HERE’S DECODING THE COMPLEX ADOLESCENT AGE
Image credit: http://www.beijingrelocation.com/
Adolescence is a confusing and complex period in life, a time of ‘stress and storm’, a phase of life associated with a substantial change in self, and a time of immense bio-psychosocial changes. Psychologists have considered this stage as a stage of internal civil war, and parenting an adolescent has been referred to as a walk on the eggshells.
A happy, chirpy and disciplined kid may transform into a sullen, non-communicative, unkempt, and rebellious teenager making parents wonder where they failed in their role. However psychologists working in the area of child and adolescent development are constantly endeavoring to decode the mysteries of the various challenges associated with this delicate and sensitive stage of life and hence change the colloquial ‘eggshell walk’ of a parent into smooth and an enjoyable cakewalk.
Experimentation with risks is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of an adolescent’s rite of passage. Adolescents are “biologically wired” to seek new experiences as it’s a stage of an identity crisis, a time of questioning, exploring, and risk-taking. The teenage years pose a critical window of vulnerability to substance use disorders as the brain is still developing and malleable, and some brain areas are less mature than others. The adolescent brain can be thought of as a car with a fully functioning gas pedal (the reward system) but weak brakes (the prefrontal cortex). The parts of the brain that process feelings of reward and pain—crucial drivers of drug use—are the first to mature during childhood.
However the part of the brain responsible for assessing situations, making sound decisions, and controlling our emotions and impulses is not mature until a person is in his or her mid-20s. Considering the cognitive aspect of adolescence, egocentrism is at its peak during adolescence, and one of its components -the personal fable gives rise to a sense of invulnerability and especially with a propensity for substance addiction.
The personal fable makes the adolescent believe that it is because he or she is special and unique “other people will get hooked on drugs but not me; also other people may incur detrimental consequences of drug abuse but not me”. Owing to this personal fable, the young adolescent believes that he/she is invulnerable to developing substance addiction and incurring its adverse consequences.
Knowing that teenagers are highly motivated to pursue pleasurable rewards, but their judgment and decision-making skills are still limited, the role of adults in the kid’s life assume far greater significance at this stage of life. Adolescents need their caregivers to help them to weigh risks accurately and make sound decisions. Unfortunately, this period of life is marked by heightened parent-child conflict and often failed communication within the family and most of the conflicts arise out of demands of freedom and autonomy by the adolescent. Family environments marked by frequent parent-child conflict create increased gaps and alienation between the parents and the kids.
Such kids get emotionally detached from parents and move away from the family ties and usually end up forming a subgroup. Usually such subgroups comprise of deviant individuals who are involved in unhealthy lifestyles and are often in conflict with the law. Because they are unsure of their own identities, peer acceptance is important to many adolescents. Acceptance enables a teen to join a particular peer group and identify with the behaviors and attitudes of that group. Adolescents are often willing to conform to their peers’ behaviors in order to be accepted. Conformity may create problems, however, when peers influence each other to participate in deviant activities like substance abuse.
COMMUNICATION A POTENT TOOL TO BRIDGE PARENT-CHILD GAP
Parents need to provide a right balance of autonomy-relatedness to the kids to express and experiment their selves. Autonomous-relatedness reflects the contemporary view that adolescent development is optimized within the context of a supportive, connected relationship with parents.
Healthy parent-child communication is the most potent tool to bridge the parent-child gap. To make the matters worse, the same child will talk or text constantly with his/her friends while reply in monosyllables to parents. The emotional involvement and enthusiasm are reserved for peers, not so much for parents. Howsoever possible, parents have to continue to keep the communication channels open and try to avoid turning conversations into interrogative sessions. Allowing kids to express opinions about issues which may be controversial or contradictory to their own points of view and listening without commenting or belittling their understanding or thought process and always remembering that the objective is to communicate and build a bridge between the two, and not win a debate can work wonders for a happy parent-child relationship.
With the open channels of communication, parents can then easily monitor and supervise their children and thus protect their adolescents from early initiation of substance use by being aware of where their children are, who they are with, and what they are doing during their free time after school. Staying involved in a child’s day-to-day activities is also critical in pathways towards healthy adolescent development. Research has documented that parents who find ways to get involved in the child’s homework, sports, hobbies, school clubs, and other after-school activities are very less likely to have deviant kids.
Parents need to actively provide intellectual, cultural, recreational, and moral orientation and stimulation to the child which become precursors towards the development of a healthy sense of identity and self. At this point of time , the child needs a strong base to take-off to understand his or her own self and to answer the questions ‘ Who am I ? What’s the real me? What’s the direction and purpose of my life?
Effective parenting can encourage the children to embark on a journey towards seeking their unique answers to these questions and achieving a healthy sense of identity thereby creating a niche for themselves in the mainstream society. Unfortunately children from dysfunctional families often fail to set out on the path of self-discovery, ending up being a rudderless ship which doesn’t have a purpose and meaning of life. Such adolescents with a diffused sense of identity become a threat not only to ones own self but to the society at large.
LOVE, PEACE AND INVOLVEMENT IN CHILD’S LIFE ARE VITAL TO RAISE HEALTHY, HAPPY KIDS
Parents are the strongest influence that children have. Many other factors at home can influence a child’s attitudes and propensity to use drugs. Among the risk factors in the home environment are psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, inter-parent conflict, living with parents who abuse alcohol and other drugs, domestic violence, parental neglect, parental depression or psychopathology.
To cut the long story short and to simplify it further, love and peace at home and involvement in the child’s life are the most vital ingredients to raise healthy, happy and responsible kids. Early intervention with risk factors often has a greater impact and may prevent a lifetime of unhappiness, derailed goals, unfulfilled dreams and compromised health. Each of these risk factors can be modified through personal growth or professional help and improvements in the home environment can assist children avoid drug use.
ABOUT THE WRITER
- Damanjit Sandhu, an associate professor in department of psychology, Punjabi University, Patiala, is also a coordinator at the directorate of international students. She has to his credit 80 research papers on adolescent identity formation, risk-taking, school bullying and cyberbullying and has also co-edited a book entitled “Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Student Well-being in Schools: Comparing European, Australian and Indian Perspectives” published by Cambridge University Press, London. She is also a Regional Editor (India) of International Journal of the International Observatory of Violence in Schools, Bordeaux, France and was elected as a Chief of the United States of America’s Association of Mental Health Counseling