This weekend at the Refuge (our Sunday night youth programming) I’m planning on doing something very scary: letting youth into my own high school experience.
It was on the curriculum cycle to take a little time at the beginning of the school year and talk about the intense social politics of teenage life, and I could think of no more faithful way to speak into that than point to scripture, experience, and, if nothing else, eschatological hope that they can survive the shark-infested waters they feel like they’re swimming in.
Teenagers are intensely social, not just as a happenstance of cultural context, but actually as a psychological imperative. Research in the late 20th century highlighted the primary psychological task of adolescence was developing an integrated sense of self, or a cohesive ability to understand who you are as opposed to other people, recognizing both similarity and difference in others without being threatened by it.
Teenagers play out this attempt to establish similarity and difference in a lot of ways that are familiar to anyone who went to high school, or even has ever seen a movie about one: well-defined cliques that sit in the same place for lunch every day, surprisingly intense arguments about wearing the same clothes or dating the same people, self-identification with the team you play for, or club you’re in (a high school boy doesn’t say he plays football; he says he is a football player).
The social phenomenon known as “cliques” comes from teenagers establishing a group of people around them who all act as partial mirrors. From my perception of this group of similar others, I can get a rough estimation on how others perceive me. Let me be clear: no teenager on earth would articulate that, and that’s not the only factor at play. I personally still tend toward making friends with groups of people who are like me because I enjoy their company and the sense of security it gives me to have like-minded friends (also, by some definitions I’m barely emerging from adolescence myself).
And none of this is meant to treat teenagers like lab rats or somehow less than fully human. It’s meant to provide context for how devastated teenagers are at the loss of a best friend or being kicked out of a social group; why it is so terrifying when they realize they weren’t invited to something, or when they get cut from the team. They aren’t just losing something or someone they love — they’re losing themselves.
That’s what happened to me. I had the same clique of six girls from seventh grade through senior year of high school. We were in the same extracurriculars, dated the same guys, and defined ourselves by our place in this group, and our relationships with each other. Then, senior year, they kicked me out, in the cannibalistic way that high school girl groups sometimes do. I didn’t just lose my friends — I lost the structure I had built over six years to define myself, and, at 18, I had to start over.
Thankfully I had a church family, and an upcoming four years at an out-of-state college to hold on to. Clinging to Bible verses scratched on the side of spiral notebooks, I made it out and found a new way to define myself.
This weekend I’ll be talking to youth about that experience and trying to give them tools to build resiliency, swim the shark-infested waters, and claim an identity that will sustain them no matter what apocalypse of teenage friendship awaits.
Being a teenager is hard, and the best we can do as a faith community is to remind the youth in our midst that they belong here, that their identity is held here and with Christ, and that every adult in this congregation survived adolescence one way or another, and is here to help them along the way.