Freedom and its limits
At 15 to 17, middle adolescence have two important tasks. First, they must come to terms with their sexuality and the conflicting emotions aroused as they begin romantic encounters. Second, they must separate emotionally from their parents and find that they can function independently. As a part of this process, the dependence-independence struggles often intensity.
Children in their middle adolescence often complain that their parents don’t allow them enough freedom. It’s natural for children approaching adulthood to insist on their rights, and their parents may need to be reminded that their children are changing. But parents don’t have to take every complaint at face value.
Children in middle adolescence are eager to grow up
At the same time, children in their middle adolescence are afraid of growing up. They are unsure of their capacity to be as knowledgeable, masterful, sophisticated, and charming as they would like to be, but their pride won’t allow them to recognize this doubt.
When they unconsciously doubt their ability to carry off some challenge or adventure, they’re quick to find evidence that it is their parents who are blocking their way, not their own fears. They reproach their parents indignantly or blame them when talking with friends.
You should suspect this unconscious maneuver when your teen suddenly announces a plan for some escapade that is way beyond anything he’s done before. For example, he and some friends—boys and girls—plan to go camping for a weekend without parents.
Teens in their middle adolescence who come up with such schemes may be looking for clear rules and consistency; indeed, they may be asking to be stopped. They are also on the lookout for evidence of hypocrisy in their parents. To the extent that their parents are obviously sincere about their rules and ideals, their children feel obligated to continue to adhere to them.
But if they can uncover hypocrisy in their parents, this relieves them of the moral duty to conform and offers a welcome opportunity to reproach their parents. At the same time, it may undermine their sense of safety.
Jobs and work
Middle adolescence is when many teens first take on serious jobs, beside the occasional babysitting or yard work. In moderation, paid work can build self-esteem, responsibility, and independence. Work also allows teens to widen their social contacts and explore fields that may eventually lead to careers.
Many teens, however, spend so much time on the job that they don’t have time to socialize or do homework and are chronically overtired and cranky. It’s also important to be aware that many jobs carry significant health and safety risks. Patents may need to step in to keep work from getting out of hand.
Sexual experimentation in middle adolescence
Middle adolescence is when many teens experiment with sex or various sorts. Kissing and petting are almost universal; oral-genital sex happens frequently (many teens don’t think of this as real sex); and many experience sexual intercourse. In a large survey from 1983, 55 to 75 percent of 19-year-olds reported that they were non-virgins. Middle teens often date in groups, though some also date one on one.
Romances are often brief, with relationships taking a back seat to attraction and experimentation. This is not to say that all middle-adolescent romances are superficial or of no consequence. The emotions—both joy and misery, elation and dejection—often have an intensity rarely rivaled in later, more settled periods of life.
Realistically, parents are limited in their ability to control their middle adolescence sexual behavior. Educational programs stressing abstinence as the only choice have obvious appeal but have not been shown to reduce teen pregnancy. If teens are intent on sexual experimentation, the rules laid down by parents may not stop them; they may even make the sex seem more exciting and attractive, because it is off limits.
A more effective strategy in dealing with middle adolescence may be for parents to keep communication open, let their children know how they feel about premarital sex, limit opportunities for inappropriate sexual behavior (for ex., no unchaperoned sleepovers), and trust their teens to act responsibility.
Many parents have a hard time talking with their teens about sex. Fortunately, doctors and nurse practitioners are often well trained in having these discussions and can help parents communicate their feelings and concerns in a positive, effective manner.
Homosexuality in middle adolescence
Adolescence is a complex time for any youngster. The pressure of school activities and dating can create a powerful sense of exclusion or differentness in gay and lesbian teens, which may trouble them or make them unhappy. If you think your child is struggling with issues of sexual identity, it’s very important to let him or her feel that there is a place to turn to for help. Sadly, statistics show that a high percentage of teenage suicides and attempted suicides are related to issues of sexual identity.
Heterosexual parents may not know how to begin talking to a teenager about sexual orientation. Remember, it’s likely that your child is as afraid of the subject as you are and may feel threatened if abruptly confronted. To start with, try to make the subject of sexual orientation something that the family can casually discuss.
Introduce books, videos, and music into the family collections that are created by openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual artists or that deal with those themes. (Actually, it’s wise to talk openly about these issues starting from the elementary or middle school years). It’s important to be aware of and critical of homophobia. It’s no help to a gay or lesbian teenager to hear his or her family members tell insulting jokes or tolerate prejudiced comments made by friends or relatives.
For some adolescents who in their middle adolescence, their sexual orientation becomes clear to them quickly, and they embrace it as a strong identity. Other teenagers may go through a phase of experimentation before settling on an identity they feel most comfortable with. Teenagers shouldn’t be pressured into assuming a gay or lesbian identity before they are ready.
If a teenager expresses a sense of alienation, isolation, or deep confusion about his or her sexual orientation, parents should arrange for professional counseling—not to change their teen’s orientation but to help the boy or girl deal with any shame or anxiety that might undermine his or her self-esteem.
The greatest gift a parent can give a child is a sense of pride and dignity. For a gay or lesbian teen, having access to positive role models and the ability to deal with sexual diversity frankly and honestly will go a long way toward building self-esteem.
If you’re raising a gay or lesbian adolescent who is in his or her middle adolescence, you may want to seek support for yourself as well. Organizations such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, which has chapters across the country, provide information and advice and hold events.
Most cities and large towns have gay and lesbian switchboards or hot lines that can provide useful information, and gay and lesbian community centers have outreach programs for gay and lesbian youths and their parents. These facilities are listed in the classified telephone directory under “Gay and Lesbians” or “Social and Human Services.”