Expert Comment

Expert Comment

Perestroika of the teen mind-body

Ashish Rajpal
Among other things, urban India will remember 2004 for the ‘amazing grace’ of Sonia Gandhi and the shocking lack of it in the now (in)famous MMS scandal. For those of you who may have missed this nation stopper: A teenage girl performing an explicit sexual act with a male classmate was clandestinely photographed by him on a mobile phone camera and the clip was subsequently circulated to other students via MMS (multimedia messaging service). The well known Delhi Public School, where the children were studying, expelled both students. But the scandal didn’t end there. An IIT student sold the MMS clip over the online marketplace The Delhi Police arrested the chief executive of Bazee under the s.67 of the IT Act for publishing obscene information.

This admixture of sex, fragile morality, respectable institutions, technology, cyber-laws, and jet-setting CEOs offers an unmatched canvas to paint the fragilities and aspirations of liberalised, MTV-ised, and silicon-ised metropolitan India. My purpose here is less ambitious. I’ve drawn upon this controversial example to discuss what’s happening to the minds and bodies of our adolescents.

Adolescence is a time of great physical change. While many will nod their heads at this truism, few have a real idea of what actually happens. The biological perestroika (restructuring), begins with a chemical signal from the hypo-thalamus in the brain to the pea sized pituitary gland appended to it. This leads to the production of gonadotrophic (reproductive) hormones viz. estrogen in females and testosterone in males. These hormones trigger off the numerous physical reactions which produce the ova and sperm. Teenagers experience marked physical changes and gain considerable amount of weight, boys in muscle and girls in subcutaneous fat. Their bodies are no longer familiar friends.

These bodily changes profoundly impact the minds of bewildered teens. While most research is US centric, and often conflicting, it appears in general that early sexual maturation is positive for boys and negative for girls. On balance, it seems the impact of adolescence may be more challenging for girls than boys, though circumstance and cultural context could differ widely.

Biology forever changes sociology. This biological leap of teendom restructures the social relations of adolescents irreversibly, hurling them upon a virtual psychosocial precipice. For the first time since birth a bodily function is now co-dependant on organs in another body. The urge and capability to reproduce alters two fundamental relationships: with peers and with parents. Almost universally teens spend less time with parents and more with peers, whom they regard as more understanding and accepting of their needs. In India, where often there is a cultural obsession with ‘secrecy’ about anything pertaining to the body, it’s hard for adolescents to broach or even vaguely discuss such issues with parents. The overwhelming need for an ‘I am ok’ reassurance, is almost entirely met by peers. Intimacy and loyalty become the key criteria for friendship, especially among girls, and boys seek to show-off their prowess at any and everything.

Parenting adolescents is about recognising the fundamentally altered power equation between adults and children. The erstwhile physically small and dependent children are now as big and seemingly as independent and strong-willed as parents. Ironically the role of parents is most critical at this time. In a landmark review of research on parenting styles, Grayson Holmbeck (1995) draws interesting distinctions between abdicating, authoritarian, and authoritative parents.

Abdicating parents let their children be, do not impose any rules of significance, and are disconnected from the changing lives of their offspring. Authoritarian parents try to stretch the rules of childhood into adolescent parenting by becoming stricter, more rigid, and invoking frequent punishment. Authoritative parents on the other hand, while setting clear and consistent rules of behaviour, also explain the basis of decisions and include teenagers in the making and keeping of rules. Research shows children from authoritative homes are more competent in school and less susceptible to adverse peer pressure, than children from the other two backgrounds.

My personal view is that ahead of everything else what may help is reflection, communication and engagement of the changed reality. Reflect that while children were still children you could get away with a huge gap between espoused and practiced values — the gap between what you said and actually did. Now their piercing eyes ask about your own habits, your own health, your own body, your own morality. The mid-life crisis of meaninglessness which confronts many parents, is exacerbated by a brewing storm in that ‘one meaningful relationship’ you took for granted.

Finally, nothing matters more than meaningful challenges to engage those expanded minds and bodies. Soft skills are bankrupt without hard ones. Climbing a rock, building a boat, writing a software program, weaving a basket, playing the flute, learning to dance. It was not without reason that in almost all traditional societies, adolescents were guided into the professions of their parents. While there is considerably more choice of professions and skills available to children today, what is often lost is parents’ participation in this learning. Theoretical classroom instruction with little room for use of hands and body or creative thought, imprison the mind-bodies bursting with energy. Finding what David Hawkins calls an ‘it’ can build a bridge to adulthood and to a sound sense of self. You become what you do; karma determines everything.

Find it.

(Ashish Rajpal is the XLRI and Harvard educated managing director of iDiscoveri Education)