Catholic Activity: Emotional Needs of Adolescents
Four basic helps parents can give to their adolescent children.
A wise teacher once observed that the best aid a parent can have in training a teen-ager is a good memory. He meant that if you can recall your own doubts and indecisions, your striving for independence, your rebellion because your parents would not give you the emancipation you sought, and above all, the stresses, strains, and temptations of your own teen years, you will be able to deal much more sympathetically with your youngster. Some parents are guilty of precisely what their children accuse them of — they have forgotten that they too were once young, inexperienced and troubled by secret fears of inadequacy and failure. If you recall your own adolescent problems, you will more readily give your child four basic helps he needs at this critical time.
First, he needs your love. He must know that you have a full, unqualified interest in his welfare and a confidence in his worth as a human being. The need for this love has been well expressed by Father Robert Claude, S.J., in his excellent booklet, "The Training of the Adolescent." Father Claude states:
"An atmosphere of affection and understanding is absolutely indispensable in the training of the adolescent.
"Adolescence is as a flower that is opening upon life, a flower that needs the sun of love for its full blooming. All training, of course, must be accompanied by kindness, for more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar. And this is particularly true of the age at which a young person first becomes conscious of love and realizes for the first time the importance of this emotion.
"Besides, in the solitude with which he surrounds himself, the adolescent is more than ever eager for the solace of affection. Affection will encourage him to give you his confidence, and without that no true training is possible. The adolescent who is taken to task in a matter of discipline is on the watch for the least kind word, the smallest sign of sympathy, to apologize and admit his fault. However, if he feels that he stands before an indifferent tyrant who thinks only of strict discipline, he freezes into an attitude of obstinate revolt.
"Be patient, devoted, affable, and that with a gentle smile.
"The love you must show has to be founded on understanding and esteem. Esteem: Never forget that you have before you a being who is about to enter on the most serious part of his life, a being whose eternal salvation perhaps is at stake. Esteem him for the magnificent gift of life that God has given him.
"Understanding: Always give your child the impression that you understand him or at least that you are trying to understand him. Nothing is more effective in making the adolescent retire into his shell than the impression that he is not understood. He believes that he is interesting, he has a high idea of his own worth, and yet his parents continue to treat him as a child; they seem to be unaware of the harvest that is preparing. Sometimes they make fun of him, or simply smile. How often has that smile, the all-too-frequent recourse of his elders, been the inspiration for secret revolt; how many young hearts has it wounded and even closed irrevocably to all beneficial influence from authority!"
Secondly, he needs your encouragement. Despite the air of supreme knowledge which young persons affect, they often inwardly doubt their ability to handle the problems which they expect to face as adults. In fact, psychiatrists and psychologists state that the greater the arrogance, usually the greater the fear of inadequacy that lies beneath the surface. Thus the typical juvenile delinquent — the insolent youth who puts up such a bold front before the world — is actually beset by deep-seated feelings of inferiority which he tries to hide by his swagger.
Adolescents often worry excessively about their sexual development. They may fear that they will not be able to function effectively as a male or female. Many fear that they will not be attractive to the other sex; a physical condition — enlarged features, skin blemishes, being taller or shorter, stouter or slimmer than the average — may contribute to this feeling. Many fear that they will become unpopular with members of their own sex; they want to do what everyone else does and they will resist parents' efforts to make them different in any important respect.
To help your child achieve the feeling of personal worth he needs for his development, find ways to praise progress he has made. Look for examples of adult conduct and compliment him for them. In this way, you will encourage him to continue moving toward independence. For example, compliment him if he goes to his books at night without your urging. Especially seek occasions to praise him for spiritual, intellectual and emotional growth. The teen-ager who voluntarily decides to refrain from dessert as a sacrifice during Lent evidences admirable self-control which, in fact, some adults do not possess. If you engage in an intellectual discussion with him, look for signs indicating a growth of his reasoning powers and willingly admit it when he scores a good point. Many a parent wins an argument of no great importance to the family, and in doing so helps to weaken his child's confidence in his own thinking processes. Adolescents often are idealistic and have strong instincts for the underprivileged. Seek occasions to compliment your boy or girl on this virtue, and point out the great opportunities which exist to serve mankind in a selfless way.
Thirdly, your child needs responsibility. In this area, perhaps more than in any other, the typical mother fails. She knows that her child must ultimately maintain his own room, clothe himself, appear cleanly dressed before the public and with clean face and hands, wear rubbers when it rains and a topcoat in cold weather. Yet long after he should be doing such things for himself, she is either doing them for him or constantly reminding him to do them. He has no reason or opportunity to develop responsibility for himself. Such mothers deny that they prevent their child from achieving independence; they argue that they merely keep him from making mistakes. They overlook the fundamental point that most of us learn only from our mistakes — and that when we have to accept responsibility for them, we soon correct our errors. Mistakes are the steppingstones to independence; if you would help your child, you must view with sympathy his fumbling efforts in that direction.
The boy who is personally responsible for how he looks at school may appear for a few days with hair uncombed, shoes unshined, and shirt grimy with dirt. Let him spend a few hours in detention, or suffer the sneers of classmates, and he will soon make certain that his appearance is more acceptable. In one home, a mother habitually pleaded with her son to arise early enough each morning so that he might eat a nourishing breakfast and arrive at high school before the first bell sounded. Each morning the lad resisted. Soon he was running from the house with toast in his mouth. One day the mother decided that thereafter he would face his own responsibilities. The next morning the boy left home with clothes barely pulled on, without breakfast, and with no chance of reaching class in time. After a week, however, he realized that he was an object of scorn because of his sloppy appearance; that as a result of his failure to eat a good breakfast, he had headaches all day; and that two hours spent in detention after school for being late was not worth twenty minutes of extra sleep in the morning. Forced to accept the responsibility — and consequences — for his own actions, the boy soon developed an adult attitude. Thus he completed another step in the process of growing up.
Finally, your child needs direction. Some parents of adolescents find this fact difficult to believe. Teen-agers often seem to resist all of their parents' efforts to direct their actions, but their desire for direction exists, nevertheless. Probably no adolescent is unhappier than one who knows that he has no parental check over his conduct.
Educators of high school boys and girls attest to their need for guidance. In discussions among themselves, youngsters frankly admit that they lack the will power, the experience and the judgment to be provided with a free rein. Not long ago, a news commentator appeared before a group of high school students to discuss current events. He probably thought that he would strike a popular note if he deplored the "censoring" of reading matter offered for young people. In his view, high school students should have free access to everything published and they alone should judge whether or not the material was morally harmful. The speaker ended his talk and immediately discovered that he had erred seriously. Far from striking a responsive note, he had set the youngsters against him. For they vigorously affirmed that they wanted and needed adult supervision of their reading matter because they lacked the maturity to choose wisely by themselves.
Another evidence of adolescents' willingness to accept direction is the enthusiasm with which "teen-age codes" are followed in communities where they are adopted. These codes are usually devised by committees of student leaders, sometimes in consultation with parents, and thus represent the views of responsible young people.
A typical code of social behavior, adopted in Rye, New York, is a model of good judgment. It opposes open-house parties which tend to get out of hand, and advocates only parties to which specific persons are invited. It emphasizes that one adult must be present at all teen-age parties. Parties should end at specified times — at 10 P.M. for seventh graders, 10:30 P.M. for eighth graders, 11 P.M. for high school freshmen, midnight for sophomores, 12:30 A.M. for juniors. Youngsters should always tell their parents where they are going and should know where their parents can be reached at night in an emergency. A girl should always tell her escort when she must return home and he should comply.
Another code, devised by the St. Louis Archdiocesan Councils of Catholic Men and Women, was adopted enthusiastically by teen-agers in that locality. This code, similar to the one formulated at Rye, also bans dates at drive-in theaters, alcoholic beverages at teen-age parties, and steady dating unless there is a possibility of marriage within a short time. A comment by a St. Louis youth reveals the true desire of youngsters for firm rules showing how far they may reasonably go. "More than anything else, the code eliminates confusion," he commented. "How late a person should stay out, what he should and shouldn't do — the code settles those questions for us and our parents. Now all we do is to refer to the book."
This desire for direction is evident in the workings of high school student governments. When youngsters know the rules and the penalties for violating them, they have a true feeling of freedom. They know exactly how far they can go and they expect to be brought back into line if they cannot control their conduct.
In their response to codes of conduct, and their willingness to be governed by rules, adolescents deliver a message which parents should heed. If your teen-ager knows what is expected of him and your demands are reasonable, and if you make it plain that he will be deprived of privileges or punished in other ways for violations, you should achieve highly successful results.
Activity Source: Catholic Family Handbook, The by Rev. George A. Kelly, Random House, Inc., New York, 1959