Our Children, Those Tough and Tender Teenagers

Anyone who knows me even moderately well knows I love teenagers. A large percentage of my patients are teenagers and I just adore every one of them — their energy, their angst, the drama they bring to me each week, their quest to find their own uniqueness while still trying to blend in — it is an honor to be allowed behind the curtain and be part of that process.

Erikson considered the developmental stage of adolescence to be a quest for identity with the risk of identity confusion if the quest is not successful. This is the time of life where we try on many hats, change our look a million times, decide what we might want to do for a career, and come to some decisions about our tastes, political views, ideals, etc. If kids are allowed the freedom to try on these different hats, to look at all the choices, to break from the views of their parents to decide what is right for them, they will come out on the other side feeling pretty secure in their identities. If they are forced into a role, if they feel that there are no choices except to be what their parents expect, they can end up living their entire lives wondering, “who am I?”

I currently have five clients getting ready to leave for college. I am so enjoying this process with them, knowing that on the horizon is potentially the best time of their lives, that they will make lifelong friends over coffee and junk food in the dorms, at the frat parties, bonding over their shared anxiety that they may not make it through their first semester. They may fail some courses, they may change their majors, they may struggle with finding their niche, or they may pass through the next four years easily, but either way, they will, most of them, be more settled when they are done. They have spent the last few years beginning to sketch a basic identity for themselves and will spend the next few adding the details and fleshing it out. When they express anxiety about “making it” or choosing a major I simply tell my own story about how a 38 on that first calculus test planted the seed in my head that maybe I had chosen the wrong major (electrical engineering), and how hard it was to make the choice, after two semesters, to change said major (my father was excited at the prospect of my great career as a “tech-head” like him), but how effortlessly the next three years flowed because I had found a major I loved. One thing about teenagers is that they sometimes look to us “adults,” and I use the term loosely in my case, and think we have it all together. It is helpful to hear that many of us tripped along the path, and being bold enough to share old pictures of bad perms also aids in showing them that yes, we all go through a period of being clueless and fearing that life outside of the microcosm of our neighborhoods will be impossible to navigate.

But somehow, the overwhelming majority of us get through it.

If you look at the online forums that kids visit today, My Space, online blogs, etc., you will see that much of the content has to do with who they are. They pick screen names to reflect their identities, fleeting as they may be. They post pictures to their online journals that represent who they are in the context of their friends and activities. They fill out questionnaires about their favorite this or that, what they want out of life, if they experiment with drugs or are straight edge, etc. It is such an interesting snapshot view into the lives of these teenagers. And if you watch some of them over a period of time, you will see changes. They change their screen names, they juggle their pictures around, they change the order of the other kids in their “friends” folder. If they are in relationships, they will often change their screen names to reflect that, such as “Johnny B. Love of my life” or the name of their loved one with little hearts on either end. Being in a relationship is part of what allows them to forge an identity, and for some kids, their sexual orientation is a big part of who they are, as more people are coming out as gay or bisexual or simply experimenting, far earlier in life than they did before.

I often tell my kids who are looking ahead to their futures, visiting colleges, deciding if they want to participate in softball again this year or would rather try drama, or struggling with sexual feelings and wondering what to do with them, that things were much easier in the past. The whole idea that “your father was a farmer so you will be a farmer” makes things much easier, but it is not nearly as much fun, nor as rewarding, as deciding for yourself, through exploration, trial and error, experimentation, etc., whether or not you would choose to be a farmer. Some kids certainly do end up where their parents would like them to be, but it is better if it is through their own journey and not through one that was thrust upon them.

As for how my own story turned out, obviously, I dropped engineering, but did not discuss this with my father until I had another plan in place. He easily gave up the dream of the two of us with our pocket protectors when he saw that I enjoyed psychology more and got far better grades. He lived long enough to see me get my doctorate and start my career and he couldn’t have been more proud. As I write this I just had a birthday (I will not say which one, but suffice it to say that first calculus test was 20 years ago), and part of me is in disbelief that I am even an adult, let alone an adult so close to 40. One of the reasons I love working with teenagers is that I still, even at this stage of the game, feel like I am finding myself. And I still have the sleep patterns of a teenager ‚Äî I stay up late and hate the mornings, although I thankfully sleep far fewer hours than your average 15 year-old!

Erikson felt that the biggest challenge in life, our goal, was to find an identity, and while most of that is done during our teen years, he felt that we should continue to grow and find ourselves throughout the lifespan. We should remain open to new things, hold onto that spark, that energy, even some of the angst that rouses us to be active and make changes. Working with kids this age, helping them launch themselves, reminds me of that need, so that we never become stagnant, which was something he cautioned against in a later stage (which will be addressed in a future article).

Meanwhile, as you read this, many of our local teenagers will be preparing for their proms, graduating, and getting ready to move on. Have fun guys and gals. Don’t forget to write while you are out there in the great big world!

Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes owns the Sleepy Hollow Family Resource Center.

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About the Author: Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes