Thinking about the Herculean efforts it can take to meet the challenges of growing up put me in mind of the twelve labors that legendary hero was set to accomplish.
So what might be twelve labors that the Powers of Developmental Growth have set for adolescents? Obviously there are more than this ancient number, but here is a young hero’s dozen that came to mind.
Separating From Childhood: You have to let go wanting to be defined and treated as a just a child anymore. Now you want something different, something older, but you’re not sure what. The hardship is the loss of childhood comforts and familiarity that you now miss and must do without.
Challenging Parental Authority: To some degree you have to actively (with argument) and passively (with delay) push against what parents want, to live more on your own terms. The hardship is receiving more parental disapproval and criticism from those whose good opinion still matters most.
Undergoing Puberty: To achieve sexual maturity your body has to change in many ways you don’t control or neccessarly like. The hardship is waiting and watching and wondering, and feeling painfully self-conscious, about how you will physically turn out, and how you will look manlier or more womanly for all to see.
Forming a Family of Friends: To start developing more social independence you must create a family of friends who are all changing like you are, and so understand you better than parents. The hardship is dealing with the peer pressures of conformity and fitting in that come with striving for social belonging.
Experimenting With Being Different: You have to try on and off a host of different interests and images and associations to see what identity is going to authentically fit. The hardship is dealing with how these statements of individuality are going to be perceived (like being criticized) and treated (like being teased.)
Transitioning to Secondary School: You have to adjust to the larger size of middle school where there are more rules, more distance to cover between classes, more teachers to deal with, and more push and shove between students. The hardship is coping with a coping with greater instructional complexity and increased social meanness between students (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up.)
Paying Freedom's Price: You have to get used to having more freedom than is good for you, knowing at this age that parents can’t actually make you or stop you, since you control your own decisions. The hardship is falling afoul of freedom, committing misdeeds and making mistakes, then having to confront the consequences.
Behaving More Grown Up: You have to risk some of what is forbidden to experience what it’s like to act older by leading a double life – what parents are told about and what they’re not. The hardship is concealing some of your activity from parents, and so being less in touch with them when you need their knowledge more, and facing harsher consequences from reality when things go wrong.
Speaking and Standing up for Yourself: You have to be your own spokesperson, advocate, and defender when it comes to declaring what you need, to advancing your self-interests, and to protecting your wellbeing. The hardship is being sufficiently communicative and assertive on your own behalf so you can insist on good treatment and effectively negotiate your way through the world.
Gathering Responsibility: You have to be accountable for your actions and learn from the errors of your ways. The hardship is owning up to what you did, not engaging in dishonesty, denial, or blame, and painfully profiting from mistake-based education so better decisions will be made the next time around.
Engaging With the World: You have to moderate avoidance, procrastination, and electronic entertainment escape so you can deal directly with practical demands in a timely way. The hardship is meeting offline responsibilities and the daily work of life at a time when there are so many easy outlets for online play.
Establishing Independence: You have to stop depending on the support of family, start relying on yourself, step out on your own, and begin pursuing an independent path. The hardship is taking your life in your hands, charting a path into the future that holds no guarantees of providing what you want, making of your life whatever you can.
It’s important for parents to remember that each of these twelve labors of adolescence comes with a hardship, and enduring that hardship often takes being brave. So whenever they see their adolescent acting stuck and resisting any of these labors, they need to empathetically understand what is really going on. A young person is struggling to face what is feared. How human is that? At this point, parents should express confidence in their adolescent, and not criticize a son or daughter for having a hard time.
More often than parents will ever know, their child’s adolescence takes continual acts courage. Strange to think of: but there were probably times when even Hercules felt frightened too.
Next week’s entry: When an Adolescent must Put Parents in their Place