3. The Heroic Journey of Teenagers—A Play in Three Acts

This is important for making sense of the long “developmental journey” of adolescence (12-20 years of age), but it is really important for the smaller “situational journeys” that happen along the way. That is because those journeys—started by things such as moves, injuries, major “screw-ups or major successes—are usually shorter in duration and the three stages stand out more. 

The first act is where you are challenged to leave your known world and go forth to take on the tests that lead to growth and change. For the big developmental journey of being a teenager you start the process of leaving childhood behind. Here is where the challenge is to become the author of how your life unfolds vs. having life “happen to you” as it often does in childhood.

The second act is called “the trail of tests” where you take on all of the various tests and become more mature and complete in the process—you become a young adult. This is where you must let go of old ways, discover and master new ways and deal with “inbetweenity”—and it’s often a rollercoaster that can affect you emotionally, intellectually, socially, physically and even spiritually.

The third act is where you deal with the consequences of your growth—the “ripple effect” of your own changes. Your changes will affect others and they can accept your growth or they can be threatened or confused by it. 

So What?

The value of knowing this is that it helps make sense of the experience, it reassures you that when things get weird it’s not because you’re failing and it provides some guidance about what to do. Plus, if you get good at managing your journey you will be well prepared for the journeys you will encounter as an adult.

Act I: How Journeys Begin (four possible ways)

How journeys begin matters—it matters a lot. The classic heroic journey begins with the crossing of a threshold, leaving a known world or comfort zone and venturing into a world of much unknown and lots of tests. We may (a) “heed a call” to go forth, (b) be thrown into the journey, (c) be lured in, or (d) blunder in. 

The big journey for teenagers, that of the developmental stage called adolescence is one that you are—by definition—thrown into by life.  It’s just what happens around 12-20 years of age. You didn’t ask for all the tests and changes that come with adolescence – you didn’t heed a call to go forth. The challenge is to come to understand the journey and get into the role of being as much of the author as possible.

For the situational journeys that you will encounter, you will probably encounter different ways of beginning. You may heed a call to take on a lead role for a team or group or you may choose to enroll in an advanced school program. On the other hand, you may get thrown into a journey if you move or suffer a significant injury or illness. You might also blunder into a journey by becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol or running afoul of the law. These are all ways that your journeys of change might start. 

“Being the Author”

The key for any way of these beginnings is to accept the challenge and get yourself into the posture of being the author as much as possible and as quickly as possible. Even if you feel victimized, you don’t need to stay a victim. This isn’t just about you. Dealing with beginnings and becoming the author is one of the most important ways you can help friends—helping them become authors.

“OK, I didn’t ask for this, but I am going to be the author of the experience as much as I can. I might have been thrown into the journey or blundered into it. I may even have been victimized in some way.  But I am going to become the author of my experience and I am going to manage this journey.”

Some teenagers seem to get into more of an author role and heed the call to go forth and engage the challenges early and with purpose. Some teenagers delay answering the call, but eventually do so (thrilling parents who were becoming increasingly concerned). Some teenagers refuse the journey and don’t really get started until they get thrown in by entering the military or the work force early or by having some traumatic event “throw” them out of childhood.

Take Heart—The “Threshold Waltz”

People develop at different rates, so if you are 14-16 and still don’t really feel like you are taking on much responsibility for your life (kind of stuck in childhood), it’s not that you are failing. You just haven’t “answered the call” yet to really go forth and take on the challenges. The challenges are still there and you still need to take them on, but don’t be too hard on yourself—just see if it’s time to get moving and see what support might be there for you.

Whether teenagers or adults, people usually don’t just rush into a journey. They usually come up to the threshold and then back off, or cross over a bit and retreat and then approach again. It’s like a dance—“the threshold waltz”—so just make sure you don’t dance too long.

Guardians of the Threshold

The first challenge in taking on more of an author’s role in any journey is getting past what are called the guardians of the threshold. These guardians take the form of such things as inner doubts or external forces that try to turn us back right at the beginning. They are the first test and they test our readiness and worthiness to go forth.

The inner guardians are such things as feeling unprepared, doubting your abilities, feeling unconnected or unsupported, not feeling comfortable taking risks and trying new things, etc. The external guardians can be anything in your world that tends to keep you in a childlike state or out of the author role. Parents not wanting to let go, peer groups that see studying or acting responsibly as uncool, a lack of support from other adults or your school, dangerous neighborhoods, etc. 

Act II: On the Path of Tests

Moving through the land that lies on the other side of the threshold—into the heart of a journey—you are faced with tests and trials that usually require new or altered ways of perceiving, thinking, and acting.

Lots of Different Tests—It’s How We Grow

Like it or not, we grow through meeting the tests that we encounter and that is particularly true of the tests of adolescence. The other thing to remember about these tests is that a lot of them are exciting and even fun.  Lots of them aren’t so much fun, but “tests” doesn’t equal “bad.”

There Are Three Types of Test

Letting go is difficult because so many things have to be left behind (from self image and some relationships to habits and dependence). “Inbetweenity” is long and so much is changing that “inbetweenity” often seems to define the teenage experience. Discovery and mastery is the key because there are so many types of competencies to develop and because as those competencies develop, your confidence will grow—but that requires a lot of perseverance and “learning to love the plateau.” (More in the section on the three tests with examples.)

You Are Tested on 5 Levels

You may find that your tests are physical, intellectual, emotional, social or spiritual and that your changes and growth are, consequently, in one or more of those areas. Different journeys pose different challenges and opportunities. The big journey of adolescence will involve all of those challenge areas over the course of your teenage years (and maybe beyond). What we have called the situational journeys (moves, setbacks, the ending of relationships, addiction, taking on leadership roles, being accepted into an elite program, etc.) will provide tests and growth opportunities in some of those areas and not in others.


Some common tests will be dealing with mistakes and failures, avoiding the seductive lures of taking the easy way out, dealing with uncertainty, doubt, and perhaps despair, and continuing to find sources of energy and renewal along the way. 

Pulled in Different Directions

In this second act you can get pushed and pulled in lots of directions. It’s often an emotional rollercoaster. There is the gravity of childhood competing with the gravity of adulthood, which can be really confusing. There is also the land in-between letting go of old ways and mastering new ways (“inbetweenity”). That comes with all kinds of tensions—for example having a sense of order vs. disorder, feeling like you have a place (belonging) vs. being displaced, being connected vs. disconnected, having hope vs. doubts or despair, etc.

Taking Care of Yourself—Support Networks

One of the most important sets of competencies to develop is the ability to take care of yourself and to build a support network. Heroes don’t go alone! The people in your life (adults and peers) and the roles they play will be critical for you on this journey. This second act of the journey can play out for a long time, so your support network will take time to build and attention to maintain. Along with people you can build in activities, places of rest and renewal, symbols that inspire you, habits like exercise and eating well, etc.  

Energy Traps and Energy Sources

This long second act also requires that you avoid or deal with the various energy traps that are naturally encountered—and that you find sources of energy to keep you healthy and help you develop.

The energy traps are things like too much stress or being stressed for too long, injuries or illnesses, failures or setbacks, bullies, and losing confidence or hope. Everybody encounters some of them—sometimes a lot.

The energy sources are usually simple things like celebrating successes (even little ones), some exercise, restful places, thinking about role models, positive self-talk, volunteering, etc. The key is dedicating most of your attention to paying attention to the energy sources.

(There is more on this in section five—Staying Healthy)

Act III: Completions

When you successfully meet the challenges of the journey the final phase is some form of completion. In the heroic myths this is when the hero returns to the kingdom with the gifts he or she has discovered or recovered. As a teenager, the “return” or “completion” is simply reaching the maturity of young adulthood—having really left childhood behind. The reality is that there will be a bunch of smaller completions that add up to that sense of having become a young adult. 

You Are More Complete—More Mature—And That Triggers More Challenges

You may see your identity as a young adult emerge, with an increased sense of self-awareness, purpose and confidence/acceptance. You may see your relationships become deeper and healthier—having learned how to be a good friend, a boy/girlfriend or even a rebalancing of your relationship with your parent(s). You may also see the set of competencies that you have mastered reach a point where you suddenly have an increased sense of confidence that you can go forth into the adult world and succeed.

Guess what—these wonderful “completions” trigger the final set of challenges. The completion of a journey may be the most difficult part of all because the impact of a hero's return may imply changes that the rest of the "kingdom" may not look upon with great favor. When you change that will require changes in others, for it will change the nature of relationships of various kinds.  Your changes, just like the changes of the heroes in the stories, will change the status quo. Things won’t quite fit as they once did. For relationships in particular this can be tough. 

In the myths heroes are sometimes welcomed and celebrated. Sometimes they are ignored. Sometimes they are even shunned, reviled, or attacked (even crucified). This phenomenon holds true whether the "kingdom" is a family, an organization, a corporation, or a community (regardless of size). The growth of the hero requires growth in others.

Often the toughest challenges are relationship challenges. As you mature, you will often mature at different rates than your friends/girlfriends/boyfriends, which can cause ruptures in those relationships. It can also cause disruptions in your relationships with your parents (or siblings).   Even though necessary for continued growth, such endings are difficult—and they may happen repeatedly over the course of the teenage years. 

Four Possible Responses to Your Growth

People or groups of which you are a part can have four responses and you will experience some of them. Friends, parents, girlfriends/boyfriends, even coaches and neighbors sometimes will have a choice. They can:

  1. Try to get you to go back and fit into your old ways, so they don’t have to change to fit the new you
  2. Ignore you or shut you out
  3. Drive you away or leave you
  4. Accept your changes and change so that they fit with you in more mature ways

Reflecting and Going Forward

The next journeys are on the horizon (college, the military, work, starting a family, etc.). Of great value in Act III is attention given to reflecting on the development and maturity that has already happened and how that personal development and power will provide the foundation for the next journeys. 

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