by Marjory Foyle
Understanding what is going on during this time of transformation helps to diffuse some of the anxieties parents often experience while trying to help their growing children through these difficult years of development.
Adolescents — or teenagers, as they are more popularly known — are neither adults nor children. They swing between the two extremes, undergoing a difficult, often frightening, metamorphosis between childhood and adulthood. As a result, their behavior patterns are often unpredictable and bizarre.
Understanding what is going on during this time of transformation helps to diffuse some of the anxieties parents often experience while trying to help their growing children through these difficult years of development. This is especially important for missionary parents, who very often have to handle the various problems of adolescence with little or no outside support or advice.
In some ways, however, adolescents in a missionary environment have an easier time adjusting to their changing identity than their counterparts in the home country. This is due primarily to the fact that missionary home life is often more stable and operates within an atmosphere of loving, prayerful concern.
Nevertheless, there are certain problems specifically related to the missionary situation. One obvious and major problem is that missionary children must relate to more than one adult culture. This problem is not as formidable as it sounds because adaptation at this age comes easier than it does later in life.
However, missionary parents should be aware of the danger their children face in exposure to unfamiliar and often frightening local customs during this particularly sensitive stage of development. During these times, the adolescent must deal with the problem of preserving relationships with friends while at the same time avoiding unacceptable cultural experiences that may be part of growing up in a given country. This would include drug-related tribal initiations or sexual rituals.
Another problem for missionary children arises in Islamic countries where male/female customs preclude the sexes from mixing after the age of puberty. To counteract this problem, many missionaries who live in or near large cities have joined social clubs that are often a part of various embassies.
Thus, sports facilities, videos, companionship with others from the same culture or country, and "home cooking" become available to the adolescent, giving a welcome break to the often strange customs found in other countries. Some mission organizations even give financial assistance to enable their missionaries to become club members.
The problem is more formidable, of course, if the missionary home is in an isolated area. Some mission boarding schools recognize this problem and offer change-of-pace excursions before the reopening of school. Parents can also help by finding meaningful work for the adolescent to do at home, thus helping them to learn new and practical skills.
PREPARING MISSIONARY CHILDREN FOR ADOLESENCE
Sex education. Preparation for the changes of adolescence begins with early childhood training. Children need to know about sex, the various bodily changes to be expected during puberty, and reasons for chastity. Many parents find it helpful to enter such conversations naturally by bathing small children of the opposite sex together. They can respond to questions about observable anatomical differences, and when the children are older, parents, pastors, and teachers can give additional information. As children become older, parents should be more frank and open in discussions about sex. Many parents find that books are useful as an aid to supplementing these talks. Useful books include Sex and That, by Michael Lawson and David Skipp, and Preparing for Adolescence, by James Dobson.
Family security. Praying and playing together, talking, having fun, and trusting each other are all basic ingredients of a secure family unit. If this formula is followed during childhood, it will reap generous dividends during adolescence.
Parents, however, should not attempt to establish family security through artificial relationships with their children. Parents should be normal human beings in their intra-family relationships; handling problems, such as quarrels or disagreements sensibly and by regarding such situations as learning opportunities for the children. It is more healthy for children to see how parents handle their day-to-day problems, than for the parents to put up a wall and pretend to children that such problems don’t exist.
Honest, secure family relationships give adolescents the confidence to work out their tensions and problems at home rather than having to take them elsewhere-where the solution all too often ends in tragedy. In a real sense, teenagers who are difficult at home give their parents a sort-of backhanded compliment, because they know they will not lose their parents’ love, no matter how badly they behave.
Family management. One of the best methods of handling the problems of adolescence is for parents and children to agree upon a "family charter" that defines various rules, needs and expectations of the family unit. The establishment of such a charter must involve full discussion among everyone involved.
Rules should be as flexible as possible, wherever possible allowing for the freedom of personal decision-making. Certain limits, of course, do need to be set. For example, most adolescents will respect parents who ask them to be in by 10 p.m., during the school week, but who allow more freedom on weekends.
It is also vital for healthy development that adolescents be given experience in sharing adult life. It is helpful for adolescents to have an understanding of the family budget and, when practical, to be given an opportunity to become actively involved in various aspects of household and family management.
Role flexibility. In a nutshell, there are three possible relationship roles people can assume: adult, child, or parent. Most of us, at various times, swing from one role to another. Adolescents, however, frequently swing dramatically and unexpectedly between roles.
Thus, the parent should be prepared to talk as either adult to adult or as parent to child.
Praise. Adolescents need to understand that parents expect them to do their best in school, but that they also expect them to have fun. Wherever possible, the two should be related; good results or exceptional effort being recognized by having a family celebration and extending loving congratulations.
Many of my clients have told me of their frustration when they, as adolescents, brought home good school or college grades and "no one seemed pleased, no one said anything, I felt they just didn’t care."
Although adolescents may often appear to ignore praise, that is not actually the case. During adolescence, they are inevitably criticized more than at any previous stage of development. Thus, it is important that an adolescent’s efforts to handle inner turbulence through outstanding performance be adequately praised, even though the outward facade may be one of indifference.
Responsible behavior should always be rewarded by approval. For example, the family charter may call for the adolescent to clean his or her room once a week. The first time it happens, verbal praise can be given, such as "thanks for doing such a thorough job." Thereafter, praise can be non-verbal, such as making a favorite dessert whenever the miracle of cleanliness happens!
Prayer. It goes without saying that missionary parents should pray for their children. However, it is important to realize that many of these prayers should be private, not public prayers. I once shared a meal with a missionary family where one of the parents prayed that God would bless their 14-year-old who was "being so difficult and having such a hard time growing up." The child was furious, and I shared his acute embarrassment.
PRACTICAL RULES FOR TALKING TO ADOLESCENTS
Never criticize an adolescent for his or her personality. In a very real sense, adolescents are disintegrated people. Thus, criticism of personality factors becomes doubly painful to them. They know as well as everyone else that they are a psychological mess, but usually they are genuinely trying to get themselves together.
Never take sides against an adolescent in public. I have often writhed inwardly when parents have asked me in the presence of their child what they are to do with the dreadful person. For the sake of the adolescent, downplay your feelings in public, and discuss the situation privately later on.
Parents should be available to talk. Adolescents are smart. They usually know, for example, when they can be reasonably sure of finding mother working in the kitchen. They often will wander in, overtly to sample some of mother’s cooking, but covertly to have a one-on-one talk.
One missionary mother I knew used to unobtrusively set up such situations. She would always announce at the breakfast table whenever she planned on baking in the afternoon. It was amazing how often her 13-year-old would wander in that afternoon and unload a week’s worth of problems. She had taken care, incidentally, to insure that the evening meal was an easy one to prepare so that if the talks became extended she did not have to worry about supper being late.
SOME DANGER SIGNS IN ADOLESCENTS
Regression. Conflicts relevant to earlier stages of development will often reappear briefly and unexpectedly during adolescence. This is known as regression, and a certain amount of it is normal.
Occasionally, however, regressive traits will persist. Failure to reach a resolution during periods of regression may result in adolescents withdrawing from society, or lead them to associate with only one or two carefully selected people who share their exact same views. This failure to resolve conflict is often revealed by persistent criticism of those whose views are different.
Persistent regression can also result in difficulty in establishing relationships with peers or adults. Normal regression often leads adolescents to turn to younger children for companionship. This is most often an on-and-off thing, where younger children are used as a respite from the pressures of trying to be an adult. If there is no further maturation, however, adult and peer relationships do not develop adequately, or may even be totally excluded.
Continuing dependence on parents. Dependence on parents is normally highly variable in adolescents, where intervals of needing the help and support of parents is contrasted by periods of often obstinate independence. Some adolescents, however, find it difficult to get beyond the stage of asking parental advice in every matter, and from tirelessly repeating to their friends, "My parents think…."
This type of behavior is sometimes related to a fear of hurting the parents, especially in homes where failure to instantly obey parental wishes results in scolding, reproaches and tears, or general unpleasantness.
It is often difficult for missionary parents who have raised their children in their own beliefs to understand that adolescents must be allowed freedom to rebel against those beliefs. If this process is stymied, adult independence will take longer to achieve.
I am not saying that parents should not be upset when their adolescent refuses to have anything to do with church and "all that religious stuff," but that the parents must give their children freedom to explore that pathway if it proves necessary to healthy development.
Loss of contact with reality. The most serious cause for alarm is when an adolescent loses contact with reality. In normal adolescents, this is common. But in adolescent illness, reality contact is more permanently damaged. Feelings of not being liked or appreciated can sometimes turn into feelings of persecution. An adolescent may begin to complain that people are gossiping about them at school, that a teacher deliberately altered exam marks resulting in a failing grade. Or, they make false accusations of sexual misdemeanors based on unrealistic fantasies.
In coping with the myriad problems that accompany adolescence, it is essential that missionary families, who often live in remote places, have some means of getting competent, professional advice. Many missionary parents are afraid to write for assistance in handling family problems, not wanting to be thought overanxious or failures as parents.
It is essential, therefore, that the leadership of mission organizations create readily accessible links with personnel trained in the area of handling adolescent problems. These people should be available to answer questions by mail, over the telephone, or in person. Most importantly, they should create an atmosphere that gives missionary parents confidence to talk without feeling silly or that they have somehow failed as parents.
Despite their many problems, adolescents are fun. Their energy and enthusiasm are contagious. They are endlessly interesting, and the wonderful thing is that they so often turn into such marvelous adults.
Parents should be encouraged as they struggle through the trying years of their children’s adolescence. It all boils down to prayer, patience, good humor, a few tears, and a willingness to admit to making mistakes. Parents cannot, and should not, expect to be perfect in handling their children. But when they make mistakes in handling their children, especially adolescents, they can ask God to heal the situation and to give them wisdom in dealing with future problems.
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