it will change before I finally land on what God wants me to do.”
Much of Lilly’s anxiety about missing God’s plan for her life stems from the well-intentioned but stress-laden teachings of her former middle school pastor. “He really emphasized knowing God’s vision for us. Ever since then, I’ve been tripped up about different paths I’m interested in, wondering which is God’s vision for me. I have always been told that our purpose as humans is to advance God’s kingdom, and I want to do that. But I’m stressed because I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that.”
Lilly defined her “happy life” in one sentence: “Being content with God and what God has given me, and learning to be faithful rather than complain.” But right now, she’s swimming in the pressure to figure out who she is, where she fits, and what difference she can make. The 3 big questions haunt her search for happiness.
Why young people need adults like you
Through the stories of Lilly and others like her, we’d like to offer a new look at today’s teenagers. This generation of young people can instantaneously receive dozens of possible answers to just about any question—plus a list of new ones. But they’re also growing up in families and churches who shy away from some of their deepest questions about faith and meaning.
We wrote 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager for any adult who cares about teenagers. If you’re reading this blog post, that’s you.
You can be that adult who sees God’s potential for a young person’s identity, belonging, and purpose when all they see is defeat and dead ends. You can have better connections and conversations with teenagers as they trailblaze toward God’s best answers.
We’re cheering for you—and for young people.
Join us on the journey!
Tweet this: You can be the adult who sees God’s potential for a teenager’s identity, belonging, and purpose when all they see is defeat and dead ends. The Fuller Youth Institute’s latest research insights can help.
Gain a roadmap to the teenagers in your life
Want deeper discussions with the teenagers you care about most?
We listened to young people from across the country, combining in-depth interviews with data from over 2,200 diverse teenagers to bring you rich stories of real young people today. Gain over 300 questions you can use any time at any place, and find out how you can help teenagers find Jesus’ answers to their biggest questions of identity, belonging, and purpose.
Photo by DISRUPTIVO
[i] Kelby Clark, “How Gen Z Is Changing the Face of Modern Beauty,” ViacomCBS, March 7, 2019, https://www.viacom.com/news/how-gen-z-is-changing-the-face-of-modern-beauty.
[ii] Martin E. P. Seligman et al., “Positive Education: Positive Psychology and Classroom Interventions,” Oxford Review of Education 35, no. 3 (2009): 301.
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