As our staff mentor students who are struggling with life situations, one of the goals is to help them understand the importance of personal power. As teenagers emerge into adulthood one of the developmental tasks is to become independent. It may seem like an obvious reality but often students feel anything but a level of personal power when they have been traumatized, neglected, bullied, labelled or experiencing difficult family situations. If they feel their world is out of control, they do not feel appropriate personal power.
Some teenagers have never been given the opportunity to explore their own independence in a positive way. Yet since they long for it as a natural developmental need, they often will assert their choices in ways that can cause negative consequences. They can easily be labelled as troublemakers or oppositional-defiant individuals. If they have not had good guidance in how to assert age-appropriate personal power they can get their guidance from video games, peers or social media which may feature negative power expressions. In some cases, it can create a mob mentality where they find themselves in situations where they are guilty by association.
I can’t help but think that this power pursuit has a relationship to the violence that we have seen among teenagers in our current cultural climate. If teenagers are feeling powerless by their life circumstances in their community or family, they may feel the need to take control of their lives by asserting power over someone else, particularly if that someone has created some level of threat for them. With the availability of weapons this creates the opportunity for shootings as a way to gain power over someone.
I don’t know of any specific research along these lines so I will admit that I am speculating on this issue. However, it is intuitive that teenagers searching for power with developing brains can easily find themselves achieving that power through powerful weapons that can create fear and control over someone else. What used to be a verbal conflict or physical fight can now take the form of lethal weapons being used to settle these conflicts of power and control.
I think we should strive as mentors to help our teenagers convert their power struggles from “power over” to “power to.” What I mean by that is that we can legitimize the developmental need for personal power but not as dominance to “power over!” What we want to help teenagers discover is the “power to” being used to achieve their goals. If our teenagers can find a healthy way to gain their personal power in this key time in their development, they will not need to find ways to get those needs met destructively.
The claiming of personal power is a key developmental task. For those who are in relationship with teenagers and can sense this power struggle, there may be an opportunity to channel this need to a positive set of tasks that will leave them with the power to do positive and inspirational things. That would lead to a sense of well-being and good potential for growth that will have a huge positive impact on them and those around them.