IDENTITY Strengthening Through the Teenage Years—
Meaning: It may be surprising, but most parents today look back on their teenage years and consider them to have been the halcyon phase of their lives—they perceive these years to have been care free, years of newfound liberty, sexual freedom, and wide-open horizons. Not so today. Stress is an absolute staple in every teenager’s life—the lucky few, who have supportive and understanding family and social relationships, will be able to cope with the stress and even convert it in positive ways. Most kids do not have these support structures in place. Just consider what is going on: The stress of fitting in socially; achieving in school; enduring ever-higher parental expectations; and the preponderance of advertisements along with television and film content that elevate popularity and sexual activity. Add to this the lure of catchy and available drugs and the looming college application process. We adults might remember some elements of this, but the fact is that media and advertising are vastly more aggressive in targeting teens than was the case twenty or thirty years ago. For the purposes of this section on IDENTITY, I am referring to the kind of stress that interferes with academic performance and that will complicate relationships—the kind of stress that impairs emotional, physical, behavioral, and cognitive functioning—and thus can retard the formation of healthy and authentic identity.
Actions: First things first: as parents, recognize that stress in the teenage years is much more intense now. It will not help matters to dismiss the seemingly petty worries and anxieties your teenage child is communicating. Often these “surface anxieties” can be hiding much more pernicious elements of stress and may even be masking more dangerous behaviors and emotional states. As is the case in nearly all of these topics underneath IDENTITY, during all childhood phases, keep communication lines open and supportive. Refrain from judgment and anger. Build good relationships with the school’s counselors. School/home partnerships are key—my experience as an administrator over decades underscores this point as incredibly important. I have seen too many parents over the years take on an adversarial role with teachers and administrators, when constructive partnerships are the only pathway to gaining traction with a child’s school experience, behavior and social matters. At home, when interacting with your teen, try to be aware of the ways in which you might be communicating judgment, refrain from solving your teen’s problems for them, and avoid engendering irresponsibility by blaming others and scapegoating your child’s friends and teachers. You will be adding pressure to an already stressful situation if you slip into these traps. Simply put: listen, try to connect, speak calmly, cut down on the schedule pressures, do not criticize, allow for more sleep, model relaxation and healthy eating.
Learning: Here are a couple of well-regarded books on coping with stress: For girls, read The Teen Girl’s Survival Guide: Ten Tips for Making Friends, Avoiding Drama, and Coping with Social Stress, by Lucy Hemmen. For both middle school and high school students, I recommend also The Straight-A Conspiracy: Your Secret Guide to Ending the Stress of School and Totally Ruling the World, by Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien.
Meaning: If the middle school years are about pulling away from parents and connecting in more animated ways with one’s peers, the teenage years will spew out an atmosphere of competitiveness, which can yield positive or negative reactions, depending on the context of the competition. Competing to win is more detrimental to girls’ social relationships than for boys, researchers say. However, competing to improve one’s performance is beneficial for both boys and girls. The challenge for the teenager is that competition sets in from so many angles. If 9th and 10th graders are not equipped with sufficient self-esteem or a strong family support network, the impact can easily become troubling. Athletics is naturally the chief arena where competition plays out, but good coaches—those who teach teamwork and effort and even how to cope with loss—can elevate the competitive spirit to make the experience worthwhile and character-focused. The real dangers of competition occur in the more stealth and subtle areas, like in relationships and academic performance. For parents, holding other students and your child’s friends up as goody-two-shoes examples will only exacerbate the problem. Likewise, stepping into relationship snags by issuing judgment on either the spurned or the sought-after boy/girlfriend will alienate your child. There are indeed fun forms of competition in the teenage experience, but once you encounter the more emotionally sensitive brands of competition, it is time to show real support and gentle guidance.
Actions: Whatever the brand of competition facing your teen, the most important stance you can take is to encourage your child to compete against him/herself. Winning is about doing the best you can, instead of glorifying in the outcome of the contest. Do not ever define success in terms of winning and losing. Also, be the cheerleader, not the coach. As soon as you slip into “you should have done this, or you should have played it this way…” your moral and emotional support will vanish. Competition in the academic setting or regarding friendships and relationships is definitely a time for caring and listening. My main advice for parents in all these circumstances: the sport is your child’s sport, not your sport; also, your child is not defined by his/her performance—love your child unconditionally. Your child will definitely know the difference and will let you know it if your emotional investment is centering on extrinsic factors.
Learning: A well-written and humorous essay on the topic of being a good sports parent is “How to Become a Great Sports Dad,” found on the “for the win” ftw.usatoday.com site: https://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/06/11-things-every-sports-dad-should-know-how-to-be-a-great-sports-dad . A healthy approach to parenting the super-competitive child is this essay: “Helping Super-Competitive Children Relax,” found on the handinhandparenting.org site, and a similar theme is found in the essay “How Best to Parent Your Competitive Child Without Squelching Their Passion,” on the allprodad.com site.
Meaning: Placing this topic of “Driving” in this category of IDENTITY is not a joke. Driving is a serious undertaking. Some will call it a rite of passage, but I will call it a revocable privilege bestowed on the child by the parent upon securing a signed agreement whereby the child will abide by all that the parents outlines in the parent-child driver contract (see below, under “Actions.”). Nothing marks the transition from innocence to consequential responsibility quite like obtaining a license to drive. The sudden ability/license to operate a powerful machine that can easily kill oneself and others must not be taken lightly. The freedoms, conveniences, authority, and status that come with getting a drivers license and access to a vehicle for a 16 year old is about as considerable a responsibility as any milestone throughout one’s life. Will your child assume a careful, mature, and responsible attitude once the license is in hand, or will this moment mean the unleashing of recklessness, hubris, rage, and risk-taking? Lifelong devastation will be the probable outcome if the latter is the case. Parents must take the reins of thjs critical juncture in the child’s life and make clear the expectations—there must be no room for falling short of the safety expectations. The consequences/punishment must be executed. Look at the parent/child driver contract in the next section, and you will then understand what is at stake.
Actions: Apart from the table talk conversations that will precede the stage of obtaining a license, a thorough, strongly written contract must be factored into a child’s entrée into the world of driving. I’ve seen many of these contracts—I am partial to the comprehensive, strongly-worded agreements, like this one: https://www.hagen-law.com/teenage-drivers-contract/ . The essential approach is to start the safe driving conversations early and of course to be hyper-aware of your own driving habits and how you might be coming across to your child. Refrain from holding heated conversations while driving; don’t grab for things while behind the wheel; cut out the texting and phoning; don’t speed—these are the easy things to abide by and model. The conversations about teens and driving risks should be straightforward, caring and honest but not preachy. Letting your teen know that you are looking forward to their growing levels of responsibility and want their success will win their buy-in.
Learning: Numerous articles are out there on teaching your teen about driving; one such article is “How to Talk with Your Teen About Safe Driving,” which is on the travelers.com site. An excellent and very thorough treatment of the parent’s responsibility when it comes to teen driving is on the Washington State Department of Licensing site: http://www.pimage.com/dol/washington_parent_guide/parentguide.pdf .
Meaning: Nothing can be more tragically suppressive of that beautiful and unique identity hiding within every teenager than addiction. Parents can minimize the possibilities of their teens turning to drugs just by understanding what drives teenagers to drugs in the first place, and it seldom has to do with rebelliousness or their desire to lash out. The triggers could be anything from boredom, to a desire for connection with peers, to any of the stressors that hover over teenagers, like competitiveness, depression, body image issues, or just plain curiosity and doing what other kids are doing. The standard parental sit-down to discuss drugs, while a crucially important topic no matter when it happens, is not always effective, unfortunately, as teenagers will turn on their sense of being invulnerable and invincible when making these unhealthy choices. After all, the experience of being high itself will deliver that sensation of being invincible, and that is what they might turn to repeatedly as these choices turn into habits and then turn into addiction. The teenager’s proclivity to drug abuse is a lot less likely if one’s parenting during several years leading up to the teenage years were marked by strong family bonds in addition to successful guidance toward pro-social and pro-healthy engagement like clubs and sports and other positive activities. But if it does happen, it’s certainly time for the parent to turn on the supportive tone and work to get your child to open up. This will mean a long-term re-engagement with your child, not a onetime sit-down.
Actions: Offering a sure-fire approach to addressing addiction would be foolhardy—nothing of the sort exists. Many of my entries in these “actions” sections have promoted parent-child conversations. This can certainly be a smart approach to keep children safe and on their journey of making right choices that will feed the emergence of authentic identity. But the always-lurking dangers of addiction and the severity of the heartbreak involved argues for a complete re-start of one’s parenting. This is the area of a teen’s life that warrants a two-pronged strategy: supportive engagement on the one hand, in addition to crafty, informed monitoring of whereabouts, moods, friends, and online behavior. Partnering with other parents and with school counselors can keep the intel on what’s happening fresh. I know some parents like to do secretive room, auto, backpack, and clothing checks, but I’m partial to the pre-planned, child-informed, regularly scheduled checks—this way there is more of a chance to rid the surroundings of drugs in the first place. On top of these strategies, parents should encourage, and perhaps require, counseling for their children.
Learning: Knowing what drives kids to drugs in the first place can go far to equip parents with understanding, plus will imply tactics to confront the topic and ward off abuse down the road. Check out this article on what drives teens: https://drugabuse.com/11-real-reasons-teenagers-experiment-drugs/ . This article on how to address the issue once drugs are in the picture is very well done:
Meaning: The purpose of including the topic of sex and sex education in this category of IDENTITY is to share trends, recognize the emotional and physical realities, promote healthy relationships, raise awareness on such topics as body boundaries, gender stereotyping, impact of the media on self-image, and to keep crucial topics related to STI’s and HIV/AIDS on the table. This subsection is not intended to provide anywhere near the necessary info, and my only advocacy is certainly not for any particular teen behavior, but for keeping this topic a serious one in the parent’s mind. A comprehensive educational approach to sex education really must begin several years prior to the teen years, as nearly all schools will have programs beginning around the 4th or 5th grade that touch on issues of building healthy relationships with friends, understanding bullying and the role of an up-stander, learning about human anatomy, knowing what is happening with one’s own body during the active years of growing and puberty, being aware about body boundaries and how to communicate concerns. I recognize the controversial nature of including sex education in schools, and I will respect parents who choose to pull their children from these programs, but it is important to note one compelling item of evidence: the research is clear on this, that exposing children to a comprehensive sexual education program does not at all increase the likelihood that they will participate in premarital sexual activity later on. Education in this area promotes awareness, safety, mindfulness, health, sensitivity, and even values. Raising children by means of sheltering them from critical realities is a recipe for danger and unhappiness, not to mention the potential for unmitigated heartbreak. Now for the good news: the trends are very encouraging in term of health awareness among teenagers. Just consider these trends: the overall percentage of teenagers who are engaged in active sexual activity has been declining for over twenty-five years; teen pregnancies are going down; more teens are practicing protected sex; percentage of teenagers reporting multiple sexual partners (four or more) has also been dropping quite a bit over the past ten years. Still, 43% of high school seniors report that they are sexually active; STI’s, HIV/AIDS, unwanted and violent sex—all remain enormous issues. See the “Learning” section below for a few very informative books on this topic.
Actions: As many parents will acknowledge, if both you and your child can be comfortable talking about the body, about relationships, and about sex, then everything else will be as easy as pie. Starting these benign conversations early (about friendships, being kind to others, the body’s changes) when kids are eight, nine, and ten, can smooth the way for what would otherwise be more difficult, unpleasant or taboo topics later on. Knowing what’s happening at school in terms of body and sex education is key, because keeping the conversational flow going alongside what is being learned in school will help give these topics the respect and gravity they deserve: Once they are teenagers and facing peer pressures and being exposed to what’s out there on film and in the media, parents ought to be asking these kinds of questions: “Rather than comparing ourselves to models/actors on social media, what are some ways we ought to be measuring our own success, achievements and self-esteem?” “Why do you think people get STI’s?” “What if two people in a relationship have different ideas about what abstinence means? How can they work this out respecting individual boundaries and choices?” These questions samples can go on for pages. The main point is to refrain from alarming, hysterical or other intensely reactionary tones whenever these sensitive topics need to be broached. Just walk into these topics calmly, supportively, and respectfully.
Learning: There are dozens of excellent novels out there geared toward the younger audience on the topic of teenage sexuality, but here I’ll include a few titles for parents on the general topic of sex ed and how to broach this on the home front. For the parents of much younger children, and great start is the book, Where Did I Come From, by Peter Mayle. For the tween child, a book on the developing body that parents can read together with their child is, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris and Michael Emberley. A book for teens, one that you can just give to them and have them read it on their own (after you read it first), is Sex: A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex, and Safety, by Nikol Hasler.
Meaning: The concept of achievement is unfortunately such a ubiquitous, hovering weight that permeates nearly every facet of school life for the teenager. Parents and teachers are talking about the future; peers are pressuring each other to step into risky behavior; the fact that every facet of school life will have its best (meaning other) people running the show, from sports, to theater, to clubs, to academics; the media is plundered with body images of perfection. With all of these messages and images and mindset geared toward who you are not, no wonder that the subterranean attitude and hidden feelings are often rebelling inside the teenager, and what emerges is unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and self-harm. Some might say it’s just as tough for parents to shrug off this competitiveness surrounding achievement in their teenager, and parents are the ones with the fully formed, executive functioning, prefrontal cortex. Imagine if you can what it is like being a teenager today, with high stakes testing way louder in the teenage consciousness than it ever was when we were teenagers. The frenzy of pushing so many trivial details of daily life through social media leaves no room for simple self-reflection and a sense that I’m okay. The difficult but urgent thing for parents to do is to redefine achievement, or at least redefine what it means to care for, love, support your child unconditionally, and perhaps more importantly to teach them how to regard themselves with love and support, no matter what the achievement numbers and accomplishments may be. Teaching about failure and loss is crucial to developing a healthy conception of one’s self and it will teach valuable lessons for one’s ability progress along one’s vocational and avocational pathways later on. These concepts of being okay with who you are is not new at all, of course. Remember the late sixties book, I’m Ok, You’re Ok? That message should have huge resonance today, way more so than back in the sixties and seventies.
Actions: While the teenage years are also years in which so many families are not sitting down with each other for dinnertime, what with everyone’s cockamamie schedules, it is vital to impose some regular semblance of ditch-the-electronics moments. The family must symbolically stand for such values of togetherness and conversation and reflection, no matter how challenging it may be just to get everybody to quiet down and shut down for a few minutes. And the focus of interest should shift in your typical end-of-school-day conversation: Instead of focusing on who won/loss the game, try to center the focus on the experience of playing or not playing, what skills or strategies or teamwork details mattered during the contest. Who were the interesting players on the opposing team, and why? How did the team respond to the win or the loss? The achievement issues go well beyond sports, and applying similar types of questions around the exam or test-taking, around the presentation at school, will be just as valuable—whenever possible, try avoiding the concept of how well someone did, and definitely steer clear of grades as a question of ultimate interest. Above all, steer clear of judgmental commentary whenever possible—regarding your child’s peers, their teachers, the coaches, the school’s programs. Take the teenager’s complaints as opportunities to guide them toward their own solutions and to discover their own responsibility for the outcomes they seek.
Learning: I love the topics you’ll find on the web/coaching site, Brandilyn Tebo, by going to http://www.brandilyntebo.com/. Her Peace/Inside Out topics and questions will get you thinking about the full range of issues related to the achievement culture our teenagers face. And to really get into the right frame of mind about high school, check out Denise Clark Pope’s book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Mideducated Students.
Meaning: And finally, we come to the future. Or do we ever get there? Are we on the right road that may lead to our desired future? And how should we be thinking about tomorrow—in terms of careers, further education, personal growth? These are great questions, and they deserve to be asked again and again. One of the mammoth shifts in American ideology over the last two generations (45-50 years) is our parental attitudes toward high education. A research team out of the University of Michigan has been tracking attitudes among parents of college-bound students over several decades, and one of the amazing findings is that today, parents will cite “getting a better job” as the number one reason for going to college and earning a degree; whereas, back in the 70’s, getting a better job was at the bottom of the list—back then, at the top of the list for reasons to go to college was “to become a better human begin.” This seismic shift in attitudes reflects an enormous turnover in American Society, away from humanistic thinking and more toward utilitarian thinking. In other words, we do things in life in order to get someplace else, rather than doing things because they are valuable to do. What all this means is that the concept of “future” has really changed; in terms of one’s sense of identity, the future is about something we are not right now, and in fact the future is about becoming something very different, such as becoming that other person out there we may know only through the media. The flipside to this, the side that would reflect a more humanistic approach to the future, would be to see the future in terms of how to better know ourselves and to uncover our strengths and fully to become the person we really are and are meant to be. But these attitudes take many years to be fully owned by any individual, if indeed that individual is to have success discovering who they are themselves—finding and pursuing one’s own passion, one’s own spirituality, one’s own soul, one’s own philosophy. Present day concepts of the future have largely turned away from these ideals of individuation. Instead, the future is all too often a concept that society, parents, and peers impose on us or expect from us. The real thrust in the endeavor to realize IDENTITY is to become oneself—fully, honestly, authentically—rather than someone we are not. Becoming someone we are not is precisely what drives so much of the stress and anxiety plaguing our youth.
Actions: Tough order for parents, but the one thing you can do to make your teen’s experience much more endurable is to tone down the talk about the future—here are some phrases to cut out: “What are you going to do with your life?”, “So, what are you doing these days to build up your resume for college?”, “Did you stop by the college counselor’s office today?” Another approach to cut out is the persuasive style, like explaining benefits of getting involved, urging action steps in order to make progress, or pleading with your teen to do things you want them to do. The teenage years are marked by sensitivity to judgmental talk and just about any parental effort at persuasion, reasoning, coaxing, and rationalizing. This has nothing to do with the actions the parent is desiring in their teen; the teen could very well be on board the plan. But the teenager will recoil from or resist the pressures that the stronger forms of encouragement are communicating. Such parental anxiety that is typically fueling such pressure will only produce a backlash and may alienate the child. This doesn’t mean that your teen is directionless or will be utterly lost. Just about every teenager knows the pathways, the outcomes, and the purpose that family, society and culture are expecting. More acknowledgement of the now; more affirmation about what is being accomplished today; more kudos regarding the right choices being made in the present time—these are the supportive responses that will yield a much better future than all the reminders of what parents hope to see.
Learning: Here’s a book that presents the new world of the teenager today, and it explains how we can build mutually supportive parent-child relationships and open up the positive features of the teenage years: Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, by Laurence Steinberg. A wealth of great communication advice is offered in this book, The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful and Resilient Teens and Tweens, by John Duffy.