Help teens tune in to their true selves

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen June 17, 2003
Original Title: The Adolescent Toolkit: Part II

Last week’s column discussed the stages of adolescent development and the normalcy of many of the problems our children face as they progress towards adulthood. The Adolescent Toolkit’s design is to foster the development of age-appropriate behaviours and decisions and promote independence based upon respect, honour, dignity and integrity.

These staid qualities are not just words. Indeed, today they seem to be branded as quaint human qualities from an era long ago. It is this tangible loss of these important characteristics that contribute to the difficulties our children face. Witness the depravity and willingness to sacrifice self-respect for a chance at fame and fortune on the take-your-pick reality show.

The loss of the meaning of these words leaves many to act selfishly. The idea that we can do what pleases us as long as it does not harm others is first-order thinking. First-order thinking is the concrete, immediate response to a problem or situation with little consideration of the consequences.

For example, teen sexual activity while living at home does affect the rest of the family. It is the family that picks up the pieces if pregnancy or serious illness occurs. Drug and alcohol abuse acts like a virus, infecting everyone around it. The angst and stress due to illness, infection, surgery or depression is not borne alone by the individual.

The Toolkit contains six defining questions, two “life-rules”, the concept of true versus false-self and second-order thinking.

Adolescence is like a dictionary in need of definitions. It is these definitions that help the adolescent understand themselves. Indeed, many adults fail to define these terms and continue to commit the same mistakes within and without their relationships.

I usually give my adolescent patients some “homework” after the preliminary evaluation to better understand their concept of friendship, relationships and their self-image. These questions are:

“What do you like and dislike about yourself?” This focuses on personality and physical characteristics.
“What is good and bad about you?” What are their moral and ethical values and its effect on their behaviours and actions?
“What are your definitions of a friendship and relationship?” Many confuse the two or provide incomplete definitions. A starting point would include independence as a prerequisite in any relationship; two independent people contributing love, trust, compassion and support so that their union or bond exceeds the sum of each individual’s qualities but never losing their sense of self.
The definitions change over time. One can discern possible contradictions and congruencies in the answers and use them to help the teen discover broader, more reliable and consistent definitions to use in their lives.

The two life-rules focus upon two straightforward statements: “It is not what people say but rather how they act that reveals their true intent,” and “People always do things for a reason”. Many choose to ignore these rules for reasons of discomfort, lack of support and feelings of hopelessness among others. They do not hold others accountable for their behaviour in effect condoning it through their own inaction or denial.

For example, I frequent hear a spouse’s explanation of living with their alcoholic wife/husband as “He/she is great when they are sober,” and “I have tried to get him/her to stop but they always return to their old ways”. The alcoholic’s actions supercede any thing they promise.

The concept of the “true” versus “false” self defines who we are. The true-self can usually discern right from wrong. It is our conscience that sounds an alarm bell if confronted by something that threatens our commitment to be true to ourselves. People who follow their inner voice tend to respect themselves and their motives. They become more self-confident and self-reliant. They are not afraid to answer “no.”

The false-self is best described as ignoring the alarm bell. They know their actions are wrong but they do it anyway. Frustration with their contradictory actions, they direct their anger inward damaging their self-respect. Over time, this pattern of behaviour leads to a loss of independence. These people have difficulty answering “no”. They try to solve everyone else’s life problems except their own rarely experiencing similar acts of consideration from others.

Before using these tools parents must do their best to avoid first-order thinking. Visceral reactions (“Are you out of your mind? What were you thinking?”) rarely solve problems. Second-order thinking invites you to step back and ask a series of questions to uncover the true reasons behind a behaviour, action or thought.

For example, your 15-year-old daughter wants to go on the pill. Why? What does she stand to gain from a sexual relationship? Does she fear her boyfriend will dump her if she does not take this step? If so, what does this imply about respect and the state of their relationship? What will they do if she does become pregnant?

Adolescents strive for independence. Appealing to this desire is a pragmatic means of providing a solid foundation of rules, limits and encouragement. Mature and appropriate actions in response to the rules deserve respect: loosen the reins in an age-appropriate manner. Flouting the rules should have predetermined consequences. The adolescent bears the responsibility of their decisions if they wish to be treated as an adult.

[Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen]

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