My daughter is seventeen, and doesn’t stop reminding me that she will be eighteen in less than six months. What! Is that true! Am I almost done with navigating the minefield of adolescence? Well, I am at the last mile before she becomes an adult. I guess it is a good time to reflect on adolescence, and why some parents find it so challenging – almost to the point of dreading it!
Adolescence is not a “bad” phase that you need to grin and bear. It is the phase that ultimately helps the child and the parent to grow, and if handled properly, emerge with a stronger relationship as adults. But to get to the other side of adolescence successfully, we need to understand this phase not only in terms of physiological and cognitive development, but also in terms of identify formation and a redefining of relationships with parents, peers and partners.
The physiological changes are obvious, and I am not going to spend my word count on them. Cognitive development is a little less understood. Adolescence marks the second wave of rapid brain development in a person’s life – the beginning of more complex thinking processes. Even though their amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions like fear, anger and pleasure) is not as developed as that of an adult, and their ability to recognize and read emotions is wanting, there is explosive growth happening in other parts of the brain.
Early adolescents are focused on personal decision making in school and home – they start questioning authority and social standards; they start forming and verbalizing their own thoughts and views on topics related to their life (what sport should I play, which peer group should I join, which parental rule should I insist be changed).
Middle adolescents expand their focus to include more philosophical and futuristic concerns – they question and analyze more; they begin to form their own code of ethics; think about different possibilities and begin to form their own identity; they think about possible future goals and start making longer term plans.
Late adolescents use their complex thinking processes to focus more on less self-centered, and more global, concepts like justice and politics; they develop idealistic views; they debate and discuss a great deal and show an intolerance to opposing views; they focus on making career decisions and thinking about their emerging role in adult society. They introspect, and are self-conscious, which may end up in a sort of egocentrism, or intense preoccupation with the self. They also start looking at problems from multiple dimensions. They don’t accept facts as absolute truths and therefore, also question parental values and authority. And this is where we parents start feeling challenged.
An adolescent’s search for identity when they start to ponder the big question, “Who am I?” is a big part of this phase – achieving a coherent identity and avoiding identity confusion, their main aim. Parents would like to believe that they are the sole influencers in this process. However, this search for identity is also affected by their peers, their school, the neighborhood, the community, and the media. For the adolescent to complete this process successfully, they must go through two steps. The first involves questioning, and breaking away, from childhood beliefs that don’t resonate with them, and consequently coming up with a set of beliefs that do. And the second involves committing to the identity that they choose for themselves.
This is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself. It involves dramatic change and uncertainty, integrating one’s past experiences, current challenges and social demands and expectations into one coherent whole. Also the identity the adolescent chooses must be recognized, confirmed and accepted by others, for the teenager to feel comfortable, confident and worthy. Which is why this is the stage when they are intensely searching for role models, turn to peer groups and rebel against traditional authority.
A person’s identity development starts early on, with a child’s initial awareness that they are separate and unique individuals, as different from their parents. As they grow into teenagers, they reach a point when they want to be defined as anything but their parents. They may not even want to be seen with their parents, and anything the parent does or says is definitely embarrassing. This process of separation (and possible rejection) is hurtful for us parents, but we need to consistently remind ourselves that it is a natural process – between every teenager and parent; not only between our teenager and us.
As parents it is imperative that we support them in this process of their individuation if we want them to be fully-functioning adults who go on to achieve their potential. An identity crisis is one of the most important conflicts that adolescents face in their development. It leads to self-doubt, a demanding of space, a sometimes false sense of bravado, and often even a sense of invincibility, and all this sporadically peppered with rudeness, arrogance and a sense of entitlement.
The more we are aware of this being a natural process, the less we need to feel threatened by it and resist it, the easier it is for us to retain our sanity, and the more supportive we can be in their journey. So let’s accept that no matter what we do, we will be a source of embarrassment; that friends will be more important than us; that we need to be available (on call 24x7) yet invisible; that there will be an interest in the opposite sex; that they will always want to know what’s in it for them, and that they will reject every idea that we come up with.
If we can see this as the ‘new normal’- a period of ‘normal’ stress – understand it, accept it, and go with the flow, rather than take it as a challenge to our authority, we may be able to do them, and ourselves, a big service. As for myself, I can say I am glad I am almost done with it!
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.