Dealing With the Adolescent Psyche

By Madumitha Selvaraj

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Early Adolescence is when most children start experiencing the signs of puberty. The significant physical growth that happens combined with the sexual curiosity that starts to peek in to their minds can be quite a bit to handle for them. Their intellectual interests start to branch out although abstract thinking still remains at a nascent level.

Late adolescence (18+ yrs) is when the mind has understood the concept of right and wrong, rewards processing and a sense of the individual is more concretely felt. Young adults, by now have also formed their own circle of people which goes beyond immediate family, school friends and family acquaintances.

Middle Adolescence, according to me, is the most colourful of the three stages. It is when the cognitive and moral spaces of a person’s mind start taking root. Now, kids even before the age of 10, have already observed, processed and indexed their experiences in various pockets of their memory. This, though, at that time, might seem a burden to carry, actually helps shape their life starting from the middle adolescence stage. This phase, commonly referred to as teenage, lays the foundation for many aspects of a person’s psychological mapping. The person’s capacity for reasoning and need for independent thinking came to the forefront of everything that they do and feel. And when I say everything, I mean “EVERYTHING”.

One of my clients who came for relationship counselling mentioned about his 16 year old son, “It is almost as if he has suddenly become an alien in the house. He stays silent when we all share a joke in the family and speaks up against me at the most inappropriate of times.” My questions to him were, “Define speak against” and “What is inappropriate?” The word “against” was used in a way suggestive of “How can he counter his father’s views?” and “inappropriate” meant “when least expected”. These 2 words are stuff of legend for people who do not encourage “TeenSpeak”(A term a teenage client introduced me to – meaning the unfiltered, unedited, fearless opinions of teenagers). What the parent could not digest was that growing kids can have opinions because he was never allowed to have any while growing up and the fact that his son did not prescribe to his idea of reacting only when he was expected to.

Now, there is a common myth that all teens are rebels and like to speak against rather than for. From a psychological perspective, the teenage mind that goes through a whirlwind of ideas and a gamut of new emotions right around puberty or right after, seeks acknowledgement. To be heard and truly listened to. In many cases, teenage ideas and voices are rubbished as the thoughts of impressionable youngsters who have not yet experienced the hardships of life. While it may be a solid argument of parents of rebellious teenagers, we have to look at each case with an objective view. Many teenagers rebel because they would do anything to feel heard. And if you look closely, the starting point of this lies with their relationship at home. A place which is supposed to provide them a sense of security and acceptance. I have had many teenage clients who complained of parents disapproving their choices in education, friendships, hobbies, sexual orientation/identity and even things like their sense of fashion, humour, reading etc. And the first thing I noticed is the underlying angst that comes out of not being given a chance to explain their choices. One parent even went to the extent of calling his daughter’s choice of books “A shame on my family’s principles”. (The girl was reading books on Atheism and Agnosticism). One could say that the extreme reaction given to a teenager’s mere exploration of a concept only makes them delve deeper into it.

What is important here is to look at them as people who stand at the threshold of adulthood, becoming aware of their place in the world, wanting to know more and explore more. The best way for them to do it would be to let them be. Any input in helping them understand an idea should not be given in the form of a screaming rebuke or a downplaying of their intellectual capability to form their own opinions.

With the level of social exposure that teenagers have in the current tech era, there are not too many things that skip their ever-scanning radar. However, those that capture their attention should be given room to be explored. Here comes the most common parent question, “Do I indulge all of my teen kids’ fantasies?” The answer is a yes and a no. Yes, help them understand what it is that they are looking at or experiencing by having an open mind to listen to them. Being a sounding board to their thoughts helps you stay involved in their life as well as their growth into adulthood. And no, you do not have to comply with all their opinions and take on things. You can offer your argument on a dicey topic while also assuring them that you have their best interests in mind. This lays the foundation of a healthy relationship.

When you listen, it gives them the assurance that you are interested in what they have to say. Only then, when you give your view, you can expect the same level of interest from them. Do not in any way curb their curiosity to try new things because how else will they be grown-ups? Let them try various things to find and decide which to use as building blocks for their emotional and mental self.

However, this is easier said than done. In many a household, especially those headed by adults who have their own take on how a “culturally and socially” acceptable parent should treat kids, teenagers are seen as trouble makers who will not abide by the rules of the family. One has to take a step back and check their premises before assuming the worst about a teenager. Many times, all they will need is a friendly chat or a genuine one-on-one from an open minded person who will listen to them without judgement and advise them without a hidden agenda.

If you are a parent, sibling, friend, teacher, or any form of acquaintance to a teenager who seems to be going through a rough patch, tell yourself that it would be unfair to judge them. That is the first step in understanding and ultimately empowering them to progress. Their respect grows when we show maturity in handling them and their insecurities vanish as we show them that it is ok to be unsure, weird, confused, erratic – some or all of which they might be. We could help them clear up the clutter that the world throws at them as they navigate the hurdles of body issues, sexual identity, career choice, social circle, spiritual growth, instant gratification, success, etc. Beware that a controlling approach might be counterproductive as it suffocates their freedom to construct themselves by trial and error. Let them paint their own canvas of life and try to construct and deconstruct their self with each twist and turn.

News of depression and suicide rates increasing in the teenage and young adult age group is indicative that this age group suffers the most because of 2 main reasons

  • Parents or family members do not consider them old enough to discuss an issue with them like fellow adults
  • Teenagers themselves think it would be too childish or look weak and vulnerable to seek help.

The above 2 statements are complimentary to each other. The first makes them out to be mere kids to be considered important enough to have an opinion. The second flames their ego and makes them feel like a “Been there, done that” which stops them from seeking help.

The population demographics of India show that this age group is one of the largest chunks that need emotional support and awareness about mental well-being. This is where the onus falls to the parents for being that first peek a teenager has of the world around them. If they do not like what they see at first, their expectations of the world beyond that turns out to be too cynical. And thanks to that, their psyche might forever be dented with the non-acceptance that cripples their future relationships. Many teenagers who do not enjoy a cordial and open relationship with their family members suffer from various psychological disturbances when they have to deal with the whole wide world as they enter adulthood. The lack of a go-to person makes them grow more inward and may even, in certain extreme cases, lead to issues like addiction, substance abuse and social apathy.

With the new wave of importance given to mental health in our country, I sincerely hope there is more openness shown by parents to talk to their teenage kids with an open mind about things that they might consider taboo or socially unacceptable. Or seek the help of a therapist, family counsellor or a counselling psychologist who can help them initiate that conversation with their children. And most importantly, realise that what the teenage psyche seeks is not just acknowledgement but also acceptance. Every teen mind is waiting to launch its ideas into the world. The least we can do is clear up the path in whatever small way we can to enable them to do that with confidence and play our part in a support system that will lift their spirits when they need it the most.

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