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Teenage Communal Chaos: Can we do anything about it?

With school begin the stresses of work and social activity. While teens thrive on their peer connections, parents fret about lack of sleep, social distractions and underachievement. It is important to remember that adolescence is a period of intense growth that should culminate in a well-defined sense of self, in addition to skills and knowledge acquisition. Peer relationships facilitate this growth and parents can choose to exert a positive influence.

“School’s reopened! It’s a relief to know that my teenaged son is going to be productively engaged for a good part of the day, five days a week. And all I have to figure are lunches, transport and money to fund his many activities, requests, fancies. Then I remember the phone calls, the emails, the parties, the ‘hangout dates’ (they are not play-dates any more), and the sleepover requests. Why does he need to spend all this time with his buddies? Someone help! With all the socializing, there is going to be no time for anything else.

When schools reopen after the summer break, kids come out of hibernation. First day of school catapults them back into frenzied activity, that extends to their social life. Teens in particular thrive on being connected with their peers. When I think teen, I visualize iPod earphones growing out of the ears, spasmodic thumb movements across a tiny phone keypad, eyes glued to a computer screen scanning for online friends, a group of similar looking people, talking. The Internet, instant messaging, blogs and social networking websites allow the social connectivity to be intense and constant, leaving no time for reflection before and after action. Add to this weekend parties and you can imagine how hard it is to keep this up constantly. The results are often impulsive actions, thoughtless words, social conflict and lots of unhappiness and angst. No wonder teens are emotionally and physically exhausted, irritable and often apathetic!

The problem is that this is an important time to learn and achieve in the academic realm. That requires additional skill-sets that teens are not equipped with as yet. They are still learning to organize information, plan for the future and delay gratification of needs in the present. They are not emotionally mature enough, nor do they have actual world experience to help them manage the complex interactions they engage in.

Parents worry about the toll that the social connectivity will take on their kids’ lives. Yet, hard though it is to accept for any parent, teens have their most significant relationships with peers.Adolescence is a stage of development where peer relations not only give the most joy (and angst) but also catalyze personal growth. It is through social relationships and interactions that the adolescent shapes his/her identity and sense of self. He/she experiments with different forms of self-expression in language, clothes, fashion, body art, opinions and views in the social context. The adolescent is trying out different identities and ways of being, about which there is constant feedback from peers.

This is an intensely ‘active’ stage of life where the adolescent is not a passive subject reflecting the impact of environmental circumstances. Instead, the adolescent is an aggressive and powerful ‘actor’ or ‘doer’ who is dynamically interacting with the environment. The adolescent’s sense of self will be shaped by the results of these interactions.

The objectives of these experiments are to differentiate oneself from parents while simultaneously gaining approval and belonging to the social group, thereby defining the self. Successful achievement of differentiation and belonging will allow them to define their self strongly and give them a feeling of independence, competence and mastery. Failure on the other hand, will lead to a weak or negative sense of self. They remain unsure of their beliefs and desires and feel insecure and confused.

How can parents support adolescents to grow as individuals? Encouragement, gentle guidance and positive reinforcement are important for success. Here are a few basic guidelines for parents:

  • Take this time to reflect on your own self-image. Be clear about your own values, principles and identity as an individual. Don’t be afraid to stand up for or articulate them.
  • Engage in lots of discussions with your son/daughter. Listen more than you speak. Encourage him/her to express his/her opinions and beliefs.
  • Wait before you evaluate any of his/her beliefs or opinions. Ask more open-ended questions, like “that’s interesting! Tell me more!” Or, “I would love to understand that better. Give me an example”. The more your son/daughter verbalizes ideas, the easier it becomes for him/her to spot confusions, logical flaws and biases.
  • Encourage him/her to talk about friends. Be really interested in the friends and positive about them.
  • Gently pull your adolescent into activities with you – whether its going for a walk/run, working on a mutually interesting project (assembling a shelf from Ikea maybe?) or having an after school cup of tea together with your daughter. Similarly, get interested in your son/daughter’s interests. Involve yourself in his/her activities, maybe even catch his favorite TV show with him/her!
  • Have clear boundaries for social interactions – set times for being online, having mobile phones switched off at certain times and an evening/weekend curfew; but do be flexible where necessary.

In summary, it would help to remember to consciously make your interactions positive and build a pleasant relationship with your adolescent. Encourage reflection, especially about social life. To help your adolescent get a bit more balance, do put reasonable limits on social interaction and encourage activities that build skills.

(As a practicing Clinical Psychologist, Shri is privileged to be a part of this wonderful journey with many teens and their families. She can be reached at 67790660

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Shrimathi Swaminathan