1.4. The Adolescents’ Essential Developmental Tasks
Apparently, teenagers’ behaviour often appears to have no understandable goal or meaning. For instance, why is it sometimes so difficult to get them to quiet down before a youth meeting? Why is it so hard for them to see beyond their own needs? Why do they sometimes refuse to have anything to do with adults? Why are they so inseparable from their friends? Why do they get so depressed when things do not work out well for them? The list could go on and on.
As you think of your own teenagers or those you know, consider their actions in the light of the developmental task which are theirs to accomplish. There are essentially three psychological tasks that teenagers need to accomplish:
i. To develop a sense of personal identity that consistently establish who he or she is as an integrated individual throughout each life role, separate and different from every other person;
ii. To begin the process of establishing relationships that are characterised by commitment and intimacy;
iii. To begin making decisions leading toward training and entry into a particular occupation.
These tasks cannot be overlooked by parents, especially the first two. How they lived out these will impact either positively or negatively on the third. In other words, for a successful raising of chaste teens, mothers have to understand how teenagers’ behaviour is meaningfully related to their attempts to accomplish these goals. We shall explain the above in more details now.
1.4.1 Identity Development
Identity formation requires a self-ideal to strive toward. For instance, elementary-aged children are great hero worshippers. They know the names of famous actors and actresses, famous footballers, musicians, and other important people. In addition to hero worship, the maturing adolescent begins to develop a collection of desirable traits to emulate. The self-ideal becomes more personally identified rather than embodied in the image of another person. He or she concentrates on the question; “who or what do I wish to be in life?”
The second aspect of identity they develop this period is self-concept, that is, the person’s perception of what he or she is really like. The word, ‘perception’ is extremely important in this discussion, because the only “real self” that the teenager (or any of us) knows is the perception of his or her real self. The early and middle adolescence, particularly, is an extremely self-centred period in life. Young persons’ focus is heavily placed on themselves: “how do I look?”. “Will they like me?” “Am I too pushy?” Endless streams of self-focused questions flow through their minds, mostly relating to how their peers will perceive them. This intense surge of egocentric energy enables the young teenager to establish a clearer, more stable concept of who he or she really is.
Related to self-concept or is self-evaluation. While self-concept refers to what the person thinks he or she is really like, self-evaluation involves the judgments and emotional reactions to these self-related thoughts. Studies have shown that adolescents’ self-evaluation is typically more negative when there exists a greater gap between this self-ideal and self-concept. The gap can be as a result of both unrealistically high expectations and demands for the self or by an inaccurately low perception of the self.
Self-control or self-power is another element in the teenagers’ identity. When they were born, they were totally dependent on their parents. They could not sustain their own life. They were to be fed, bathed, diapered, cleaned, clothed, positioned for sleep and held for physical contact in order to stay alive and grow. As they progressed through childhood, they became less dependent on external sources and took over more self-sustaining functions themselves.
Adolescence, therefore, is a time for dramatic movement of the focus of power and control from external sources (like parents and teachers) to the internal domain of the young person. How the teenager accepts and begins to experiment with this increasing power depends on the interaction of several factors, including physiological pace of maturation, parents’ attitudes and parenting style, quality of family relationships, cultural background and expectations, peer group activities and expectations and the nature of his or her self-evaluation. Inadequate development in this aspect of identity formation can result in either overly dependent or excessively authoritarian behaviour in adulthood. Self-power or self-control then answers the question, “What decisions can I actually make and implement about my life and my future and how much can I really control in my environment?”
A final element of identity is self-evaluation. This involves the teenager’s beliefs about the value of being human. The teenager who struggles alone without adequate guidance for a sense of significance and meaning can quite easily become disillusioned about the value of being alive. An adolescent can be dangerously excited by overemphasising the spiritual aspects of life and downplaying the material part of life and vice versa. Let us remember that God created all life and judged all of it as good. “And God, everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen.1:31). Experts insist that teenagers struggling with their rapidly changing bodies, emerging sexuality, moodiness, frightening impulses, and changing interpersonal relationship patterns can find an all-too-inviting escape from these important developmental issues in an overly spiritualised presentation of reality. Parents take note! Self-evaluation answers the question, “what, if any, is the value of being alive as a human?”
Developing an adequate sense of identity is an extremely important task, and failure to accomplish a consistent, unified, and growing sense of identity results in role diffusion and sometimes identity panic. Parents have to enable these young people in their identity formation.
1.4.2 Establishing Intimate Relationships
This is an area that teenagers are found to be very inconsistent. The continuous personal change and adjustment that characterises teenagers’ lives makes the establishment of “long associations” a very elusive goal. During early adolescence, the most significant movement is from parents and family to peers as the reference group. This movement is of vital importance because the young person begins looking primarily towards peers for feeling accepted, for confirmation of personal okayness and for agreement concerning values, beliefs, ideas and feelings. Part of this transition is a movement away from authority represented primarily by parents, parent figures, teachers and sometimes church youth leaders. Unfortunately, the teenager’s allegiance to authority is really being transferred from these individuals to his or her peer group, who are also involved in a rather confused quest for identity like the teenager herself.
Let me immediately add that peer group is important in the life a teenager because it offers the opportunity to establish long-term individual contacts with one or more of its members. Perhaps, the primary motivation for a young person to attend school activities, for instance, may not be academic, nor is the typical teenager involved in a church youth group for primarily spiritual reasons. However, teenagers who are sensitive to the primacy of social interest can integrate that drive with the spiritual, academic and other values that the group represents. What they need is appropriate guidance.
As the adolescent progresses through mid-adolescence and into late adolescence, increased energy is focused on developing significant and romantic relationships with the opposite sex peers. Less time and energy is invested into the group and more emphasis is placed on being alone with the significant other person. Often these relationships will endure for many years, impacting the person’s life throughout adulthood. Hence, it is a critical period that needs proper direction from parents, especially. They need to have stable relationships with their parents and other adults during these phases as these relationships provide a secure emotional anchor during the time of their rapid transition and tumultuous growth. Here, one cannot over-emphasise the damage done to children by divorce. No wonder the Church teaches undauntedly the indissolubility of marriage and its benefits for the good of children.
Adolescents feel more secure and experience less trauma and disruption knowing that the caring parents are there. Failure to develop an adequate relationship, at least, with either of the parents is often the cause of depression, anxiety symptoms, aggressive acting-out behaviour and delinquent reactions. Adjustment into adulthood will be severely hampered until the ability to establish meaningful relationships with increasing intimacy is accomplished.
1.4.3 Occupational Development: Making Career Choices
Making career choices is a third developmental task facing adolescents in order to make progress toward the selection of an occupation. Certain factors create very different environments in which teenagers confront the task of selecting occupational orientations, which include economic level, cultural heritage, available adult role models, and real opportunities for education and training. Researchers who study the development of vocational choice understand that the process of choosing a career begins in childhood and proceeds throughout life. One such studies describes this process as occurring in three stages.
Fantasy Period: Until age 11, most children assume that they become anything. There are no real opportunities or educational training to test these assumptions. Most children try out these occupations in their play as they identify with their parents, adult friends, and role models from football professionals, Television, and the movies. They are attracted to every trending occupation and find themselves mentally in those professions.
Tentative Period: This period essentially covers the early and mid-adolescence phases. In other words, it lasts from about 11 to 17 years, and is the first time that the young person realises that he or she will actually have to make a future decision about selecting an occupational direction. During this time, teenagers begin to assess their own interests, values and abilities. As this stage progresses, they begin to assess seriously their intellectual capabilities, academic success, and training opportunities in relationship to occupational choices.
Realistic Choice Stage: They reach this stage of occupational development at about the same time that mid-adolescence is giving way to late adolescence. Here, self-evaluation and awareness of the occupational world must come together in specific choices about work. This stage involves three processes: exploration, or the acquisition of information about job possibilities and work experience; crystallisation, or the narrowing of alternatives as movement is made toward a career choice; and specification, or pairing commitment with decision to pursue a particular occupational choice.
When parents understand adequately what goes on inside their teens, they will make some adjustments in their formation and education of these young people, especially in the area of proper understanding of human life and human sexuality.
(to be continued)