By Kara Powell & Brad M. Griffin, Crosswalk.com
“Just be yourself.”
Lilly finds this advice complicated. Despite being a high school 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 the young people in your life, the questions driving them today may be about friends, race, money, grades, abuse, justice, sports, future, family, social media, or mental health. They may be wondering what it will be like to be back in school in person this year, or whether their teenage journeys might be upended again by the unexpected.
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.
Over the last couple of years, our research team at the Fuller Youth Institute has 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 the minds of young people like Lilly at any time, the following questions float to the top.
Who Am I?
The first question is one of identity, or our view of ourselves. All too often teenagers like Lilly find that being “themselves” feels inches—or sometimes miles—beyond their reach. That’s because 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 never 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 why “I am what others expect” was one of the primary themes we heard among teenagers in our study.
Where Do I Fit?
This is the question of belonging, or 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.
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, young people felt a universal impulse to help others. Every single teenager we met 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 give of themselves to benefit others tend to have higher rates of happiness and well-being. But for many 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
This generation is swimming—and sometimes drowning—in questions. Thanks to today’s technology, they can instantaneously receive dozens of possible answers to just about any question. But they’re also growing up in families and churches who shy away from some of their deepest questions about faith and meaning.
Teenagers need adults like you to take time to listen to their questions, and to listen to the questions beneath the questions: the big questions of identity, belonging, and purpose. Once we know what to listen for, we can access a whole new way of seeing and understanding the young people around us. This year more than ever, that’s exactly what they need.
Adapted with permission from Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2021).
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Laurenz Kleinheider
Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content at the Fuller Youth Institute and the coauthor of several books including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.