Adolescence in India: An experiential journey. By Swetha Rao and Manab Bose.

  1. INTRODUCTION

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined the period of adolescence from the age of 10 to 19. Universally, adolescence is seen as an extended period of education and training in preparation for the adult role. Young individuals tend to move out of the parental home and strive to be self-dependent and self-sustaining. Adolescents account for more than one-fifth of the world population, and 21.4 percent in India.  In India, there is a resistance to accept the concept of adolescence thereby posing a different challenge from that of the West. Consequently, adolescence is short lived in Indian culture.

The struggle in modern India is to develop a social construct for the term ‘adolescence’. Given the varied psycho-social background of individuals, a different culture and globalization, the basic understanding about adolescence differs. While some parts of India look at adolescence as a new step into adulthood, some other parts of India look at it as a period of tension, need of intense discipline and rigorous guidance, while some others look at it as a period of experimentation and exploration.

Resistance towards the concept of adolescence prevails in India. We witness a struggle between accepting the adolescent as a child who requires guidance and discipline, and paradoxically as an adult facing family and social pressures of early marriage. On the other hand, we also witness certain sections of society have made considerable amounts of change in their approach to adolescence.

Another reality about adolescence in India is its association with sexuality. There is a high degree of resistance to experimentation with sex and one’s own sexuality, especially among females.

The paper is based on the real-time experiences of the authors and examines the practice of unexplored definitions of “authority”, “role”, and “boundary” that have already caused much damage to both teachers and adolescent students, and blocked the spread of this valuable intervention in schools in India.

 

  1. METHODOLOGY

The interventions spread over three distinct components.

Given the psycho-social universe of the modern teacher in India, the authors designed their first two interventions, as follows:

Part 1: Conceptual instruction about the psycho-social and sexual aspects of adolescence, based on Erikson’s Stages of Psycho-Social Development. This was interspersed with a discussion of 24 male and female adolescents from diverse schools in Bangalore.

Part 2: A 3-day residential intervention with 12 teachers.

Part 3: A 2.5-day non-residential intervention with 10 adolescent students.

 

  1. FINDINGS
    1. a. From Part 1

Based on the experience in Part 1, the paper captures the psychological world of the adolescent as represented in the 12 teachers from three schools in Bangalore, India. Resistance to acceptance of adolescence as a concept came through very strongly. Adolescence being a period of turmoil, confusion and intense emotion, adults fail to look at them as human beings going through a transition. Most teachers expressed their disagreement with the behaviours exhibited by adolescent students. To quote one ‘I don’t understand why adolescent girls want to tighten their uniform. I am left wondering if they are in school to concentrate on studies or show off their developing bodies.’

There is a huge gap between the experiences of the teachers in their adolescence with that of the students. Sexuality among adolescence is held as a taboo in some cultures within Indian society.   A teacher stated ‘when I was in school, we would go straight to school, not talk to boys, and get straight back home. If I spoke to a boy, I would be scolded by my parents.’ Another teacher on adolescent sexuality ‘I was interviewing a girl and she told me about sleeping with her boyfriend, at the age of 17. I was so shocked that I aborted the interview.’ And she spoke about her own experience in adolescence: ‘I ran back home crying when a boy form my class approached me with a love letter. I stayed home for a week before I got the courage to go back to school.’ (Ref: Freud – Adult Sexual Morality). Inability to accept even the desire to experiment and discover ones interests, especially sexuality, is shocking for the adult teacher.

Most teachers shared their experience of having no time to experiment with different interests during adolescence, least of all sex. “From school, I was sent to college and then, before I could finish my education, I was married off.” Expectation of adolescents to assume an adult lifestyle prevailed for a long time. Emotions of confusion, fear of being a new bride, inability to cope with the changing environment — were some of the experiences shared by the teachers. Indian society bestows on adolescents the responsibilities of an adult without giving them enough time to explore areas of personal curiosity and interest.

The interviews conducted by the teachers brought out bluntly and glaringly the differences in the experiences of the teachers and their students during adolescence.

 

    1. b. From Part 2

The second intervention was a unique 03-day residential programme. The authors revisited the struggles, challenges, changes, fears and joys of being in adolescence. Their interventions enabled the teachers to appreciate their challenges with ‘role’, ‘authority’, and ‘management of boundary systems’ in their real-time interface with adolescents. Exploration of one’s own past experiences helped the teachers identify personal un-addressed issues of sexuality and identity during adolescence as the real issue in understanding adolescents today. A teacher confessed: “I did not know how much of my childhood and adolescence I carried into my class.”Being able to differentiate between one’s own adolescence and that of the current generation became an important tool for the teachers to hold new meaning to experiences of adolescence in their students. Building a self-image based on one’s experiences, understanding of the ‘self’ and appreciation of the values inherited and developed, are primary for an individual in the formation of identity. A teacher recollected: “Identity is something that I hadn’t thought of till this program. Most of my stress and tension, I believe, is stemming from my own unclear identity. When the students that I teach seem sure about what they want or who they are, I am taken aback and I try to ‘correct’ them!”

Family and society play an important role in facilitating an adolescent’s exploration of identity. Giving clear messages as adults is a contributing factor. “I realized that I have always given my students mixed messages, verbally and non-verbally”. “Having a career is very important in my family. Coming from an orthodox traditional Hindu family, my father was keen on making me a teacher. I realized that I have been imposing on my students about being ‘clear’ about the future”, expressed a teacher when asked why she chose teaching as a career.

Myths about adolescence being a period of turmoil, was broken in the minds of the teachers. An age of curiosity, experimentation, and opportunity was attributed to adolescence. Having experienced their own role and authority, the teachers became aware of the impact they had as adults.

Social position and status in India is linked with marriage and career, and this is primarily defined by parents.

As mentioned by Freud, every individual must live through the residues of childhood they carry with them. To psychologically remain alive, a constant resolution of these conflicts is necessary.

 

    1. c. From Part 3

The final intervention was with a group of 10 adolescent students, both male and female, from diverse schools in Bangalore. A questionnaire-based survey surfaced the following orientations.

In changing times facilitated by technology, combined with the onset of the physiological development of genitals and the uncertainty of the adult role, adolescents in India strive to establish an adolescent subculture. This is looked at as a final, rather than a temporary stage, in identity formation.

The concern about peer perception becomes primary for adolescents. Little significance is given to feelings / emotions and how to connect with roles and skills achieved in earlier years.

Adolescence is also seen as a period of detachment from primary caregivers.

Own sexual development is a special dimension that the adolescent needs to balance with the need for sameness with peers.

In the study, most adolescents confessed they were in a relationship, unknown to both parents and teachers. “When I have a problem with my boyfriend, I either seek help from my sister or my friends. I dare not tell my parents or teachers about it.”

As adolescents come to grips with creating an identity for themselves, they must now include sexual maturity as they search for sameness and continuity (Erikson, 1968). A large sense of mistrust was evident in the narratives of the adolescents. From teachers to friends and parents to loved ones, the adolescents were found rocking from trust to mistrust. “For the fear of being talked about, I have not shared my experiences with my group of friends. I never know when we will fall apart and they will use this information to bring me down”, stated one adolescent girl. However, there is also evidence of an all-trusting commitment to the partner the adolescent is dating: “When I am sad, I speak to my boyfriend. He seems to understand what I am going through. Even my parents don’t understand me the way he does.”

Most adolescents exhibited self-doubt in the area of vocation. Being ‘confused’ about the vocation that they want to pursue, knowledge of choices, and lack of exploration and experimentation was a common theme amongst adolescents. “Often I wonder what I want to do in my life”, said one. “Each person I talk to about the vocation he is in, I get more confused about what I want to do. Everything sounds interesting.”

With this background a 2.5-day non-residential intervention was designed. The main themes that emerged were that of ‘intimacy’, ‘friendship’, and ‘future’.

Role, authority and management of boundaries were also explored. Issues of identity pertaining to role in the form of being an offspring, a student, a friend and a romantic partner were dominant. The group initially exhibited hesitation in talking about romantic relationships. Coming from a cultural background in which engaging in a romantic relationship is taboo, the group found it difficult to express the position they were in their personal relationships. Love, sensuality, and sexual experiences were shared in great detail. Some of them talked about the confusion they carried about the partner. Tentative play of intimacy was mistaken for a permanent, long- lasting relationship. Some others experienced a sense of intense fear of being involved, or committing to, or engaging in an intimate relationship. Being cautious about committing to another person stemmed from two factors: one, the fear of being distracted from a future goal. Most adolescents, especially the males, also expressed their need to focus on education and career, and any intimate relationship at this stage being a distractor. Secondly, some others, especially the females, expressed the fear of parents or teachers becoming aware of the relationship.

Culture in India plays a dominant role in monitoring  adolescent girls’ sexuality. Adults have loaded ‘adolescent sexuality’ with shame and guilt, thus creating a sense of mistrust in adolescents.

The group of adolescents that took part in the programme also examined their ability to manage boundaries. Friendship was a boundary that was held very tightly: “I’ve always been there for my friend in times of need. Being in a small group without my friend is a bit difficult as my mind keeps wondering what my friend is doing in the other small group.”

To foster emotional and social growth, friendship plays a key role for an adolescent. It is also a critical stage of developing intimacy among peers. A well-being of an individual can be identified by the number of friends. However, there might be consideration with the quality of friends one has (Meyer, 2011). This group shared a trusting relationship as peers. The friendship shared was reciprocal and intimate. One adolescent expressed her concerns about not being able to ‘hold on’ to her friendship. Conveying her associations with classmates is something of a general pattern that she held for herself, and she spoke of not having a ‘best friend’.

Concerns about the future, aspirations, dreams and career were also highlighted as major areas of anxiety. The basic question ‘Who am I?’, ‘What am I good at?’ and ‘Where do I see myself in the future?’ were dominant. The pressure of not being able to take time to explore various options brought in a huge amount of confusion in the adolescent mind. “I want to peruse a career as a veterinary doctor, but my parents think of it as something that does not fetch much money”, an adolescent expressed in the session.

Adolescents in India, exposed by the advancements in technology and media, are increasingly curious about what they want to be in future. However, social and family pressure creates confusion that is evident. Erikson (1964) points out that an adolescent is mortally afraid of being forced into activities that will expose his personal wishes and choices.

Post event, the same questionnaire was administered to the adolescent students. To quote: “I kept worrying about being confused with whatever is happening to me. Especially with the choice of vocation. I realized that I still have time to do my own digging, and exploring what interests me” said a student with relief. Erikson’s theory states a requirement for an adolescent to take time out to understand who they are or what they want out of life.

“My need to be in a relationship stemmed from an innate need to belong to my group of friends. I saw how it made them feel happy or excited. I wanted that for myself too” stated another student. “I think the relationship that I share with my partner is that of friendship. I’m pretty sure I don’t feel anything else towards him.”

 

REFERENCES

Erikson E.H., (1964): Identity: Youth and Crisis.

Freud S. (1949): Three Essays On The Theory of Sexuality.

Freud S. (1908): ‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness.

Meyer, R.M.L (2011): The Role of friendship for adolescent development in African American youth.

United Nation Population Fund: Adolescents in India: A Profile.

 

ABOUT the AUTHORS

  •  Ms Swetha Rao is Senior Consulting Psychologist with Sukrut, since 2005.
  • Mr Manab Bose is Director of Sukrut and is a practicing Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist.

 

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