Heather Cameron, Supervising Social Worker – Care Visions Fostering
Exploring the pages and pages of available content online to help parents and carers understand and cope with the vast complexity of adolescents and their identity, I saw this quote. “Talk the talk before they walk the walk.” In essence, talk about all the difficult subjects now before the young people experience it with no safety net or guidance. Be confident to talk about sex and relationships, the reason why auntie Helen is in hospital or what to do if you are offered drugs. Whilst it may not always be in you are comfort zone, it’s prepping them for a smoother journey of figuring who they are and where they fit in.
Now I know, as I am sure many do, teenage years are definitely full of the unknown and struggles. Eric Erikson (1963) names this period in our lives “Identity vs Role Confusion”. We are paddling through a sea of confusion looking for who we are. As much as a holiday to a Nepalese monastery certainly could make some edge way, it’s not possible for us all to jump on a flight to Kathmandu every time we are looking for who we are and who will we then be. One thing that is sure is to those over 25s, you did it. You are who you are and you’re well into another difficult phase “Relationships vs Isolation”, but that is a whole other subject!
Take that thought for a moment. Think about your own teenage years. I distinctly remember secretly staying up till 3am on MSN (instant messaging service in 2008). The big boom of social media was significant for young people and has only grown in size since. Not only do parents and carers have to think, how can I keep my child safe on the streets but also safe on the screens? But life for adolescents is forever changing. Prior to the 19th Century there was no such thing as “adolescent years". You moved very quickly from a child to then an adult into working life. It seems these days we are starting to come full circle as our children are pressured very quickly to grow up and be like the models and celebrities they see online and due to financial pressures more and more young people are needing to be in work earlier and earlier. 13 year olds appear as 16 year olds and 16 year olds look like they are near their 20s. Make up and filters, body image and attitude is swarming the internet and is a big part of teen identity moulding. You will be glad to know there are more movements to give out more positive messages online. More and more celebrities are being more vocal about coming off social media and a growing number of young people are on it less. This is a prep conversation that needs to happen before a young person has social media. Talk about how social media is not the whole truth and ensure the young person has ways of switching off from social media before they even touch a phone to make an Instagram account.
It’s not all doom and gloom for this generations young people. Whilst there is a lot of challenging difficult things going on in the world, as there always has been. Society has come far with regards to the acceptance and freedom of expression. This generation have grown up with the language, the awareness and understanding that many generations were not privy to and have had to relearn their own pattern of thinking.
With regards to identity, getting used to changing your pronouns is not the easiest of tasks but essential to try for young people’s security in who they are. Young people are often more in touch with the lingo and quickly grasp the meaning when someone shares they are non-binary and have the social etiquette to respect that. (This is often pending on family values and education to).
To be able to communicate to a young person about sexuality and gender identity you must first understand the lingo and the meaning. Otherwise, most of your conversations involve the young person teaching you, which means there is no prepping going on and your own values and opinions may not be as filtered. Talk about the differences of sexuality for lots of people with your young person before they introduce their first partner or before they might share with you they are bisexual. Having these conversations too late and you can miss out on important guidance for the young person choosing their first intimate relationship and experience with sex. In having these open conversations at an early age young people are automatically feeling in a safe space to talk and explore their sexuality safely. There will be less likely to be secrets and unsafe behaviours if you have this openness.
In my own training, I was introduced to “the genderbread person”. This is an excellent tool for a young person who is having lots of feelings but can’t, or is uncomfortable in, placing a label on themselves. It’s a great way for them to help you understand what really is going on for them, so you can support them more. Remember, there is no time limit to making firm decisions about your identity and it would be advised to be patient and flexible with a young person’s journey. For more support on how to use the “genderbread person" tool, please follow the link below.
Whilst their body is changing and their emotional and social development continues to thrive, adolescents are building and leaving relationships left right and centre. These relationships are learning for the next stages of our lives. It’s important to note, in adolescence years it is not that one does not want or cannot form relationships, but that due to hormonal and body changes the focus is more on sex and risk-taking behaviours. Beyond 18 our body calms down and our instinctual focus is more about settling down and having long term relationships. However, research shows that this happens quicker for the female sex than the male sex. It’s important when guiding to have open conversations on how to be safe in sex and what healthy relationships look like. There are many exercises and conversations you can have to explore what a healthy relationship looks like whether that is with friends or partners. Examples of toxic relationships can be a good learning tool to show young people what to avoid in later life and it is important they have the guidance to identify this and learn how to manage them. So, teenagers falling in and out with friends can be a rite of passage, as long as it is supported.
Adolescence is a complex time and even more complex to be the parent or carer during it. Adolescents who have experienced trauma in their lives will struggle more during this stage. It is often important to ensure they develop trust, self-esteem, stability, control and have feelings of accomplishment and value before they can positively go through this stage of finding one’s identity.