Adolescence: Turmoil or Transition
By Dr. Aisha Hamdan
The stage of adolescence is often seen as a time of turmoil and distress for both the teenagers and their parents. Parents worry about what kind of friends their teen will have, whether or not they will do well in school and decide to pursue their education further, and how much "control" they will have over their teen's decisions. Greater fears include problems with drugs or alcohol, trouble with the legal system, premarital relationships, and suicide. In addition to all of these issues, Muslim parents would be concerned about whether or not their adolescent will wear the hijab, perform salah correctly and on time, fast during the month of Ramadhan, avoid contact with members of the opposite gender, respect his/her parents and other adults. Dealing with all of these worries can be less stressful if a parent knows what to expect as their child enters this phase of development.
Adolescence is generally considered to begin around the age of 12 or 13 and end at 18 or 19. It is a period of transition between childhood and adulthood that is not at all universal. In many cultures and societies there is no such phase of development since marriage and the its associated responsibilities occur at an early age. Adolescence is present in other societies due to social, economic, and cultural factors that produce a gap between the ability to reproduce biologically and the societal expectations for reproduction. As Muslims, we need to contemplate the validity of this stage since we understand that accountability (Takleef) for our thoughts and actions begins at puberty (Buloogh). This means that even though we may not be an "adult" socially, we are considered to be one spiritually. Obviously this should bring up all kinds of red flags and warnings for parents as they realize that the task of parenting is mostly complete by the age of 12 or 13, depending on when a child reaches puberty. At that time, the youth will be completely responsible to Allah for all that he/she does. This does not mean that being a parent ends at that time, but it does highlight the significance of those early years and the crucial role that parents play. We need to build a solid foundation so that our children will make appropriate choices when the time comes.
For those who are in a society where adolescence is regarded as a distinct developmental phase, it is beneficial to understand some of its general characteristics. The perception that this time in life is one of turmoil and distress is related to the commonly held belief that parent-adolescent conflict is inevitable and that the difficulty will continue until the adolescent leaves home. Although this does occur in some families, it should not be considered the norm. Disagreements will obviously arise as the adolescent begins to assert his/her need for independence and control, which is accompanied by expanding cognitive ability and an emerging self-identity. Parents should respect their teenager's choices and foster his/her sense of responsibility, as long as the choices are not contrary to the principles of Islam. Youth should also be taught the fundamental Islamic value of being obedient and respectful to parents at an early age so that when correction is necessary it will be readily accepted. The use of these two strategies should be effective in preventing any serious parent-adolescent conflict from occurring. A positive note is that research has shown that although adolescents and their parents may differ about details of everyday life, they generally agree on issues related to basic values. This is another red flag to signify that we should be aware of the values that we are teaching our youth.
Socially, there is a reorganization during adolescence as more time is spent with peers, adult guidance is reduced and becomes more indirect, and participation in large social groups becomes important. The peer group becomes more influential and various forms of peer pressure may operate. Another positive note is that adolescents are more likely to go along with peer pressure that is prosocial than with pressure to misbehave. The peer group is also an important source of information, encouragement, and social connectedness as the person begins to learn his/her way around in the world. As Muslim parents, we should obviously be concerned about the type of information and encouragement that our youths receive and, by extension, the type of friends that they have. We should encourage them to form friendships and relationships with those who hold the same Islamic values that we are attempting to convey. Children who have developed a love for Islam will naturally follow in this path.
Adolescence can be a splendid time of life for both parents and youth as the transition occurs from childhood into adulthood. If the seeds of Islam have been planted from the beginning and watered and nurtured along the way, a beautiful, flowering plant will unfold. There should then be little worry about the many concerns that may appear during this time. Contrary to the belief that this is a time of conflict between parent and adolescent, it can actually be one of mutual growth, love, and respect. The parent-child relationship will change at this time as independence and accountability develop, but the new bond that occurs can be rewarding and fulfilling for both. May Allah, subhana wa ta'ala, help us to be exemplary parents and assist us in raising righteous children.