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Cause and Effect in the Teen World

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Message Bret Stephenson
The land of adolescence is governed by the laws of Cause and Effect, as is the rest of the universe. Like anyone else in denial, teens have a magical form of thinking that seems, they hope, to make them immune to this most basic of laws. Most younger children subscribe to the laws of Cause and Effect, and often on faith from a trusted loved one or caregiver. For instance, when we tell our younger kids that the stove burner is hot, more often than not they will believe us and not tempt fate by testing it.

However, the process of adolescence compels teens to touch the burner, to find out if the abstract truth we told them earlier is true in their new adolescent reality. This most basic of adolescent laws is where so many adults go wrong in dealing with teens. Most young kids believe the bulk of what their parents tell them about the adult world. This is an abstract in that we are telling them that what they learn now will benefit them in the future, kind of like they told us about algebra or chemistry. If you're one of those people who have not had to use your rusty algebra skills as an adult, then the abstract truth your teachers told you has not manifested in the truth of reality. The biggest dilemma in this concept is when we tell our children that if they do X, then Y will happen.

Heck, just a year or two ago we were contentedly watching Harry Potter and Shreck with them. They believed faithfully in our description of what happens when you tamper with the laws of the land, if X then Y: steal and go to jail, lie and you'll get caught, skip school and you'll ruin your adult life. The breakdown happens when we adults do not back up the bluffs and threats we've issued previously. Almost any parent can tell you what happens when you tell a child X will happen if they don't perform a certain task and we neglect to follow through on the Effect, or consequence: we've set a dangerous precedent for the next time and our boundaries are stretched. If you've ever found yourself saying "This is your last warning!" or "How many times have I asked you to"" then you know the feeling.

First, we seem to take it personal that the teen doesn't believe us about the burner. We grownups need to understand that it is not only normal for teens to test the burner, but that they need to do so in order to grow. Most of us adults know we learn our best lessons in life from our mistakes. We know, hard as it is, that we have to let our small child fall off his or her bike once or twice in order to learn the reality of how to ride a bike and what happens if you do not pay attention on one. The process of adolescence often requires that the teen, or pre-teen, test the abstract concept by testing it in reality. This is why it is so critical for ALL adults to hold their boundaries with teens: to be the reality we warned them about so long ago.

Second, teens absolutely hate it when adults say or model "Do what I say, not what I do." Teens are the masters at finding hypocrisy and double standards in the adult world. Why? Because they are looking for loopholes to all that reality we told them about earlier in life. Wouldn't it be nice, they think, if all those bad things the adults told us would happen didn't manifest after all?? This makes the abstract messages of reality they received as children worthless.

Then, they carry it a step further. If X wasn't true, then maybe Y or Z won't be, either. This creates a pattern or model for them to challenge everything for that hopeful loophole. If you haven't read between the lines yet, this means we grownups have to model what we say very accurately.

It has been this growing chasm of what we say versus what we do that has teens testing and challenging more and more each generation. They're trying to confirm where the reality is we told them about.

I worked with a 16-year-old boy once who had been arrested for selling crack cocaine nine times, and had just been sent to his first treatment center. Of course his behavior was inappropriate and he deserved his consequences, but I had to ask, what happened with the first eight arrests to remind him of the reality we told him about as a kid when we explained what happens when a person breaks the law? So following the laws of Cause and Effect, or Cause and Symptoms, whose fault is this rebellious behavior really attributed to? Teens, because they are built to take the path of least resistance if possible, or we grownups for telling them one thing and then letting them walk down a different path that we told them about?

Bret Stephenson is an adolescent specialist who's experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, cross-cultural and universal models that have worked for millennia, he successfully works with at-risk and high-risk teens in a variety of settings. Bret is author of Slaying the Dragon: The Contemporary Struggle of Adolescent Boys-Modern Rules in an Ancient Game. More information can be found at or his nonprofit site at
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Bret Stephenson is an adolescent specialist who\'s experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, (more...)
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