Teenagers and the Path to Self-Discovery

~ by Geeta Lalvani ~

When I was twelve years old, I, like many other young tweens and teens, thought that I knew everything there is to know about the world. In my case, my overconfidence was supported by my results from an online personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: I was absolutely convinced that the test had revealed the secrets of my soul and that I had reached a state of self-awareness far above that of the average teenager. Even after taking the test eleven different times and receiving eleven different results out of sixteen possible combinations of personality types—as a result of my inability to answer any questions about myself accurately—I still relished the knowledge that my newfound sense of self-awareness meant I was obviously superior and more intelligent than any of the other eleven-year-olds who lacked this sense of self-awareness. Looking back, I now recognize that I was not quite the genius and “special snowflake” I supposed myself to be. Now, I am able to understand that I had embarked on a quest common amongst teenagers: a search for self-awareness fueled by a burning desire to discover every unique detail about myself and how I, as an individual, fit in with the people surrounding me. My own journey of self-discovery, in conjunction with the developmental and physiological changes occurring in my brain, is common amongst most adolescents. Teenagers all seek to learn more about who they are and where they fit into the world. Exposure to both nonfiction and fiction literature, an understanding of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and caring and knowledgeable parents and mentors help teenagers to smoothly navigate their natural path of self-discovery and self-awareness.

Before adolescents can become better versions of themselves through engaging in certain activities and adopting specific mindsets, they need an understanding of the physiological composition of the brain between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Dr. Francis Jensen, a pediatric neurologist, describes the chemical makeup of the teenage brain on National Public Radio (NPR). Jensen describes the frontal lobe, stating, “It’s the part of the brain that says: Is this a good idea? What is the consequence of this action?” (Richard Knox, “The Teen Brain: It’s Just Not Grown Up Yet,” NPR) The frontal lobe is still developing throughout the teenage years before reaching maturation during adulthood: this is the scientific reasoning that explains why teenagers struggle more than adults to understand how they fit in with the rest of the world. Jensen explains that it leads to the selfish behavior the parents of teenagers are quick to recognize (Jensen, NPR). As a whole, teenagers have trouble seeing outside of themselves. However, there are subtle distinctions of character seen in teenagers ages twelve to fourteen and in ages fifteen to eighteen. Dorothy Sayers, an esteemed British author, one of the founders of modern classical education, and a graduate of Somerset College, Oxford, describes the different mental processes of both age groups of teenagers. In her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Sayers explains the different characteristics of teenagers. Young teenagers, ages twelve to fourteen, usually believe themselves to be smarter and more knowledgeable than adults, constantly asking the question “Why?” and desiring to showcase their extensive knowledge. Older teenagers, ages fifteen to eighteen, tend to be more idealistic, concerned with synthesizing ideas and expressing their feelings (Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”).

Based on the scientific data stated by Dr. Francis Jensen and the characteristics described by Dorothy Sayers, it is evident that teenagers are in a transformative stage of growth in their lives. Teenagers are not yet adults, due to the physiological makeup of their brains, and yet they are attempting to mature and emulate the behavior of adults. Keeping in mind the differences between the teenage brain and the adult brain, how do teenagers best embark on a successful journey of self-discovery? In addition to describing the characteristics of both younger and older teenagers, Sayers lists the different methods teachers can use to instruct teenagers. Although these methods are directed towards teachers, they demonstrate the types of techniques and activities that resonate best with developing teenagers. Thus, Sayers’ methods can be applied in the larger context of helping younger and older teenagers to learn to understand themselves outside of the classroom.

Three of the methods for teaching young adults described by Sayers are the use of visual materials, research projects, and drama and role-playing (“The Lost Tools of Learning”). Teenagers can use these three methods to learn more about themselves by reading both fiction and nonfiction literature. Through a history book, for example, a teenager would be able to see a timeline of events for a select period of time. Through studying a chronological series of events, the teenager will be exposed to different types of cause-and-effect relationships. It illustrates the concept of cause and effect, and can help teenagers understand that specific actions will lead to specific results. This helps to intentionally develop an area of the brain where teenagers are lacking: the physical pieces of their brains that understand consequences. Through an analytical study of history, adolescents can develop critical thinking skills, which have numerous application points across a variety of disciplines. Critical thinking skills are applicable in all facets of life, and self-discovery is no exception. Teenagers can apply the high-level critical thinking skills developed through methodical historical studies to their everyday lives. A comprehensive and analytical study of history allows the teenager a chance to see the stories of countless other people who might have thought in similar ways to his own.

Studying history gives teenagers information and skills to help develop the areas of the brain that are lacking. In contrast, the reading of great literature provides teenagers with a means to better understand what is already there. Teenagers can benefit from an ongoing study of fiction because they are presented with the opportunity to observe characters interacting with one another and relate it to the lives of others. Through a study of fictional literature, teenagers can learn to assess and judge the literary characters whose situations might mirror their own real lives. It helps them to understand the processes of thought that already exist within their brain. Literature is a valuable tool for helping both younger and older adolescents begin to know themselves and how they may relate to others. B.D. Roe and E.P. Ross, graduates of Tennessee Technological University, explain in their article “Benefits of Literature” on Education.com that “Literature builds experience” (Ross and Roe, “Benefits of Literature,” Education.com). Through experiencing the various worlds and characters of literature, Roe and Ross argue that teenagers will be better equipped to deal with their problems because they are observing other characters and stories.

In addition to learning through reading literature, students can take another step towards self-discovery by employing diagnostic tools, such as the personality typing system called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This would not only be a type of research project, one of the educational tools Sayers describes in her chart, but it would give older teenagers the means to better understand how to synthesize ideas, which is another method of instruction that Sayers describes (“The Lost Tools of Learning”). The MBTI system divides people into sixteen different categories based on the ways they discover and process information. If a teenager possessed even a basic understanding of the personality typing system, simply knowing what kinds of different characteristics and traits it includes, it would provide them a categorization system to better understand how they personally synthesize ideas. As well as giving them a system to discover more about themselves, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator provides students with an informational structure to help them to understand the other people around them. Once they begin to understand the differences between themselves and others, they may also recognize the need to accurately communicate with their peers. If their communication with those peers improves, it may foster mature discussion about different worldviews, which is yet another teaching method Sayers describes as beneficial for older teenagers. Without an understanding that different adolescents may approach situations and synthesize information differently than they do, it is far more difficult for teenagers to approach discussion about most topics.

Myers-Briggs typing provides teenagers with different personality categories to better understand themselves and others by giving them a system to “organize items,” a typical characteristic of teenagers (“The Lost Tools of Learning”). Categorization is a natural method that older adolescents can use through their journey of self-development. For example, in terms of the test’s terminology, one teenager might be adept at thinking about abstract ideas because he is an iNtuitive rather than a Sensor. If he understands that he thinks about ideas more abstractly than his Sensing peer—who is better at processing tangible and concrete ideas—then he will be able to better interact with her, knowing that her opinions might be different than his own because she thinks differently. This, much like literature, provides older adolescents with the means to understand what is already happening inside their brain. Myers-Briggs allows teenagers to begin to understand that not everybody thinks the same way they do, and this knowledge then enables teenagers to better themselves and their interactions with their peers.

One possible caution with the Myers-Briggs system is that it is designed for adults and not teenagers. Most times, teenagers are not self-aware enough to answer the questions on the test correctly. While older teenagers can benefit from taking the test, they should be wary of putting unnecessary constraints or beliefs on themselves at a young age. As the research from Dorothy Sayers and Dr. Francis Jensen describes, the adolescent brain is in a developmental state of discovery in the teenager’s life. Teenagers who use Myers-Briggs to understand more about their own mind and the minds of their peers should ensure that they are not taking the test too seriously, as it is not fully accurate at their current age.

Self-discovery for teenagers is evidently a necessary part of maturing, but mentors who possess more experience, wisdom, and context and can help to guide young adolescents are an invaluable component in the process of maturing. Dorothy Sayers describes teaching methods in her essay, which implies that there must be a teacher assisting the students in learning. She even specifies “guest speakers” as a method for teaching teenagers (“The Lost Tools of Learning”). Thus, parents and mentors are essential to helping teenagers rightly understand what they have discovered about themselves. Adults are experienced in ways that teenagers are not, and they have more advanced brain chemistry, as described by Dr. Francis Jensen. Teenagers can learn more about themselves and how they fit into the world by having worldview discussions with adults who are more experienced than they are.

Parents and adult mentors do have more life experience and more advanced brain chemistry, but this is not the only reason why adults can help to guide teenagers through the self-discovery phase. Jensen elaborates on the state of the teenage brain: “nature made the brain to be excitable, responsive to everything in the environment” (Jensen, NPR). Teenagers are influenced far more by their surroundings and environment than adults are. Jensen explains, “they’re tapping into a much more robust habit-forming ability that adolescents have, compared to adults” (Jensen, NPR). This is a turning point in a teenager’s life: they are exiting the stages of childhood and forming the habits that will stay with them as they transition into adulthood. Through this transition, they are attentive to the adults surrounding them and the adults’ behaviors and actions. If a teenager is consistently communicating with mature and self-aware adults, the teenager will gradually begin to model the same behaviors due to the receptive nature of their brain.

Adults must also understand the teenage brain and its characteristics so that they can be the best mentors and provide the appropriate guidance. Dr. Jensen describes a scenario with one of her own sons as an example of the guidance parents can give to their teenagers. When her son Will Jensen was studying for a test and indicating that he wanted to pull an all-nighter, Dr. Jensen gently advised that there might be a better course of action—reading over all of the material first, and then sleeping on the information so that his brain could appropriately process as he slept. Her son Will heeded her advice and was pleased when he did well on his tests in school. Dr. Jensen did not force anything upon her child, instead providing him with a suggestion and advising him to try out her idea. Both of Dr. Jensen’s children were pleased with her parenting style; her other son Andrew states, “I would not be where I am without her in my life” (Jensen, NPR). Adults can greatly help adolescents to both understand how their brain already thinks and how it could improve on certain ways of thought.

In summary, there are a variety of different ways that teenagers can better understand themselves and the world around them, despite not having the advanced brain chemistry of an adult. The teenage years are absolutely essential in shaping the people that will eventually become adults and lead the next generation. It is vital that teenagers are assisted in discovering more about themselves and others so that they can become competent and wise adults who will help future teenagers discover themselves. Certain tools and resources, such as different kinds of literature, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and knowledgeable adults, can all help teenagers through the natural process of self-discovery.

Geeta Lalvani is a currently a home schooled rising high school senior from Pennsylvania who previously attended a classical Christian school. She enjoys writing, technology, psychology, and sharing her passions with others. When she’s not writing a paper for Rhetoric class (one of her favorite courses from Scholé Academy, Classical Academic Press’ Live online academy), you can find her building robots as the Team Captain of her high school robotics team.