homeschooled girl's Quinceañera with parents

Homeschooling Teens and Rites of Passage

It is generally admitted that the way young people experience adolescence today is profoundly shifting. How society views adolescents, what we expect from them, and even how long adolescence lasts are all being reconsidered. Consequently, adolescents can feel frustrated and stuck in an ill-defined status. Society is increasingly treating them as neither children nor adults. In this article, we will discuss some of the ways adolescence has changed in the modern world and how reconnecting with the idea of traditional “rites of passage” can help restore some of the structure.

Extended Adolescence

This shift is reflected in the phenomenon known as delayed or extended adolescence. Extended adolescence means that the psychological and social behaviors associated with adolescence are increasingly drawn out in the modern world relative to earlier generations. Previously, it was not uncommon for adolescents to take on fully-adult roles. History is replete with such examples. St. Joan of Arc led a French army at age 13. Michigan’s first governor was 19 years old.

Today, however, young people are adopting the behaviors of adulthood later and later in life. As Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, put it, adolescents today “Are less likely to do adult things,” adding that “in terms of adult behaviors, 18-year-olds now look like 15-year-olds of the past.” Adolescents today are getting jobs, forming romantic relationships, traveling, and, in general, branching out into adulthood much later than ever before.

This is accompanied by a shifting scientific view of adolescence, with an increasing number of scientists arguing that adolescence doesn’t truly end until age 24 or 25 with full brain maturation.

This is reflected in our legislation as well. Whereas everyone used to recognize 18 as the legal cut-off point between childhood and adulthood, this is being increasingly fragmented. While age 18 is still legal adulthood, simply turning 18 does not guarantee a young person access to all the privileges of adulthood. The age to buy tobacco has been raised to 21. Many hotels now refuse to rent to anyone younger than 21, and some states restrict the ability to rent a car to anyone under 21 as well (although renters as old as 25 will often need to pay an additional fee). Insurance companies often consider adult children insurable as dependents until age 26. There is a growing consensus that twenty-somethings are, in a sense, “still kids.”

Parents can compound this through “helicopter parenting,” in which parents are overprotective and overly involved in their children’s lives, micromanaging every aspect of their child’s routine. While overparenting generally comes from good motives, it can nevertheless be detrimental to adolescent development. This can lead to depression, negative self-image, doubt about one’s own capabilities, and social anxiety (source).

Young Adult Anxiety

There is, then, a kind of duality in how we view young adults, who are often considered adults for legal purposes but children culturally. Since our biological emergence into adulthood happens along a graduated continuum, it is increasingly assumed that this should be reflected in how we treat young adults in society. For all intents and purposes, an adolescent who has reached 18 is no longer considered “grown up.”

Admittedly, this is partially due to economic conditions. With money inflating and housing costs skyrocketing, many young people simply lack the financial requisites to step into adulthood when they want. But beyond this, there is a psychological angst among many young adults who struggle to adapt to the basic requirements of adulthood. Things like filling out paperwork, doing one’s own laundry, calling to make doctor’s appointments, or holding conversations become sources of considerable anxiety. This is reflected in the phrase “adulting,” slang that reflects young adults’ anxiety in the face of adult responsibilities.

There are many theories about why young adults are experiencing this anxiety. In an article entitled “Extended Adolescence: When 25 is the New 18,” Scientific American writer Bret Stetka connects the phenomenon with the relatively high standard of living we enjoy today compared to previous generations, which allows the human body the luxury to mature at a more leisurely pace. Steka connects this to Life History Theory, “the idea that exposure to an unpredictable, impoverished environment as a kid leads to faster development whereas children who grow up in a stable environment with more resources tend to have a slower developmental course.” More children growing up with higher living standards can result in a slower development into adulthood, making it harder to adapt to adult responsibilities.

Rites of Passage

We all understand that adulthood at 18 is a legal fiction. Biologically, we grow up on a slow continuum; there is no clear-cut biological “moment” when we can snap our fingers and say, “Now I am grown up!” In the United States, we have selected 18 as the age of legal adulthood simply because a line must be drawn somewhere. This gives our legal system necessary clarity on how an individual is to be treated under the law. Socially, the lines have become more obscure. Is there any way to recover this kind of clarity socially in an age when the boundaries between adolescence and adulthood are increasingly blurred?

Traditional societies understood this dilemma and addressed it by means of rites of passage. A rite of passage is a ritual meant to establish a transition between two states in life, from puberty to adulthood. All cultures have had rites of passage marking the transition to adulthood, for example:

  • In ancient Rome, the assumption of the toga virilis (“toga of manhood”) when a boy grew his first facial hair
  • The bull jumping ceremony of the Hamar tribe of Ethiopia, where a boy must leap over a cow
  • The Quinceañera in Latin American cultures: the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, marking her transition into womanhood
  • The bar mitzvah among Jewish boys (and bat mitzvah among girls): the ceremony where they assume adult obligations under the Torah
  • Debutante balls among the English gentry, where young women deemed available for courtship were celebrated
  • The Sunrise Ceremony of the Apache celebrates a girl’s entrance into womanhood with her first menstruation
  • Seijin-no-Hi is the Japanese ceremony for persons who have reached their 20th year

The rite of passage had a twofold orientation, pertaining both to the individual and society. For the individual, completing the rite of passage signified that they should now think of themselves as adults. It spared them the anxiety-inducing “in-between” stage of an extended adolescence by empowering them with a single moment to draw the line and say, “Now I am a man.” Or, “Now I am a woman.”

For society, the rite designated the individual as one to whom society should extend the rights of adulthood with all its attendant responsibilities. It is a ritual that both signifies and affects: it signifies the passage into adulthood, and the rite’s completion affects the very transition it signifies.

The rite of passage thus functioned as a door by which the individual entered adulthood, accompanied by his or her society, which recognized their passage and ratified it by treating them as adults from there forward.


Our society has largely abandoned rites of passage in any meaningful sense. There are no longer societal rituals that both signify and affect the transition from youth to adulthood. It is unlikely that these will be restored on a societal level anytime soon, but that’s not to say they can’t be applied within the family.

If you have a child moving into adolescence, you can give structure to this time of growth by incorporating your own rites of passage into their experience. A rite of passage can be anything that ties the passing of a milestone with the assumption of new rights and responsibilities. The purpose is to bring structure to adolescence by giving your child a series of graduated milestones at which he or she is increasingly treated like an adult.

A rite of passage can really be anything. For example, a young man who has recently gotten his license obtains privileges to use the family car recreationally when he demonstrates that he can change the oil and put on the spare tire by himself. A girl raised on the family farm is permitted a say in how the livestock are managed after she successfully raises an animal from birth to slaughter by herself. It can even be as simple as establishing fixed ages for certain freedoms. (“You are allowed to get a job when you turn 14,” or “You are allowed to start dating when you are 16”). The point is to give definitive structure to the adolescent process by tying the assumption of adult rights and responsibilities to specific milestones.


While none of us can single-handedly undo the social and psychological factors that make adolescence such a trying time, we can help alleviate the anxiety of those in-between years by bringing structure to the process through graduated rites of passage that can serve as stepping stones from the dependence of youth into the independence of adulthood.

How have you tackled rites of passage in your homeschool? Join me and other homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group. We’d love to hear about your tips, ideas, and questions!

Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

Catholic Homeschool Classes Online

Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

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