What’s an Adolescent?

Adolescent is a Latin word meaning to grow up or nearing maturity. Anyone who actually has an adolescent in their house will be tickled to know that the word is very closely related to alere, another Latin word meaning to eat. Whereas the word teenager simply denotes that one is between thirteen and nineteen years old. In the States we tend to forget that nineteen year olds are teenagers because we become legal adults in all things except alcohol and tobacco consumption at eighteen.

It is interesting to note that teenager is simply a demarcation of time, whereas adolescent takes a more qualitative approach to the maturing adult. Adolescent carries with it the idea that there are certain signs that need to be present before we can call this person an adult.

Adolescent denotes a sense of tending toward something, a perfection yet to be obtained. This is very much the experience of adolescents: they are learning to become adults, to become men and women with strong identities who can contribute to society. Erik Erickson, in his book The Child and Society, explains the adolescence’s experience as the effort to form an Identity and to avoid Role Confusion, that is, to avoid a sense of confusion about ones place in society.  This is a very different experience than the child.

Child is an old Germanic word meaning descendant. The emphasis here is not on what the child is becoming but from whom the child came: their parents. The child is radically dependent upon their parents and while this dependence decreases over the years, it is still a key feature of a person’s life for many decades. Indeed one might even view the time of adolescence, the time of growing into an adult, as a time of consciously taking on to oneself the roles one’s parents have played. Erikson’s Identity Development Stage is in many ways little more than learning how to be a parent to oneself. To use St Thomas Aquinas’ terms, the adolescent learns to exercise his own virtue of prudence rather than participating in his parent’s expression of that virtue.

In his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas has what seems to be a throw away line, as though he expected his reader to already know that, “We never call youths happy.” Happiness flows from actions executed well. Many of the actions of the adolescent, like the adolescent himself, are growing toward their perfection. Much of the adolescent’s time is spent in training, either of the intellectual virtues in school, or the physical virtues, in sports and play, or even the moral and theological virtues as the adolescent takes on a role in society which is less dependent upon his parents. Thus few of the actions of an adolescent are done well, that is to say, are virtuously done. Much of the work of raising an adolescent is reminding him of previous successes and alleviating anxiety about the future in ways that develop their own virtue of prudence, that is their own independence.