Shaping Your Teen’s Character Part 1: Understanding Contemporary Teens

As adapted from materials from Gary Chapman

As a child enters the teen years, they are searching for independence and to establish self-identity. They desire answers to the questions of, “Who am I, and can I make it in this thing called life?” They are stepping out of their life as a kid and starting to view life through a new set of lenses. No longer a kid, yet not quite an adult. Two forces seem to emerge at this point – to separate and strengthen. Parents can lose their focus if they get too caught up in the dynamics unaware.

  1. Teens have a tendency to separate. As teens try and stretch away from being a “kid,” they will often take steps to separate from those things that they accepted before. Things they use to enjoy, places they went, who they spent time with, or ways they accepted your affection may all seem to no longer be well received. As parents, we can personalize this and feel that our teen is rejecting us . . . but it’s wiser to see that our teen is trying to establish their self-identity as a young adult and may attempt that by avoiding the things they did as kids. Some of this separating behavior is normal, but some can be destructive. Teens that reject all authority and advice can find hurt in substance abuse, extreme risk taking, and promiscuous relationships. Parents are wise to consider if their teen’s push for separateness is destructive or merely different. If their behaviors and interests are simply different from ours but not destructive, consider letting them develop rather than fighting them.
  2. Teens have a tendency to strengthen. Stretching away from something also implies that teens are stretching toward something else. The need for social time with peer groups increases as teens try and establish their self-identities. Being around other teens is attractive as they can receive continuous feedback on who they think they are and who they want to be. The need to be connected and accepted is huge, and peer groups help fill that need. Being away from home is an opportunity to strengthen their independence. Again, parents can internalize this and feel as though their kids don’t want to be with them anymore. But it’s helpful to remember that like baby birds learning to fly, teens are just trying to figure out how to step out into life.

A piece of this stretching process will also challenge parents to learn to speak a new dialect of love for their kids through actions, words, items purchased for them, how time is spent, how physical touch is expressed, etc. Some teens will like things exactly the same as when they were little. But most are growing into wanting to hear or be shown a new way of appreciation or affirmation. Frustrations can occur when a child is looking for something new and parents keep speaking the same language.

A parent’s love is the key to helping their teen transition into adulthood. They want and need our love as much as they need and want independence. The two are strongly connected. Sometimes as our teen is expressing their desire for personal space, emotional space, social friend space, intellectual space, values and religious space, and the ever-popular fashion space…it can take a LOT of love to tolerate those growing pains. Your teen needs to increase independence in an effort to mature and prepare to step into adulthood. This can be a painful process for the parent and the teen. It is a wonderful thing if parents can encourage their independence while helping them realize independence is not the end goal. It’s wiser and more principled to also grow in responsibility and understanding the importance of wise counsel.

Gary Chapman summarizes this concept as follows:

“As a loving parent encourages teenage independence, so parental love means teaching the teen to be responsible for his own behavior. Independence without responsibility is the road to low self-esteem, meaningless activity, and eventually boredom and depression. We do not gain self-worth from being independent. Our worth comes from being responsible. Independence and responsibility pave the road to mature adulthood. The teenager who learns to be responsible for his own actions while developing his independence and self-identity will have good self-worth, accomplish worthwhile objectives, and will make a meaningful contribution to the world around him. Teenagers who do not learn responsibility will be troubled teenagers and eventually troublesome adults.”1

To view the entire resource, Shaping Your Teen’s Character, please click here.


  1. Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages of Teenagers (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2000).