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Sushama Kirtikar
By SUSHAMA KIRTIKAR - [email protected]

The curtain goes up. The stage is set. The audience is hushed. The actors begin to stir and mouth the script, as if on cue. Suddenly, commotion reigns supreme. It is as if someone took their script and threw it into the air only to have the pages settle in their hands in random order. Welcome to the developmental stage called �adolescence.�

Children enter puberty and their secure world starts to rock uncontrollably. Early adolescence (13-18 years) is rife with changes such as physical maturation, sophistication of thought, and �heightened sensitivity to peer approval.� This stage is referred to as the struggle between �Identity vs. Alienation,� by Newman and Newman of Ohio State University.

Your teen is emerging into a young adult. Random growth spurts cause her to grow sporadically: sudden height development may not match muscle mass and hence undermines her physical abilities. It is natural for her to doubt her physical prowess. Be patient and encouraging, not teasing her for her awkwardness.

The youngster entertains independent thought. He forms his own ideas about world politics, religion, etc., and may contemplate for hours about existential issues or about the future. It is a natural trap for parents to fall into berating their son for day dreaming and being absent minded. Recognize that his cognitive wheels are turning rapidly; he is not vacant inside even though his gaze might appear so. He broods, isolates and strays away from the crowd to spend hours by himself. He is not an anti-social freak. He is a normal, healthy, growing adolescent.

Your teen starts to edge away from you in the urge to belong to a peer group. The dissonance begins. You want her to remain your baby forever and she wants distance from you. She prefers being on her cell phone, or on IM chatting with her friends than spending any quality time with you at all. She chooses going to the mall with her class mate than going to the mosque with you. She is making choices that seem decadent to you, yet she is making choices that mean she will be accepted by her peers and thereby can feel �normal.� Recognize that this is not a rejection of you, rather a �finding and identifying� of herself.

Psychiatrist Erik Erikson labeled the psychosocial crisis �learning identity� vs. �identity diffusion�. This is that time when the teen is forming an identity with the eternal question, �Who am I?� If this is the stage when identity formation is naturally fragile, imagine how much more challenging it is for our teen who has to battle two cultures. Remember, we have probably not faced that crisis ever while growing up as Indians in India. Due to our choice to live here, they are being forced to juggle a dilemma that has hitherto been a non-issue for us.

Healthy resolution of the psychosocial crisis means the teen develops self-certainty and a clear self image. A self-confident teen sets his sights on achievement and seeking leadership roles. If he is not an ace student, he might be a tabla virtuoso, a mechanical genius, a culinary whiz, an art prodigy, or a star on the tennis court. He does not even have to excel. He can be fairly good at something and that ought to be OK. Steering your adolescent towards exploring his academic potential, artistic talents, technical skills or athletic prowess is a sound way to facilitate good resolution for your teen.

As biological changes occur in later adolescence, a clear sexual identity emerges as well. Their sense of womanhood or manhood draws nearer as this is the very last stage before commencing adulthood. This is the stage that also is prime for confusion. Some adults celebrate their �coming of age;� others goad them to hide any signs of hormonal change. Mixed messages abound. Talk to them about their developing bodies, help them become comfortable with these changes, answer questions as deftly as you can, remain positive and never shame them for what is beyond their control.

Be their guide and mentor as you have been all along, with a difference. Give them more space, respecting their need for it. Discuss with them issues of disagreement without talking at them or down to them. Ask and clarify over and over. Do not presume. This is that age that naturally creates distance from parents: sort of a universal attempt to cut the umbilical cord. This separation from the parent is important for the individuation process that is integral for a healthy psyche. Funny how when the teen is the one who is drowning in self-doubt, we as parents start to doubt ourselves even more vehemently. This is when everything you have heard about deep breathing, relaxation and meditation comes in handy. Stay grounded.

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

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