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updated: 11/11/2011 12:28 PM

Today's teens aren't that mysterious

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"It was common knowledge: Stay away from the vacant lot. That's where kids went to drink -- beer mostly. There were drugs around too, mostly marijuana. If you were smart you stuck to your books, got an after-school job."

A church group reflects on their adolescence. The age of the group members -- young adults, perhaps? No. In fact, the speaker quoted above was 71. The group was sponsored by a senior citizen's nutrition program.

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My point? Many of us seem to throw up our hands in despair when it comes to understanding today's youth. We assume that their experience is unique, and there is no way we can relate to it.

But perhaps their experience is not all that unusual.

There are certainly some differences. Most of us didn't grow up with video games, computers at home and school, smart phones or readily available birth control.

The rate of change also has increased, not to mention that there is now more information available to more people than any one person can possibly assimilate.

However, it also is true that many of the challenges, thoughts and feelings experienced by today's youth are identical to those we faced in our own adolescence.

Personality theorists call them "developmental tasks" -- the growing we need to do at each stage of our life. While the details have changed, the developmental tasks of adolescents in 2011 remain pretty much the same as those of youth in the 1960s, 1940s or even the 1920s. Let's take a brief look at some of these developmental tasks; they'll probably sound familiar.

• Physical changes: Imagine growing by as much as a third in height and weight in the space of a few years. Then tack on discovering your own, and other's, sexuality in a society that places almost overwhelming emphasis on physical beauty, athletic ability, dress, grooming and sexual attractiveness.

• Mental changes: As teenagers, we are learning to think differently. We begin to think things through logically (something younger kids can't do) and appreciate the difference between fantasy and reality. We also begin to understand that many questions are not answered by "yes" or "no," but by "maybe."

• Psychological and social changes: During our teen years we are faced with three main psychosocial developmental tasks.

First, we need to experience ourselves as "industrious," as able to produce, to create, to achieve. We need to experience this at home, in school and in our other life settings.

Second, we work through the basic questions of self-identity, such as "Who am I?" "Where do I fit into this world?" "What is life, my life, all about?" We are laying the foundations for adulthood and our life's path. (Often we begin to answer "Who am I?" by rebelling against our parents and families. Such a declaration of independence is a normal part of growing up, but a particularly difficult part for families.)

Finally, in later adolescence, our focus centers on questions of intimacy -- how to be with and close to others in friendship, at our jobs and in marriage. We look to establish strong relationships that will endure over time.

• Spiritual changes: Our teen years are a time of spiritual change as well. During our early teens, much of what we believe about religion, morality and God comes from our faith group -- church, a church youth group or class. If we have no church ties, it is influenced mainly by the beliefs of our family and peer group. We don't do a lot of questioning, and we accept things pretty much as we hear them.

If we continue to develop spiritually, during our late teens we move into a time of searching and questioning. We often express doubt about the beliefs we so recently professed. We sometimes strike out alone, or deny the need for faith altogether.

• Family changes: Intertwined with all of the preceding are the changes a family experiences. How we handle our development as adolescents is affected by our siblings (or lack of), the age of our parents, our family's economic situation and transitions such as moving, illnesses, divorce and death.

That's a very brief look at the changes we go through as teenagers. We could (and people do) write books about each area of change I've suggested. Perhaps all this stirred up memories of your own adolescence; I know it did for me.

And that's my point; the details have changed, but the basic themes are the same. Today's teens face the same developmental tasks we faced at their age.

There is hope in that. It means us older folks have a foundation upon which to build bridges of dialogue and understanding with teenagers. We've all been there; we know what it's all about first hand. And some things don't change.

• The Rev. Ken Potts' book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available through retailers.

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