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Bashful glances, flushed faces, cherubic smiles, stifled giggles are normal fare for the adolescent scene. This is that time of development when hormones rage out of control and amongst the myriad challenges that face parents; the one that is tossed in for good measure is the young teen’s stepping into the world of sexual awareness.

Enter the world of ongoing values’ conflict between first- and second-generation immigrants. First-generation Indians either came as married couples, or were tolerant, if not openly welcoming of the idea of arranged marriages. Some did try their hand, albeit awkwardly, at the normative practice of ‘dating’ in the U.S. After a few years of doing so, they would invariably go back to India to find a bride.

Our children born and raised here are steeped in the American way of life which they have imbibed with verve and panache. Do you blame them? That is all they have ever known. Yes, we did expose them to the well-worn traditions of India: food, clothing, religious practices, mother tongue, cultural and moral values. There is no denying the impregnable Indian upbringing. And, they were encouraged to adopt a million other everyday behaviors that spell U.S. all over: from grabbing fast food at drive-ins whilst rushing to piano practice, to getting primped up for homecoming.

Sushama Kirtikar

When a 14-year-old girl sashays in and blithely announces “I am going to the movies with Bryan,” this pert insouciance is quickly squelched with stern admonitions of “You will do no such thing, missy!” This is followed by a watershed of questions and ends with an anguished “Where did we go wrong in raising you?”

Visualize the above tableau and ask, ‘Who is wrong’? Neither! Each is acting from his/her social conditioning. The young teen wants to blend into the canvas of her American school and social peers. Her protective parent wants to guard her from forging out of her Indian upbringing. Both are justified in their responses. But it is we as parents, as adults, who bear the burden of greater self awareness, patience, understanding and openness to ‘other awareness’. It is we who need to pause and think before having a knee-jerk reaction to our teen’s exuberance.

We have the right to ask questions, to meet the person they propose to ‘go out’ with, to ask what led to the decision, to ask details such as where, when, how etc; it would be irresponsible not to do so. We have the right to guide them in the right direction. At the same time, it is critical not to rush to a conclusion and make a swift denial of permission. It is imperative to hold our temper in check. It is essential to hold back the denigrating, judgmental comments. They are highly destructive to the adult-teen relationship that is already tenuous at best. If we don’t, we jeopardize their confidence and trust in us.

If we can step back from our own insecurities about failing as parents, if we can set our own egos aside for a while and allow the experience of raising a family of Indian origin on U.S. soil speak for itself, we might be able to have a more reasonable response than a fist-pounding, foot-stomping one to the adolescent who stands in front of us with a blank look and glazed eyes because they have already tuned us out. To strengthen our bond with them, we need to listen actively, ask and clarify, then check whether it is OK to offer some input. That input needs to be constructive, not simply restrictive.

The youngster is not out to ruin our reputation or sully our name; the youngster is acting from a primitive, narcissistic level that seeks instant gratification and is the prerogative of teens: it is about him/herself, not about us. Befuddled parents ask where did this sudden need for a social life emerge when our child has been a ‘straight A’ student all through elementary school? The answer is simple. It emerged from the normal developmental stage that the teen has now entered. There is nothing abnormal about it. The next column will be dedicated to exploring this stage of development.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or e-mail at

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