What’s your favorite movie? No matter the genre, it’s almost certain that the main character starts off with an ordinary life, goes on an adventure or faces a crisis, and by the end is totally transformed. That storyline, which Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey, can be traced back to myths that are thousands of years old, from cultures all over the world. Campbell said that our most sacred stories follow that path because it’s how life unfolds: we all face trials, and our response shapes who we become.
Parenting a teenager is no easy task, but it helps when you and your teen embrace the challenges as part of their own Hero’s Journey: the path to becoming their most authentic selves and living a meaningful life. Here, we outline some of the heroic steps teens take with tips to help them triumph at every stage.
The Ordinary World
The journey begins in your teen’s comfort zone, made up of the people and places that make them feel safe and secure. Teens may complain about parents being boring, but a stable, “ordinary” world is exactly what they need to gear up for their Hero’s Journey. Studies show that kids raised in unstable, traumatic circumstances demonstrate negative effects on their stress response well into adulthood, making it harder for them to respond to challenges in a healthy way. Predictability and strong, supportive relationships help teens grow into self-actualized, independent adults. A solid home base doesn’t mean teens shouldn’t be challenged; it just means you’re giving them guidance and making sure they stay safe. See our post on The Family as a Protective Factor to learn how the right family dynamic helps teens feel protected and encouraged to grow.
The Call to Adventure
A Call to Adventure is anything that shakes up a teen’s Ordinary World. It’s a challenge that asks them to step up and take action. The teen years are full of big changes, and each one can be framed as a Call to Adventure. Your child might be starting high school, fighting with a friend, dealing with a bully, trying out for a team, struggling with a subject, or experiencing their first crush. Each of these milestones requires them to learn new skills, take risks, and become a bigger version of themselves. Parents can help by instilling a growth mindset: the awareness that they can learn from their challenges and use them to get smarter, stronger, and more capable. A growth-oriented teen is more likely to frame new experiences as an adventure, instead of getting overwhelmed and giving up.
Allies and Enemies
Heroes almost never achieve their mission by going it alone, and teens need allies, too. Numerous studies have shown that kids with strong friendship networks have better mental health and emotional regulation, higher self esteem, and even a stronger immune system. A 2021 study found that teens with strong friendships before the pandemic were less likely to internalize the stress of social distancing and isolation.= Parents can encourage these rich relationships and help teens know who their true allies are. Do they feel accepted and supported by their friends, even on down days? Do they trust their friends? Are their friends helping them be the best version of themselves? Of course, heroes face enemies, too. Parents can keep an eye out for anybody who doesn’t have their teen’s best interests at heart and give them tools to set boundaries and say “No way” when necessary.
The Inmost Cave
Heroes almost always reach a point in the quest when they have to look deep inside themselves. This might mean confronting self-doubt, or their powers being tested like never before. They may have to take a stand for their values or make a tough choice. The Inmost Cave represents the unknown within ourselves. When teens experience doubt and difficulty, it can lead to risky or even self-destructive behavior. In moments like these, your teen’s relationship with spirituality is what matters most. One recent study found that adolescents with a strong spiritual framework engaged in less risky or violent behavior and were at lower-risk for substance abuse, depression, and suicide. Spirituality is individual for everyone and doesn’t require religious belief. Lisa Miller, psychologist and author of The Spiritual Child, defines spirituality as \”an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding. The word we give to this higher power might be God, nature, spirit, the universe, the creator… spirituality encompasses our relationship… with this higher presence.\” When teens have a strong sense of a guiding power within, they never have to go into the Inmost Cave alone.
What we love about our favorite heroes and heroines is that, despite their difficulties, they always triumph in the end. You can support your teen on their Hero’s Journey by reminding them that they are setting out on the quest of a lifetime, and every step takes them closer to becoming the hero they are meant to be.