What Do Teens WANT To Change About Their Lives?

Teaching teens on a daily basis has given me a pretty good beat on what they’re going through.

Every once in a while, my youth throw out a nugget of information that causes me to pause and scratch my head and examine their words more closely. And, being a writer, I never cease to discuss it with them and take careful notes.

Recently, my middle schoolers were casually talking about their daily routines. In listening to them, I was struck by the vast complexity of their lives and the ceaseless plodding they do to and from class to practices and rehearsals and games to performances to homework and family time and social events.

As I began to question my students about how they felt about their schedules, I heard an outpouring of frustration about stress and busyness.

Curious, I asked a question that electrified the room: what would you actually change about your life, if you could?

Challenging an entire classroom full of teens to actually think about what they would change about their lives was thought-provoking. Their responses give a fascinating insight into the state of our kids’ minds.

Here are the top responses my students confessed they would change about their lives.

I’ll share a few more thoughts on this in my next post.

I would focus.

Today’s teenagers feel pulled in a million directions at once, with obligations to school and family, teams and clubs, tutors and coaches and churches.

As one eighth grader recounted, “I usually have at least two or three hours of homework every night. Since I go right from school to practice, I barely have time to eat dinner before spending the rest of the night on homework. I’m constantly exhausted!”

It’s telling that teens are admitting that their preference would be to focus on just one or two things, and not have such chaotic lives. “I would definitely have one hobby, not twenty!” said one of my seventh graders.

How can we help our teens learn to focus? Again, this is an opportunity for us to work with teens on developing healthy habits and ways of dealing with chaos. Let’s start by encouraging them to be present in the moment, which means putting the cell phones down, not worrying about posing for Instagram photos, and turning off the televisions and radios and laptops.

Oh, and adults? We can benefit from this, too. We daily wade through a world of sensory overload, so learning to unplug and walk away for a short time can be beneficial for people of all ages.

I would have more freedom.

The desire teenagers have for increased freedom is normal. It’s a natural outcome of their maturation into independently functioning adults. The tension of letting teenagers increase their freedom, however, is a delicate balancing act. Not all teens mature at the same rate, so educators and parents alike have the challenging job of discerning just how much freedom to dole out from kid to kid.

According to my students, they deeply desire having more freedom, though they understand that they can’t be given unlimited autonomy. As one teen told me, “My parents don’t really give me the choice on what I want to do. I wish I could tell my parents to let me make my own decisions on what to do regarding my after school activities—and that they would realize that I am old enough to start making my own dinner, for instance.”

Other students agreed. “I’m being forced to do tae kwon do and I enjoy it sometimes, but most of the time it’s not enjoyable. I want to stop doing it, but my parents aren’t receptive on hearing what I really want to do.”

In helping our middle schoolers with this, I think it’s important to remind our students that authority needs to be respected and supported. However, as adults, we recognize clearly that our young teens will be walking in the tension of wanting to grow up and have “adult freedom” though they aren’t necessarily prepared for it.

I feel that middle school is an important time to give plenty of opportunities for “small freedoms”—walking around in groups at an event and handling their own dinner money, for example, or checking in on occasion with an adult leader instead of being supervised every single minute by a team of overzealous bodyguards. Letting teens lead portions of youth events, or making small decisions in youth group, or voting on what curriculum subjects they’d like to learn about are all age-appropriate and effective ways to allow teens to experience freedom without feeling like they’re still babied.

Be aware that this is a difficult road that parents and teens are navigating at different rates and in different ways. As leaders, we can encourage families to have open communication about freedom, but we don’t get to dictate to parents what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their own kids regarding this tricky topic.

I would be respected even though I’m young.

Again, it’s not surprising that our teenagers want to feel respected. It’s part of the journey into adulthood that every individual traverses.

Today’s teenagers feel a bit stifled, however. It makes sense—up until very recently, teenagers were treated as adults in society, maintaining jobs and starting families at a much younger age than today’s teens. The outcome of delayed adulthood has resulted in a generation of frustrated kids who feel ready for independence and all that comes with it, but are not necessarily prepared for it yet.

My teenagers complained about being treated like “little kids” far too often. As one student told me,  “I wish people would respect me the way I respect them. A lot of people in my life act like they are at a higher level than me and they treat me like they are superior.” Other students echoed the same frustration, pouring out how frustrated they feel when adults tell them that they’re “too young to know about that” or discount them because of their age.

How can we help our students feel respected? Easy—we let them have opportunities to prove themselves. Very rarely have I issued a challenge to teens that they failed. Teens are dying for the chance to flex their wings and tackle more than they ever have. Will they need guidance? Yes. But you giving them their first taste of freedom is a blessing that they will not take for granted.

1 Timothy 4:12 can be a great encouragement and guide to our teenagers:  “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

When I’ve challenged my youth, they’ve risen to the occasion with incredible results. I’ve seen young teenagers start several ministry groups, feed homeless, pray with strangers, prepare and serve banquets, and more just because someone was wiling to give them the opportunity to try—even though they were young.