young people, group, friends

How to Deal with Teenagers by Fr. Michael Pfliegler


Characteristic Attitudes of puberty

1. The naivete of childhood comes to an end.

Up to this time the child was an undeveloped human being without an individual personality. His responses and attitudes were dictated by the group to which he belonged. He accepted ideas and beliefs unquestioningly. Now he is able to reason out a question, to accept or reject a given position.

All at once the child notices the difference (or even the sharp contrast) between the religious lessons in school and the attitudes of his parents at home. He finds himself living in two different worlds, whereas formerly it was all one world. He used to go to church without giving it a second thought now he notices that his parents do not go to church.

He begins to display an ambivalent attitude toward religious practice even when his parents try to prevent this from happening. He is forced to keep his inner conflicts bottled up inside him. The child withdraws into himself more and more. He becomes sulky at home and makes a nuisance of himself in religion class. Inside he is tormented with a feeling of helplessness. He wants to break loose from this environment which is so confusing to him. And his unrest finds expression in unruly behavior, flippant answers and wisecracks. He says whatever comes into his head on the spur of the moment, without thinking at all.

2. The youth begins to relinquish the pious practices of childhood.

Good children are frightened by the realization that they no longer feel as devout as they used to, that sometimes they feel downright irreverent. They often feel like creating a ruckus vhen this is completely out of place. The religion instructor must adapt his classes to the situation. He should not judge their attitude toward religious doctrines and practices on the basis of their impudence and restlessness.

Pupils will now begin to have doubts about the ideas they once held. Their inner unrest will prompt them to make bold statements: “There is no God” or “Jesus can’t be present in the Eucharist.” But as yet they are not capable of having deep-rooted doubts. “The individual can only make a mature decision about his religious life when he has worked out such a life for himself”.

The moodiness of the pre-adolescent works itself out more easily in an environment where religious ideals prevail. The complicated environment of the big city only heightens the problems of the transition. The process starts earlier for girls, but the pace varies greatly from one individual to the next.

3. The unrest of this period gives rise to a passion for truth and facts.

Pious legends and tales are no longer acceptable. It becames clear that the stork has nothing to do with babies. The modern trend toward early sex education may diminish the shock of the first wet-dream or menstruation. But there is a danger that children will leam the mystery of life before they can fully appreciate its importance. Curiosity may induce them to experiment with the information they have acquired. It is no secret that there have been “affairs” between twelve and thirteen year olds.

Premature sex experience spoils one’s outlook on true love and the real grandeur of sex. It becomes a topic for dirty jokes and distorted humor. But we readily admit that there may be exceptions to this general pattern. And, in any case, serious questions deserve a serious, truthful answer. Such questions will be asked by the pre-adolescent because he is full of questions.

4. The last few months of this stage are singled out by many psychologists as a “negative phase.”

It would be futile to try to pinpoint it exactly on a calendar, as some attempt to do. But it is certain that in the last few weeks or months of pre-adolescence children display extraordinary obstinacy and stubborness. They lose all interest in work and become uncooperative. Plagued by inner turmoil they find it hard to use their memory: and their reasoning power is not yet well formed. Many become loners. It is an especially dangerous period for girls because they are caught between the pangs of inner anxiety and the temptations of a budding curiosity.

Pastoral Considerations

  • 1. The religious instructor maintains control over the unruliness of his pupils through patience, understanding, composure, and self-confidence. He does not allow himself to be baited, but continues to teach with perseverance and logic. He does not use coercion, and he gives consideration to his pupils as individuals. The curriculum also should be adapted to the needs of the age. It is a good time to introduce students to the stirring pageant of salvation-history and to update their liturgical training.
  • 2. The religious instructor should not let himself be annoyed or discouraged by the impudence or irreverence of his pupils. They are very unsure of themselves and driven by a passionate urge to discover truth and reality in their own way. They need love understanding and patience.
  • 3. Mutual contact and cooperation between all those responsible for the child’s upbringing—parents, teachers, priests—is of the utmost importance in these years.


1. Its Inception

It is almost impossible to delimit with any certainty the age-span in which puberty takes place. The clearest sign of its presence is the first “wet-dream” or menstrual period. But these initial experiences vary from one individual to the next. Sex, climate, racial strain, and cultural factors all exert an influence. Girls mature earlier than boys; and historical circumstances, such as war, accelerate the growth process.

If one wishes to hold to the traditional approach, one could place this stage between the ages of 14 (12) and 18 ( 16-19) . In terms of school life it occurs between junior high school and the end of high school. And there are various stages within the period itself.

In general, we can say that puberty is not a linear process. It moves along fitfully, and there are periods of crisis and retrogression. This is to be expected because it takes place on various levels of human activity—the physical, the emotional, the intellectual. Physiologically it begins with the secretion of the gonads. More significant is the secretion of the sex hormones which are released into the bloodstream and produce certain reactions in the central nervous system. The endocrine glands are active, contributing to the growth of the sex organs and the development of secondary sex characteristics. Physical and psychic development proceed along the same general lines and interact with one another. But the exact nature of this interaction is not yet known.\

2. Its Essence

Puberty comes from the Latin word pubertas meaning fertility.

  • 1. Corporeally it signifies that a living organism of a given species has matured enough physically to be able to propagate the life of the species. This corporeal development procecds inexorably according to certain natural laws, unless it is disrupted by endocrine malfunction. Hyperactivity of some gland may produce premature development; hypoactivity may arrest proper development.
  • 2. Psychically it signifies that the human being has laid the groundwork for the full development of his own personality, the individuality envisioned for him by God. Hence, it varies greatly from one person to the next, depending on his natural talents and abilities. It implies that the human being is now able to assume responsibility in his culture: he is able to contribute to it and to pass it on to others. The ultimate goal of this development may be called adulthood. It implies that the Individual possesses the necessary understanding and ability to make mature decisions and answer for them before God, society and his own conscience.
  • Psychic development is a double-edged phenomenon. On the one hand, it is to some extent related to and dependent on corporeal development; on the other hand, it involves the maturation of a spiritual personality possessing free will. The adolescent still needs training, but now he must consciously cooperate in this process and also train himself. But outside influence as well as free-will plays a part in deciding what is to be learned and how it will be learned.
  • 3. Pre-adolescence was merely the prelude to puberty itself. Now the distinctive characteristics of the transition make their full weight felt and radically change the life of the individual. The boy or girl is gradually transformed into a man or woman. Herein lies the source of much trial and tribulation. The adolescent is no longer a child, but not yet an adult. He must bear up under the confusion, and so must his elders. Physically and spiritually he is still unsettled and therefore in danger. And if the surrounding environment is also unsettled, as is often the case, then the transition is even more difficult and perilous.
  • The over-all result is a state of confusion and disorder. The physical changes frighten and confuse the young person, raising many questions in his mind; but he is afraid to ask advice. He wonders to what extent he is personally responsible for these changed feelings. His external conduct now strikes him as being ridiculous, childish, and incongruous. And he is annoyed to find that grown-ups feel the same way about it. His gait and manner become awkward. To compensate for his uneasiness, he puts on a show of bravado and deliberately acts boorishly. Herein lie the roots of his pompous airs and reckless deeds. He becomes one of the boys and associates with other adolescents. In their company no one yells at him or tells him to take his hands out of his pockets.
  • In religious matters there is also great uncertainty; just how much depends to a large extent on his previous training or lack of it. He shuns communal activities, feeling that there is no place for him; and he formulates questions of a rebellious nature. But all this is essentially a passing phase. His utterances are not the expression of a definitive position, but of an inner unrest. And the same is true in the moral sphere.
  • Much of what we have just said about the adolescent boy also applies to teenage girls. But silliness rather than boorishness is their dominant form of expression. They defend themselves against the adult world by giggling constantly.
  • 4. What is the significance of this developmental stage? At this point the human person begins to develop a real person ality . Now is the time for him to become a fully developed individual. Since everything is in a state of flux, one cannot overestimate the significance of any particular moment. But this period does represent the psychological optimum for the development of a mature personality. The developmental process itself is erratic and proceeds at various tempos on different levels. The parent or priest must not become too hopeful or too discouraged over the situation at one particular moment. He should stay close to the adolescent throughout this period and watch over his progress.

1. The Development of Individual Personality

A child is a person too (in formation). But the word person refers primarily to an adult human being who is aware of his environment and his own individuality, who can make free decisions and bear the responsibility for them.

Individual personality is the terminus of human development—the human being as a more or less fully developed entity. The young child is a member of the human species, but he is not yet a fully developed individual. His dependence on the group is an indication of this fact. He has not yet attained the ultimate goal of the growth process.

This goal is not handed to human beings on a silver platter. It is something they must freely choose and work out themselves. It is an adventure full of risks, and there is a danger that they may never reach the ultimate goal. The adolescent is driven by natural impulses to break free from the group and to develop his individuality. But it is more than a natural impulse: it is also a duty requiring much effort on his part. This process involves several distinct discoveries made during adolescence.

1. The discovery of the “ego.” The ego is the core of the individual person, the center of self-awareness. From this focal point the individual looks out on the world and investigates the foundations of reality; from here he makes his free decisions and plans his life. The ego is the focal point of individuality and self-esteem, the embodiment of our fulfillment as human beings.

This is the first great discovery made by the adolescent. He no longer is content to have others make decisions for him, as they did when he was a child. Overjoyed with the discovery of his own individuality, he may place too high value on it. But at the same time he is pained by the realisation that he is not yet a fully developed individual, an adult.

He wants recognition, but does not want to admit his evident immaturity. He pouts continually over the fact that he treated as a child.

Parents and teachers should appreciate the significance of this transition. They should respect this growing sense self-awareness and emphasize the need for personal responsibility, without embarrassing the teenager. Otherwise their advice will go unheeded, and they will not be able to exert any influence on them.

2. The discovery of personal freedom. The adolescent begins to appreciate the meaning of free will and personal decision. This discovery may express itself in different ways among children in different environments—city, country, school.

In general, it, too, leads to resentment over restrictions imposed from the outside. Adults will frequently misconstrue it as “contempt for authority.” But in reality it is a natural transition from the regulated existence of childhood to the freedom of adult life. It should be regarded as a developmental phenomenon, not as a moral attitude.

However, the teenager should be made to realize that it could become a moral danger if carried to excess. This point can be put across only by someone who has won the teenager’s confidence. Otherwise this transitional attitude may develop into a permanent dislike for authority and order; and the person will never grow into a mature adult. The teenager must be made to realize two things.

a) He is still bound by the norms of good order. Now, however, he must adapt himself to these norms in a more mature way.

b) Even the adult must live within the moral and social order. But unlike the child his conduct should be motivated by free will and personal conviction. He must appreciate the necessity for self-regulation and its contribution to his own self-fulfillment.

3. The pre-adolescent child is orientated toward the outside world. The adolescent discovers his own inner world and finds it richer, more attractive, and more mysterious. One indication of this is his day-dreaming. He can spend hours on end dreaming about an imaginary world or his plans for the future. These dreams may become almost an obsession. It is the time for building castles in the air. Sometimes this concentration on the inner world leads to an extraordinary productivity. Boys become great poets (for the moment) and girls write voluminous diaries. They are caught up in their new discoveries and can express themselves fluently in prose and verse. Or they may find an outlet in painting. One would think that it was the dawn of a golden age for art and literature. But ten years later they are salesmen or businessmen.

2. Radicalism

The radicalism of the teenager is a passionate desire to ge to the roots of things. Of course, this desire expresses itself in many different forms depending on the individual’s talent inclinations, and educational level.

1. The adolescent is deeply interested in metaphysical questions. At no other stage of life does he show such a passionate concern for ultimate values. He is often disillusioned by the fact that his teachers cannot answer these questions satisfactorily. And he himself cannot think out a question: he merely encounters it on the experimental level.

He takes to reading the philosophers who are causing a stir in his day (e.g., the atheists Sartre and Camus), even though he may not understand everything they say. I need hardly say that I did not understand even one-tenth of what I read; but no one who appreciates the situation would deplore the fact that youn people are first attracted by the spirit and tone of what the read.

Now someone may ask: “Where is this type of youth today?” Well, young people today are still the same.

When they reach adolescence, they begin to ask these metaphysical questions. But the modern world is filled with the din of fast cars and automated devices. In our society the sports hero represents the pinnacle of success. The adolescent is fascinated and attracted by these standards and values; he is sorely tempted to squelch the questions gnawing at his heart. It is up to thc priest to appreciate the inner concerns of the adolescent and to keep them alive.

2. The adolescent approaches problems intuitively and finds little satisfaction in the answers given to him. Any priest or catechist who deals with sixteen and seventeen-year-olds will notice this. But why is it so?

a) Adolescents will not and cannot believe that these ultimate questions cannot be fully answered by human reason. They regard the intellect as the faculty capable of answering every question. They rely totally on it and refuse to accept its limitations, even though they encounter these limitations every day.

b) The adolescent approaches questions intuitively because his mind is overwhelmed by the thoughts obsessing it. He cannot be bothered with a closely reasoned inquiry. So he must be persuaded that such an inquiry is necessary. His own preoccupations and questions seem more vital and exciting than the dry presentation of his teachers. They range over a wide area, while the classroom lectures seem to be narrow and restricted.

c) The problems he experiences are more pressing and real than the vague answers he receives. This is especially true in matters of faith where an element of mystery is involved.

d) However, the main reason for his reluctance to accept answers is his dislike for hasty definitions and premature solutions.

It is a characteristic trait of the teenager. Everything is in a state of flux as far as he is concerned. His questions are the expression of an inner unrest, symptoms of the transformation which he is undergoing.

e) In his own eyes the passion for questions is completely genuine and cannot be challenged. The whole purpose of life is open to question. And his doubts may even engender a disgust for life and a longing for death. Student counselors know very well that teenagers may entertain the idea of suicide.

3. Now we can appreciate the purpose and value of this adolescent radicalism. At some point in life every man is compelled to face up to the ultimate questions: the purpose of life, life and death, time and eternity, God, personal responsibility. In the vital years of adolescence, when the human being is forming his individuality and assuming personal responsibility for his actions, he must necessarily be a passionate metaphysician. Otherwise he will grow up to be just another dumb animal and spend his life eating, drinking, and procreating—nothing more. If he wants to end as a man, he must strive for self-fulfillment. And it is during adolescence that he lays the groundwork for this struggle. The adolescent has a critical decision to make, and this fact must be appreciated fully and properly.

4. The critical decision which occupies the teenager’s mind can be a source of annoyance to parents, priests, and teachers. They may easily be tempted to disregard its importance. The adults around him have already made their compromises with life. They have resigned themselves to their previous failings and mistakes, and find life tolerable as it is. They are content with their lot even if they have not achieved everything they once envisioned for themselves.

Parents want their children to be content with life as they are. They have no interest in any critical decision facing their youngsters. They want their children to “adapt,” to “be realistic.”

But the adolescent is compelled to face this burning question about his future. His whole being revolts against the compromising attitudes of the adult world. He is not prepared to make his decision yet, but he has no respect for “practical” considerations. To be sure, he has it easier than his father who is trying to ofler advice. For he is not yet forced to make a clear-cut choice. This is the time of life when he stands suspended between various alternatives, and this can be painful for himself and those around him.

But this state of indecision is quite proper at this stage of life. He has plenty of time to make a decision, and he should not be rushed. We would not want him to set his sights too low, to make an easy compromise with the world. At this stage he is keenly aware of his own weaknesses and frailties, but he does not want to base his decision solely on these weaknesses: nor should he. Parents and teachers should be wise enough to understand this.

5. This radicalism should not be held against the teenager. And it is useless to try to discourage it. However, it does contain two potential dangers to which even the best intentioned may fall prey. Those responsible for his training should keep these dangers in mind.

a) In the swirl of confusion surrounding these years the adolescent tends to forget the importance of perseverance, the value of tradition, and the rightful claims of the adults who are responsible for his upbringing.

b) Furthermore, this radicalism is still nothing more than a vague attitude. As yet it does not have purpose or direction. The young man’s powers of judgment are still undeveloped, and he may be captivated by those who advocate scepticism and nihilism. Now is the time when he needs a wise counselor by his side, one in whom he has confidence.

3. Idealism

The third characteristic attitude of the adolescent is his moral idealism.

1. At this age the young person directs his attention toward some great ideal which he admires. Never in life will he be so ready to sacrifice everything, even his life, for an ideal. Youth movements will flourish only if lofty goals are set for them. They must have some great ideal to strive for.

Young people are lost without ideals. Only by striving for some lofty goal can they surmount their growing pains. And this idealism also serves indirectly to preserve their moral life. However, it does not launch a direct attack on sin or focus their attention on danger zones. Too much preoccupation with potential sources of danger may become a danger in itself. And excessive clarifications are also uncalled for. But the counselor must give appropriate answers to the questions asked.

An age which can no longer propose ideals to its young people forfeits the right to complain about them. Only a society which is motivated by ideals can still do this.

2. During these years (17-18) the young man begins to think about his earthly goal, his calling in life. And he will only find happiness in a calling which has its roots in the noble idealism of his youth. It is usually at this stage of life that a young person decides to follow a religious vocation, or dreams about “the right girl” for him.

3. The danger threatening this youthful idealism is rooted in the teenager’s immaturity. His critical powers are not yet fully developed, so he may readily devote himself to a false ideal. He is very much open to a call, no matter what the source may be. If the parent or priest is to exert an influence on the young adolescent, he must remember one thing: the youth cannot be dissuaded from some ideal by reasoning or ridicule. Logic did not attract him to this ideal, so logic cannot dissuade him. One ideal can be overcome only by another ideal which is more compelling and more attractive. The example of a flourishing Christian community will succeed where reasoned arguments will not. The priest who is a living embodiment of priestly ideals will attract others to the priesthood. This is his first duty toward his young charges—to set an inspiring example of true Christian living.

4. Activism

The adolescent is deeply impressed by everything which smacks of vitality and life. The floodgates of life open up for him, and he is swept along in a stream of activity. Every new venture, every “wave of the future” makes a deep impression on him.

1. New historical movements, especially political ones, often begin by making an appeal to young people. And if they are to succeed in this appeal, they must offer a program of concrete action adapted to the problems of the day. It is very important that the religion teacher realize this. Dry principles and logical arguments, which seem to have no bearing on life itself, have no appeal for teenagers. Apologetics leaves them cold, and they prefer to attack rather than defend a position even when the supporting evidence is quite strong.

They are more deeply touched by ideals and values which involve action: heroism, nationalism, sports, courage. Their heroes are those who display qualities of leadership, men of action. In school their favorite teacher may be the gym instructor or the athletic director. Thus the religion teacher must possess some of these qualities, and his classes must be up-to-date and forward-looking. His students will perk up when he takes a forthright stand against some pernicious error or contemporary evil. Now is the time to rescue them from the mire of contemporary errors and evils,

to call them to the pursuit of higher ideals.

2. An age without real ideals can only offer second-rate substitutes, e.g., social status, the two-car garage. It produces young people who fritter away their time in romantic escapades and drinking sprees. It spawns the emptyheaded cynic, the thrill-seeking speedster, and the sadistic gang-member who makes a name for himself—in the tabloids at least.


Although much has been written about puberty and the years of adolescence, this stage of life is still commonly regarded as the “awkward age,” something which the young person must grow out of. In this respect primitive peoples have shown greater wisdom than we. On reaching puberty the young person was accepted as an adult after undergoing certain initiation rites. Their physical and psychic maturity was put to the test, and they were instructed in the significance of their new role. Once upon a time the social order was a well-regulated community guided by definite principles. It could correct many flaws which had cropped up during the earlier phases of development. But such is not the case any longer. The first goal of puberty is the development of a mature human person, in outline form at least.

Physically he is now able to procreate new human life and should appreciate the responsibility involved. Psychically he should be able to face life and make decisions on his own. In short, puberty should produce an intelligent human being who has outgrown the trappings of childhood and developed into a mature individual.

From the Religious Viewpoint

The vitality of the adolescent, his anxiety to get to the roots of things and to devote his life to some great cause, should lead to an awareness of man’s eternal destiny. Thus he will be prepared to make his most important decision, to set the ultimate goal which gives life real meaning and value. If the adolescent never gains this awareness, he will not be able to make this important decision. The consequences could be disastrous.

In any case, this stage of development does represent the psychological optimum for a mature religious formation. The priest and the educator must try to convince the adolescent that man’s life is meaningless if it is not founded on an awareness of God. This should be the point stressed in high-school religion instruction. The growing child is now mature enough to appreciate this truth. And he can also appreciate the value and the necessity of communal worship. In this area, however, much depends upon the vitality of his parish and its liturgical worship. It is in these crucial years that new members are recruited for the lay apostolate.

From the Moral Viewpoint

In this stage of life the adolescent should develop into a mature individual, one who is able to bear full responsibility for his own actions. He should also be able to bear his share of social responsibility before God and his fellow men. The herd-morality of childhood should give way to personal responsibility. He should come to appreciate the intrinsic necessity of the moral order and the need for personal commitment. All the groundwork of a mature existence, both as a human being and a Christian, should be laid by the end of adolescence. The docile child must be transformed into a thinking adult who can direct his own life. Unfortunately, it often happens that confessors and spiritual directors hold up the docile child as the model of a true Christian. They unwittingly try to impose monastic ideals on those who live in the world. This can become a complete distortion of the meaning of maturity. The monk candepend upon his superiors and allow them to make decisions for him. The Christian living in the world must know howto make his own decisions in critical situations.

Since puberty is generally regarded as merely a physiological phenomenon, the man of faith, and particularly the priest, must appreciate its deeper metaphysical significance and offer appropriate guidance. Every being in God’s visible creation except man acts according to certain inexorable laws. Only man has been granted the power to decide his own destiny. Iron-clad laws govern the activity of lower creatures: free choice rules the activity of spiritual creatures. Man represents one of God’s “risks.” This is the root of his dignity and also a source of danger. His life is a hazardous venture because it is possible for him to reject right order, to commit sin. Human freedom is supposed to be used in the proper way. Man is supposed to submit to God’s will by his own free choice. But even though man continually commits sin, God does not deprive him of his freedom. For He would be destroying man’s nature.