My Advice to an Adolescent

February 14, 2016

You probably hate advice. Okay, but that doesn’t make the advice bad, so think about it okay? And my advice is based mostly on my own life experience – it’s not the answer, it is just something for you to consider.

You don’t have to figure everything out

This is a time of life for you to explore, but you can’t explore everything at once. Finding answers to your questions will take some time. Some questions may take your whole life to answer. Learning to be okay with uncertainty is a good life skill.

If you are worried about finding love

Spend some time to make yourself into a person you find lovable. If you like people who are into music, studying music will help you be closer to those people. I’m not talking about making yourself into a different person, I’m just saying that you want to have something to share with the people that you like. Doing these things can also put you into places and activities where you are likely to find compatible people.

But be easy on yourself: appreciate your strengths! You don’t need to be “fixed”, but everyone needs to grow. Try to grow in areas that interest you.

If you are worried about finding friends

During my junior high and high school years, I felt terribly alone most of the time. I had friends, but not the kind of intimate friendships that I saw in the movies. I thought something was wrong with me, but it turns out that that sort of intimacy is usually not comfortable for me. It is easier for me to spill my guts to a therapist and keep things lighter with friends. Figure out what works for you.“Perfect” relationships don’t exist.

When you do find someone to love, love them as best you can. But find and keep your friends – never quit spending time with them. Don’t worry if your friendships don’t always match up to expectations. Maybe your friendships will be more like “we do things together because we like to do the same things” rather than “we share so much.”

Your gender is X

Yes, things can be hard to figure out. Things don’t always feel “right” when your body is going through so much. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t fully and authentically X – it means that you are growing and changing. While you will come to a better understanding of your sexuality over time, your gender is extremely unlikely to change, so don’t worry about it. If you were comfortable with your gender at 7 years old, just stick with that for a while.

Love and sex and gender are terrifically important right now to you. I get that, but our culture is way over-sexualized. Slow down and remember that you are more than just your body and your sexuality; you are a whole person and a good person.

Hang tough and don’t give up; things do get better

I’m sorry, but puberty can be a bitch and adolescence is often terrible. It’s chemical and it will get better. Some of your brightest times and your darkest times may be between the ages of 12 and 19 – at least that was true for me.

Having self-control means that you can decide when to let go. It can be hard, but power over yourself is important. It can be developed.

Do things that make you proud of yourself. Do things that are challenging. Do things where you can celebrate you – and I don’t mean the Elf-Orc-Wizard-Priest character that you play! That character is one form of self-expression, but it is not you.

But don’t give up and sit alone worrying. If things are not going well in one area of your life, take action: reach out for help, focus on something else, distract yourself for a bit, etc. I think there are two ways that we let problems become magnified in our lives: one way is to let the problems absorb us and overwhelm us. The second way is to ignore the problems while they grow to monstrous size. Look for a middle way. Also, realize that the problems may not be as monstrous as they seem at first.

More advice

You probably don’t want more advice! And in the end, you do have to figure out a lot of stuff yourself. Personally, I found a lot of solace and food for thought in books like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; books that made me think about myself and the world in different ways.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki is another book that I still have. None of these are weighty philosophical tomes. Books helped me when I had questions that I didn’t want to share with my friends, and that I wouldn’t dare ask of my parents.

 

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Talking with teens about gender and sexual identity

February 13, 2016

When I was growing up, there were only two genders: male and female. Your genitals determined which one you were. There was no discussion or decision. If you were a male, you were supposed to be attracted to females, and vice-versa. Again, there was no discussion.

Of course, one reason there was no discussion in my house – or millions of other American homes – was because the adults pretended that no other options existed. As I grew up, I encountered the words “homosexual” and “hermaphrodite;” they were fearful words, not to be spoken. The poor folk so labelled were either shunned or considered circus freaks. And so like most American children, I was sheltered from learning about the real world.

I was fortunate to easily align with cultural expectations about my gender and sexual orientation. As a heterosexual female, I dated and married men. But at the same time, the sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement made me aware that “normal” might not be exactly what my parents said.

Today, I know so much more about biology and genetics and sexual function and mental health. I have been fortunate to know all kinds of people; my understanding of the world has become broader and more accepting and loving. I am still a happily married heterosexual female, but the world is much larger and more magical than what I learned as a child.

But now I am stumped. In this new open world, how do our children navigate puberty and adolescence? I am seeing young people (and some adults) who are ambivalent about their gender and sexuality. As a young girl, I did not care a whit about “Teen Beat” or who was the cutest Beatle; all my friends did, and it made me feel different and left out. Today, a young girl in that same situation might wonder if her difference was a matter of gender or sexual preference.

Encountering this situation, I want to say “WTF!” Gender and sexual preference are not a matter of choice. Feeling like you are different than your peers is perfectly normal. Also, this situation might not be related to any other aspect of your identify.

But when you are young and confused, how can you tell?

It seems to me that our children can be confused by this new world where it seems “everything is possible.” We may not be like our parents who denied reality – but are we talking about reality in a way that helps our children or not? I think that children need more than just a bunch of information about all the options with platitudes about “being who you are.” I think our children need

  1. Help to realize that gender and sexual preference are not choices – children don’t get to change their mind back and forth about this. Some people change during puberty, but I believe that almost everyone intuitively knows their own gender and orientation long before adolescence. I also believe that an observant and kind parent usually knows this too.
  2. Help and time to mature enough to find out who they are. Most kids already know about their gender and sexual preference, but those are only two parts of who we become. Maybe it is more important to think about the things where there are choices: setting healthy personal boundaries, being considerate of others, taking a place in the community, deciding what occupations are interesting, etc.
  3. Support to get them through the ups and downs of puberty without being unduly pulled in too many directions. Days of longing for a boyfriend followed by a reluctance to be around boys at all – this doesn’t mean that your sexuality has changed. This is just puberty and it sucks. It gets better with time and we all need to be reminded of this sometimes!
  4. Help to be gentle with friends and acquaintances. Because they are immature, children can be harsh and judgemental. They may ostracize those who are different, while trying to conceal their own differences. I think that children who are more accepting of others, can also be more accepting of themselves.
  5. Love and to know that they are loved, no matter who they are, or how confused they are.

Am I wrong about this? Do you have suggestions or experiences in navigating gender and sexuality with your own children? Or just an opinion that you want to share? I am still trying to figure out my practical belief system here. I could have bad information, and I am open to new ideas.

I know that religion provides the proper answer to these questions for many people. If you and your children are among those people, good for you! However, this post is not about religion, and those are not new ideas to me. I will delete any comment – positive or negative – that proposes religion as the solution. Sorry, but those comments are off-topic for this post, and they often generate a lot of unhelpful anger on all sides.