I had heard that teenagers go through an “identity crisis” and I thought I was prepared for it when my daughter hit her teen years. I expected it to be about rebelling, by having some fads about hairstyles and clothes. All of us parents roll our eyes when we discuss our teenage children seeing it as a phase that has to be endured. I really didn't understand the importance of this “phase” till I read Dan Siegel's book, “Brainstorm- The power and purpose of the teenage brain”
Dan Siegel jolts us into rethinking our attitude towards teenagers. Instead of dismissing what they do as fads, he makes us realize that they are fulfilling a very important developmental task. Their brains are undergoing a remodeling where they are preparing themselves to go out and survive in the world on their own. We as parents need to respect this process just as we would respect a child learning to walk, talk or do things on her own.
One part of this task is figuring out who they want to be-their identity. Teenagers are basically saying, “I am not going to be a clone of you.” Just because we have raised them with our values, customs or ways of thinking doesn't mean they will blindly adopt these for themselves. They want to question everything and decide for themselves what to accept or reject.
These are some forms this questioning takes:
Do I believe in God?
Why do I need to go to the temple, mosque or church?
Why should I conform to the style of dressing which you think is appropriate?
Why does Amma do all the cooking and housework? Why not Appa?
Why should I be a vegetarian/ non-vegetarian?
Why must I participate in rituals or family functions?
Why should I value what you value? (e.g.: a certain type of music, sport, or tradition)
What is the kind of personality I want to have?
What kind of group do I want to be a part of?
The moment they start questioning we get alarmed and fear that all our teaching has gone to waste. We are uncomfortable with our children choosing paths which are different from ours. Our discomfort may make us act in ways that stifle them and lead to a lot of conflict.
Sometimes the questions teenagers raise are good for a society as the next generation may help us move towards more openness in our thinking. Their questions open up issues on gender equality, concern for a sustainable environment, customs which may be oppressive, tolerance towards people different than us, acceptance about people with different sexual identities.
For example, when my friend's daughter declared that she wants to be vegan as she felt strongly about harming animals, her largely non-vegetarian and dairy eating family found it hard to accept her views. My friend had to work hard to keep an open mind. She researched on how to maintain a healthy vegan diet. And was able to support her child in the face of a lot of criticism.
With this awareness about how teenagers are exploring their identity, I took a deep breath, paused and engaged with my daughter the next time she came up with a radical view. “I don't believe that girls should be forced to cover their legs”, she said. With curiosity, I asked her why she felt this way. It led to a very interesting discussion where we could hear each other out. I could tell her my fears and she could share why she felt it important to change society’s expectation from girls.
So, what happens when we give our children the space to think, question and have the freedom to be his or her own person?
Experts say that after this phase of questioning, most people go back to the core values of their parents later in life. And yet there may some areas in which they choose to live their lives differently. Imposing our views on them only creates a disharmony. When our children feel supported and respected by us in their search for identity, it goes a long way in establishing a healthy and warm parent-child relationship which continues for a lifetime.
It also results in a smooth transition from adolescence to adulthood where our children grow into people who are confident, know their own mind and are able to think and make decisions for themselves.
These words of Kahlil Gibran beautifully articulate a parent’s role in children's lives:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you.
Author: Kesang Menezes is a certified parent educator at Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.