Two years ago, our local high school morphed into a “Senior School.” I don’t mean that it became a place of academic learning for those of us with white hair. I mean that it incorporated grades seven and eight classes to create a 7 to 12 pathway under one roof. I had this image of a factory assembly line where anxious Generation Alpha children are the raw materials coming in one door to be systematically and slowly transformed into confident young adults emerging from the other one.
Of course, Senior School is not some profit-driven assembly line but a caring, nurturing environment for youngsters while they morph into grownups. By definition, the path on that journey from child to adult extends from age 13 to 19, all those years ending in “teen.” Hence, the label ”teenager.” A fancier synonym is “adolescence,” from the Latin, meaning “to grow up.” All of us were once there ourselves. Most people I chat with would not want to relieve those years. Most of us preferred the childhood or college experience. How about you?
It is well-known that adolescence is a recent occurrence in human history, an “invention” of the Industrial Age. Adult status had been traditionally attained with puberty: hence Romeo and Juliet. When people migrated from farm life to town factory, most boys and girls at puberty could now replace labouring as adult farm-hands with a basic education perhaps to age 16. This new stage of development between child and adult had arrived. It is perhaps less known that the average onset of puberty has dramatically shifted over the decades, from age 17 in 1850 to 11-12 today. Now puberty precedes adolescence (Psychology Today, January, 1995.)
Over many years as a family counselor, by far the most common presenting problem in my office involved the parent-teen relationship. Naturally, I never saw all those relationships that were not problematic, as maybe yours weren’t. But why is this stage of life so often prone to difficulty? Start by considering some of the major tasks required of the teen before emerging as an adult:
—adjusting to almost overnight bodily changes fueled by those “raging hormones.”
—dealing with awakened sexuality in a world with no longer the option of young marriage, but of enticing porn-saturated social media.
—looking in the mirror for the first time to self-judge one’s own level of attractiveness or strength.
—deciding on one’s worthwhileness in an adolescent world which prizes physical beauty, peer popularity, athletic prowess and conspicuous consumption.
—handling ongoing friction between a healthy and growing independence from family amid continuing parental or societal rules.
—working out evolving and complex relationships with family and more so with peers where cyber-bullying remains commonplace.
—an impulse toward increased risk-taking behaviour without the requisite brain development to assess associated danger and consequences.
—too-soon academic pressure for grades and sufficient extra-curriculars for university/college acceptance.
—a new searching for identity, purpose and life’s meaning.
Given the above, it is not surprising that teens can be truculent, withdrawn, moody, defiant, chronically tired and demanding more personal space. It is also not surprising that adolescents can be idealistic, loyal to friends, kind to those in need, motivated to succeed in the classroom or playing field, more committed to causes like climate change, animal rights, feminism, veganism, and far more accepting of racial, sexual and gender diversity than we were.
The journey from child to adult runs straight through the teen years. It is an uneven road for many, with bumps along the way. The best role for parents and other adult figures is to hold firm on essential rules, to be patient with a young person’s evolving personality and roles, to consequence behaviour as needed, but accept without judgement emotional expressiveness, to love unconditionally, to being affirming, to keep communication channels open by listening more and preaching less, by being a right role model.
Today’s young generation will find their own path to adulthood as we once did. But with more years spent in school, with entry into paid work harder to find, with accumulated student debt, with delayed marriage, their road will likely be longer. In my town, the journey for ‘Gen A’ begins in Senior School.
This column is written for purposes of general information. Families with specific issues or questions should seek professional advice.