Counseling with parents and adolescents, I am usually helping them manage one or more of the 4 C’s in the Curriculum of Family Life—Caring, Communication, Conflict, and Change.
How do they express caring and take care of their responsibilities? How do they conduct communication to stay adequately informed? How do they harness conflict to increase understanding and unity? How do they adjust to change as living conditions continually alter? For developing adolescents, their answers to these questions can shape the adults into which they grow—their degree of personal accountablity, their capacity to speak up, their comfort with disagreement, their flexibility and adaptability.
Change stands apart among the four C’s because, although a revolutionary force, it is the part of the life curriculum where parents are often least prepared to be instructive. Often, they don’t know how to define change, explain the power of change, and suggest how to manage change when it occurs. So what follows are a few ideas that parents might find helpful in organizing their thoughts.
What is change? Change is an ongoing process that keeps upsetting and resetting the terms of people’s existence all their lives, moving them from an old to new, same to different, familiar to unfamiliar, known to unknown state or circumstance.
Operationally, it can be identified as anytime one or more of four shifts occur—something in your life starts, stops, increases, or decreases.
If you START a new job, that is a change that brings the challenge of making a beginning. If you STOP an old relationship, that is a change that brings the challenge of coping with an ending. If you INCREASE your responsibilities that is a change that brings the challenge of managing more that you had to do before. If you DECREASE your consumption that is a change that brings the challenge of making do with less than you have been used to.
Because change, whether self-initiated or externally caused, requires adjustment, it takes energy to make these transitions, energy simply being one’s capacity for doing or action.
The problem, of course, is that human energy is limited, and so when multiple changes coincide, they can exhaust our capacity to cope. Now, the resulting over demand usually causes some level of stress as we push and pressure ourselves to carry on. The point to explain to your adolescent is that people have a limited tolerance for change.
For example, when the ambitious college bound junior in high school wants to get all A’s, run for student council president, work twenty hours a week to finance a summer trip, and plans to lose fifteen pounds by senior prom, parents just might want to suggest that this amount of self-initiated change is going to cost her in stress. She might want to moderate her goals to make demands of change less excessive.
What people often discover about any major life change they elect, like going to college for example, is that it ends up being a kind of broken promise—not as good as they hoped and not as bad as they feared, somewhat of a letdown in the first instance, somewhat of a relief in the second.
There are experiences all the way through the four stages of adolescence that parents can use to teach about managing change.
Start with early adolescence (ages 9 – 13) when the young person faces the transition to middle school. Here the lesson can teach how CHANGE CREATES INFORMATION NEEDS when one moves from a known to an unknown situation. With no past experience, the prospect of middle school can raise a lot of questions: “How will I find my way around?” “How will I remember the combination to my locker?” “How will I keep up with assignments from so many different teachers?” Obtaining answers can reduce uncertainty and anxiety from ignorance. That’s why many middle schools offer orientations for incoming 6th graders.
By mid adolescence (ages 13 – 15), the young person has entered puberty, that hormonally driven change that alters one’s body to achieve sexual maturity. Here the lesson can teach that ALTHOUGH CHANGE CAN MAKE YOU DIFFERENT, YOU REMAIN MOSTLY THE SAME. So if the young person fears that puberty will make them into a totally new person, it can be reassuring to know that they will come out the other side of change mostly like the individual they used to be.
During late adolescence (ages 15 – 18), the young person in high school is increasingly pressed to try new activities like parties and substance use associated with acting older as part of the rite of passage to becoming more grown up. Here the lesson can teach how CHANGE IS CHANCY. There are always hazards to beware in any unknown and untried life experience. So before you try something new, take the time to consider the risks, and factor safety measures into your decision-making before you act.
Come trial independence (ages 18 – 23), the young person confronts one of the scariest sources of change there is—the future, and how to find and make one’s independent way. Here the lesson can teach how CHANGE TAKES COURAGE. Feeling daunted and discouraged by the challenge, it can be tempting to avoid or escape the change rather than engage with it. Now is the time to ask the bravery question: “How would I choose to act if I were not feeling afraid?”
All through adolescence, there is a trade-off continually taking place as younger interests and attachments are cast off so older ones can be taken on. Here the lesson can teach how CHANGE CREATES LOSS.
Thus it takes a huge sacrifice to enter adolescence because one must give up so much that was a cherished part of childhood. Growing up requires giving up. Adolescence is expensive because there is always an entry price to pay. To work for more independence means letting former dependencies go.
What enables the adolescent to make this trade-off is exploiting how THE OTHER SIDE OF LOSS IS ALWAYS FREEDOM—freedom from old demands and freedom for new possibilities. For example, consider the injured teenage athlete who must now let go a beloved sport with all its history of practice, team affiliation, and social attention, and who within a year discovers how she is free to develop another interest she never knew she had. She claimed the gift of adversity – embracing a freedom that did not exist before.
From what I’ve seen in counseling, young people who cope best with hard changes in life tend to be those who are able to journey through pain to the other side of loss. There, they are able to claim the opportunities that are always opened up by change, no matter how unwelcome or adverse that upsetting and resetting of the terms of their existence may be.
Next week’s entry: Parenting Adolescents and the Problem of Letting Go