Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 22, 2010
Youth struggle through the teens
Faced with societal, family demands, youth rebel against authority as they seek to discover their own identity
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - No longer a child but not yet an adult, an adolescent in transition is practising how to make moral decisions.
This is a trial-and-error process because raging hormones, media influence, peer pressure, and neurological changes all factor into an adolescent's decision-making.
"There are so many things going on in the adolescent brain that complicates their capacity to make decisions that it's amazing how they can even put two similar socks on in the morning," said Dr. Doris Kieser, an assistant professor at St. Joseph's College, at the University of Alberta.
Apart from teaching theology and psychology, she also counsels adolescents, mostly girls, many of whom have experienced physical abuse or sexual trauma.
At the Catholic Conference, March 13 at the Mayfield Inn & Suites Conference Centre, Kieser led a session on Between Times Morality: Adolescence as Liminal Space.
MORALITY THROUGH TEENAGE EYES
She explored the question of how to work with adolescents on morality in a way that actually makes sense to them. Adolescence, she said, is youth on the threshold of adulthood, between nine and 15, and ending physiologically by age 21.
When going through puberty, she explained that an adolescent's "brain explodes" with a proliferation of new information.
"They have all kinds of growth, but then the stuff that they don't use gets trimmed away and the brain gets insulated so that it works more efficiently. That's the gist of it.
"They are growing in their capacity to learn, to think, to make decisions. But they really aren't going to reach any kind of maturity in terms of their brain until they hit their 20s," said Kieser.
With their brains not fully mature, adolescents take risks because more stimulation is required in order to get an emotional response. They do not process information in the same way a mature adult would. Mature adults can integrate past experiences, what they know to be true and other relevant judgments into their decision-making process. But adolescents cannot because their brains are less efficient.
"If you know a neighbourhood and you know the shortcuts to take to where you want to go, you drive that way automatically.
"But an adolescent brain is like a tourist in Greece. They will go every which way because they are using a very different thought process. So we should not be surprised when they don't make the same decisions that we would make or make decisions that perhaps seem foolish to us," said Kieser.
Another struggle in adolescence is personal identity formation. Their whole notion of creating an identity is wrapped up in whom they want to be and whom they don't want to be.
"They don't want to be their parents. They don't want to be like the people who are in positions of authority because at that moment, that is not what's attractive. They want to be the same as their friends and different from their parents, which is why they go through that blue-hair phase.
"They know you're not going to be dying your hair blue, so it must be a good thing to do," she said.
Personal identity has a lot to do with their personal relationships, and also how adolescents internalize themselves. An adolescent who plays sports, does well in school, captains the debate team, and has a positive home life might examine why they behave differently in each situation, and try to make sense of how it all fits together.
"By the end of adolescence, that is not so problematic. They can reconcile the fact that they have a lot of different interests, and that's OK to be somewhat different in different places."
Identity formation is coming to a strong conclusion of who they are in the world, and knowing what they are good at. If the stuff adolescents are good at is valued, then they tend to have higher self-esteem. By having their skills and interests affirmed by their peers and/or parents, they develop confidence. They grow into their skills through this support system of friends and family.
"Rather than trying to get your kids interested in what you're doing, pay attention to what they are doing and get involved in their lives. For them, that is more important," she said.
When asked who is most important in their lives, adolescents will tend to say their friends. When asked who is most influential in their lives, they will tend to say their parents.
Going into young adulthood, adolescents might not attend Mass every Sunday or fully understand transubstantiation and other concrete aspects of their faith, Kieser said.
"What they almost invariably take with them into young adulthood are the values that they find in the home setting. If you value service, honesty, respect and dignity, those are the things they will carry forward as adults."
As mentors, parents and educators should practise what they preach because adolescents resent hypocrisy.
"They don't want you to say one thing and do another. We have to be models of good behaviour. If you suggest to your child that he should go out and shovel the neighbour's sidewalk, he might respond, 'Why don't you?'" said Kieser.
The best way to teach morality is by encouraging prudence. That is, teaching them to be mindful of actions before doing them.
Admittedly, adolescence today is a lot different from when she was a teenager, mostly in the realm of information and technology. Kieser grew up with access to magazines, radio, one TV in the house and a rotary phone attached to the wall.
"There was no computer, no multiple televisions, no multiple stereos, no multiple media entertainment. Adolescents today, that shapes them. They are shaped by a constant flux of information, and a lot of that information is crap," she said.
Today's adolescents grow up with unrestricted access to the Internet, cellular phones and other technological advances that did not exist a generation ago. For many adolescents today, these devices are their whole world, their means of socialization, and their means of comprehending the world around them. Her advice on adolescents accessing media is to set careful boundaries and limits.
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