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Rites of passage in adolescence

Every day, it seems, someone says teenagers are so different than they used to be. We hear about drug and alcohol use, violence, disrespect, and a myriad of other ills that are affecting our adolescents, including low self-esteem, anger, depression, and family problems. But it seems that little is said about how to create a positive transition from adolescence to adulthood. Here are some ideas for parents.

Safe transitions
It is obvious that being a teenager is very different these days than it was even five or 10 years ago, and that the world is a much more dangerous place to grow up in than it ever has been in the past. In my work with adolescent foster children and with homeless adolescents, I have seen that teenagers don’t have any way in which to make a safe transition to adulthood. In losing the wealth of experience that came with being exposed to extended families and neighbors, children are no longer able to obtain guidance from the adults in their life consistently. In the “old days” when children hit puberty, they moved into apprenticeships with adults who taught them a trade, and along the way, these teachers were able to pass along insights into healthy ways to develop a code of ethics about work, money, family, and friendships. Adults taught children about values, and how to think critically about what values would be important as they moved into adulthood.

Today, teens are in school most of the day, then in sports or activities for most of the evening. By the time they get home, they have time to eat dinner, do their homework, watch some TV, and go to bed. There is not a lot of time in today’s society for parents to spend quality time with their children, teaching them about values, work, or how to make good choices. This is not the fault of parents, who do their best to model responsible decision making, work ethic, healthy communication, and spend as much time as they can with their children. It is the fault of American society, in which money and status have become the most important things that teens have to strive for. Adolescents are bombarded with advertisements on TV and in magazines, and they have to cope with enormous peer pressure to drink, use drugs, wear the best clothes, have a cellular phone or beeper, and to work many hours a week to earn money for these material things that they then no longer have time to enjoy.

Lacking rituals
These are the things that are American parents are struggling with today. There is no room in our “Information Age” to give teens a rite of a passage from adolescence to being an adult. The only concrete thing that teens have to look forward to these days is getting their drivers license. This is a far cry from when children had many rites of passage to ease their journey into adulthood. Instead of the tribal rites of passage of Africa, or the apprenticeships of early America, we have a glaring lack of rituals to safely lead our teens into healthy adulthood.

In my experience, it is the lack of these rituals that has led our youth into drugs, sex, and violence. How else can they prove their strength and independence in the 90’s except to experience the thrill of drug experimentation, having illicit sex, and carrying a gun? What rituals are we giving adolescents that allow them to safely separate from their parents and prove themselves ready to don the mantle of being a grown-up? Remember what a big deal your baby’s first birthday was? It is important to frequently find something to celebrate, be it your daughter’s first menstruation, passing the school year, making a new friend, or your son’s successful trombone recital. In taking advantage of everyday accomplishments, and celebrating them as a ceremony of growth, we can easily find ways to create positive rituals on an almost daily basis.

In my work with homeless teens, I have tried hard to combat the disrespect and rule-breaking by allowing natural consequences to happen wherever possible. If a teen goes out and get drunk or high, and cannot get up for work the next day, the consequence is to possibly lose their job. If I address the behavior associated with drinking and the consequences that follow, rather than the drinking itself, I have a much better chance of getting a teen to see cause and effect. I really don’t believe that I can stop teens from doing drugs, having sex, and engaging in dangerous behavior. These are the only natural rites of passage that are available to today’s youth.

Until we can create better transitions for adolescents, we need to find creative ways to deal with the rituals they’ve created for themselves. It is important to realize that even if we give them positive choices, they may sometimes opt to do something dangerous instead. We must be prepared to deal with this eventuality by allowing them to suffer the consequences of their actions. Much as we want to protect our children from harm and pain, it is a natural part of growing up. We need to be able to support them and help them learn from the decisions that they do make.

Of course, these behaviors are terrifying to adults, for good reason. We want to keep our children safe and help them on the road to being a healthy and happy adult, so we need to accept the premise that these dangerous behaviors are the rituals that adolescents have consciously chosen for themselves in our society’s lack of natural passageways. David Oldfield, Director of the Midway Center for Creative Imagination in Washington, D.C. has come up with a program called “The Journey,” which targets today’s teenagers and in recognizing their need to separate from their parents, and to strive for independence, seeks ways in which to outfit our children with the tools they need to negotiate the perils and challenges of becoming an adult in today’s world.

In “The Journey,” Oldfield recognizes a connection between the adolescent journey and the mythological adventure. He realizes that adolescents have always had to take this journey. He says that adolescence is “the myth of the ‘Hero’s Journey'”. “The adolescent hero must strive towards distinction, rise above obstacles, overcome trials and temptations, quest after the great treasures life has hidden away.” This is something I have seen time and time again with teens. They have a need to prove themselves, which is totally natural and something that we should encourage. It is important though, that we as parents give them a positive choice in how they “journey” rather than allow them only the default choices of our society: drugs, sex, or violence.

In Oldfield’s work, he teaches adolescents to face the trials of the passageway into adulthood by working with a small group of their peers to discover their inner strength. Using guided imagery, story telling, and encouraging parents to share their own adolescence, “The Journey” gives teens a model to base their growth on. They define who they are, what they want to be, and how they’re going to get there. They do it with other adolescents, so they don’t feel foolish being open about their dreams, fears and expectations. I believe that families, by having open communication, sharing their lives with their teenagers, and helping children find out who they are and have faith in themselves, parents can help their children create their own journey.

Strength of families
The rites of passage between adolescence and adulthood are internal, not external. What we are seeing is that children today are looking to the world around them for external models and means of becoming an adult. The truth is, adolescents need to look inside themselves and use their strength to think about and make healthy choices. As parents, we can creatively guide their desire to mature by coming up with our own “journey” that works for your child and your family.

The world is a scary place for families today, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the battle. Our children naturally want to separate from us, but we can show them how to do it without using drugs or wearing the hippest clothes. Our strength as a family comes from inside, and if we model this for our children, they will emulate it. In a world where there are no natural rites of passage, we must create our own. I believe that we must do this in order to protect and guide our children in a world that doesn’t have time for them. This is our chance to make a difference.

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