In my book Addressing Adolescence: A Guide to Parenting in Islam, I explored a Muslim perspective of adolescence and its issues, as this is where my primary experiences come from. However, adolescence and its adventures and challenges are universal. I have come across children and parents from all faiths during my two decades of experience as a Science teacher and a Behaviour Support teacher. I have had to address and confront the issues surrounding adolescence head on and I have found similar worries, concerns and challenges from everyone, irrespective of their background.
It seems to be that the arrival of adolescence in a family is now being feared by more and more parents; ‘Little children, headache; big children, heartache’, says an Italian Proverb. However, despite this, the good thing is that many families generally sail through the challenges well. In the long run, some even find this ‘headache and heartache’ rather fulfilling.
Adolescence can be a nightmare or can bring knightly power. It generally attracts criticism from elders for its restlessness and rash and impulsive outbursts. On the other hand, it ushers in a new life with creative enterprise, vitality and enthusiasm. It is the period where human beings discover their energy and potential and aspire to do things which are often unusual, audacious and exploratory. If driven by high spiritual, social and moral values and a positive ethos on life, its creative and dynamic power can lift people to great heights. However, misguided adolescence can be a destructive force that can let individuals down and create havoc in society.
How are we doing with our own adolescents in Britain? The story is mixed and often not encouraging. A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found in 2006 that Britain’s teenagers are ‘among worst in Europe’ on every indicator of bad behaviour used in the study – drugs, drink, violence and promiscuity. But are we really fair on passing this judgement on our adolescents? ‘We’re not all bad!’ protest young people. A sentiment expressed in an ongoing debate in the educational, social and political arenas.
The question is: if we accept the IPPR findings as a reality, then whose fault is it?
Young children generally conform to their parents’ wishes in their early years. As children enter into adolescence and begin their exciting transition into young adulthood, they undergo extraordinary changes in their bodies as well as in their feelings and emotions. Growing up is an once-in-a-lifetime experience, exhilarating for some and painful and complex for others.
The physical change, known as puberty, prepares them to be physically capable of reproduction. This preparation involves changes in bodily hormones that give rise to an immense attraction for the opposite sex. Adolescents could be driven into unethical boy-girl relationships if the environment is indulgent and one’s understanding of life is poor, potentially leading to burdensome or even damaging consequences upon their lives and health.
As teenagers do not have any control over their physical growth, this enforced change can create feelings of confusion in them. As they are perceived differently by people around them, the ensuing psychological and emotional changes can make them unreasonable and unpredictable. Adolescents know that they are still dependant on their parents but are aware that they must become self-reliant. They try to assert their independence and they do this in ways that may seem disruptive to household routines. For example, adolescents may resent participating in family activities, be discourteous to younger siblings and rude to elders. They may be interested in reading adult books or magazines, listening to loud music and watching TV programmes which their parents may not like. They may come up with different hair styles and fashion, come home late or refuse to participate in family-orientated activities. They may insist their parents buy them certain expensive designer clothes or games or mobile phones.
Many adolescents are very much influenced by their friends and role models they come across in electronic and print media. This is a phase when some suffer from insecurity, eating disorders, egocentrism or even from mental health problems. This can make them rude or even rebellious to parents, teachers and other adults. It is at this stage that parents need to show their utmost patience and empathy; they need to change their own attitudes towards their children. They should consider their adolescents as individuals in their own right. The parenting skills employed in raising them in early stages have to be adapted to their ‘new’ children.
As puberty descends upon children, parents should be able to open discussions with their adolescents sensitively regarding the onset of adulthood and the rights and duties of adult life. Sensitive parents do not press too hard on their adolescent children to fit into the adult world. Rather, they give them plenty of space and time to settle on their own. On the other hand, they cannot afford to be too libertarian or neglectful. Children are under enormous pressure to conform to the existing youth culture of the day. The best attitude to adopt is the positive, rational and flexible attitude; polite but assertive. Parents need to keep in mind that although they are not their children’s friends, they should be friendly with them. Adolescents should never feel they are ignored or under-valued. Nor should they feel that they can get away with unacceptable behaviour.
One of the most effective strategies for parents at this stage is to remain consistent in their behaviour and empathetic with their adolescents, who should be given praise, space, respect and appreciation. Adolescents should be fully involved in family affairs and household chores. They should be given the opportunity to enjoy their life, albeit in a wholesome way. Parents should make sure they do not get angry with their adolescents or stupidly quarrel with them. Parental discord at this stage can be too much for an adolescent to bear and they may find life outside the home easier. A consistent family routine agreed upon within the family through consultation through situations such as family time, eating together and other familial activities, is helpful. A home should be a solace for all its inhabitants.
Parents should watch out and keep an eye on what happens in their children’s school. Is there any sign of unhappiness brought from school or from outside due to, say, bullying or discrimination? Does something bother them? Who are their best friends? Are there gangsters, drugs, violence or extremism in your local community that your adolescent can be dragged into?
Then there are vital questions of motivation and aspiration. Is your adolescent doing well in education and as an individual? Do they have self-esteem and are they confident with their identity? Are they happy within themselves and are they self driven? Do they show interest in family, neighbourhood and community affairs? Is your child motivated? Parents, with the use of simple common sense, observation and a bit of insight, are able to ‘read’ their adolescents’ minds through their faces, behaviour and body language. Any early sign of difficulty can be addressed quickly.
In a world of indulgence and the craving for self-gratification, growing as a self-respecting and self-motivated human being with a community ethos and shared social values is definitely a major challenge for most young people in our time. Teenagers will have ups and downs: they may even be at the threshold of a very turbulent life. It may be difficult for many to gain a balanced understanding of the world around them and carve out a role for themselves within it. Parents and adults should be around to provide a wholesome environment for them – rich in both spirituality and unconditional affection.
Young people are inherently innocent, instinctively happy and ever energetic. Their company transmits liveliness and innocence and brings a fresh perspective to elders.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a community activist, an author and a parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).