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The Problems of a Teenager's Rite of Passage in an Expat Family

By Richard Harvey

Summary: Psychotherapist Richard Harvey looks at the problems of a teenager's rite of passage in an expat family.

Expat Parents - The Problems of a Teenager's Rite of Passage in an Expat Family

Linda, aged 38, and her husband Bob moved to Andalucia with their three children two years ago. Their younger children, aged 7 and nine, integrated well into the local Spanish primary school. But their teenage daughter, Louisa, 14, struggled with feeling a part of the Spanish community and the Spanish secondary school she attends. This led to Louisa becoming withdrawn and resentful. Rather than embracing her new life in Spain, she lived on memories and began to idealise her life in England. She spent a great deal of time on the internet contacting her old friends. Linda and Bob naturally wanted her to mix with new friends and be happy. But fiery conflicts and heated arguments arose. Bob's way was discipline and Linda, although more sympathetic at first, eventually became frustrated and miserable at Louisa's increasingly sullen behaviour and angry outbursts. Family life has become dominated by the parent-daughter conflict and Louisa says she hates living in Spain and wants to return to England.

This family is dealing with two distinct issues, which have become merged. One is Louisa's adolescent journey; the other is meeting the challenges of relocating to a new country. It is a common plight for families who move here with teenage children. While the rest of the family settles down to enjoy the new life with the younger children usually adapting well, adolescent children may find it very difficult. They have left more behind in their old country, and become dissatisfied and wish their parents had never made the decision to move.

The teenage years are difficult under any circumstances. Teenagers are in a deep conflict, which is to do with their emerging personality: they feel the need to conform, but they also are in search of an individual identity. The demands and challenges of a new foreign life and culture can make matters worse. Without an accepting and stable peer group, Louisa's loneliness is intensified and the challenge of discovering who she is becomes even more formidable.

In fact, the teenager not only seeks identity – 'Who am I?' – but also a sense of purpose – 'What am I here for?' Not expressing their individuality with friends can lead to withdrawal and solitariness in literature and music, or alcohol, drugs and extreme behaviour. Teenagers are sensitive and questioning and their feeling life is intense, which leads to Louisa's angry outbursts, argumentativeness and sullenness.

Around 15 or sixteen years of age, the adolescent faces the deep quandary of understanding life, death and meaning. The adolescent is compelled to question authority, power and particularly their parents' values. It is all a part of their search for purpose. Teenagers are challenging and rebellious, because this is how they test out, and eventually discover, what is worth living for and what the purpose of life is… for them.

By the time they are 18, they have usually formed a more complete sense of themselves. This gives them more inner security, so, for example, they may want to travel. But to a child of fourteen, alien languages and cultures are much more threatening.

Adolescence recalls the dynamics of a previous stage of development. A toddler ventures further and further away from his mother. Checking for reassurance that she is still there, he feels safe and encouraged and develops a sense of independence. Adolescents do the same thing, but they cannot make their need for their parents as apparent, though the need is just as deep. If parents are not there for their adolescent children, they may be shut out altogether. The message for parents is clear – your adolescent child needs to know you are there for them, but stand back.

What Linda and Bob are experiencing with Louisa is an essential part of any teenager's development when they face the adolescent rite of passage.

So, what can Linda and Bob do? First, I would encourage them not to negate Louisa's feelings of loss. Give her time, listen to her and allow her to express her feelings about the changes – both inner and outer. Her feelings could become destructive if they are not received with patience and understanding.

Second, offer her safety and stability by showing her that your own lives have a strong foundation. Show Louisa that you are clear about where you are and where you are going, because this is one of the things she looks for in you. If she feels that your reasons for moving to Spain were superficial, insincere or ambiguous, she will perceive this as a lack of integrity in you… and integrity, meaning and purpose are what she is seeking in her search for identity.

If your decision to move to Spain was made out of clarity and integrity, and you feel happy and fulfilled here, Louisa will see that and be affected positively. Children are the first to pick up on inconsistency. Moving to a foreign country without trying to embrace the culture and the language poses the question: 'Why are we living here?' For example, if your social circle consists primarily of the expat community, Louisa will see you as not really being here. Conversely, if she sees you integrating into Spanish life, it gives her a positive example. After all, the issue is not so much the geographical move as the maturational transformation that is taking place in Louisa. She is in the process of becoming a young adult, practicing making decisions for herself and learning how to relate to the world.

As a growing person, Louisa is looking for examples of integrity and consistency in the adults who she looks up to. She doesn't want to feel controlled or directed; she wants protection without being deprived of her freedom.

Rather like the rest of us, she seeks two things – guidance and praise – and whether she discovers these things inside herself (as well as outside) depends on how her life unfolds now. Perhaps she could find it outside the family home; possibly she projects it onto her English life before her family moved here. But if Linda and Bob are able to offer her these things, she may realise that she can have what she needs where she is and find her safety and freedom to prepare for adulthood in her family.

About the Author

AS Therapy and SpiritualityRichard Harvey is a psychotherapist, author and spiritual teacher with 34 years experience, offering training and support to those who want to achieve deeper personal change and spiritual growth.

His organization 'Therapy and Spirituality' provides workshops, personal and spiritual growth retreats and psycho-spiritual training at his personal growth centre and family home set high on the beautiful southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain.

He is the author of The Flight of Consciousness: A Contemporary Map for the Spiritual Journey (Ashgrove 2002), several other books and many articles aimed at both inspiring and offering practical guidance on the process of realizing our true selves.

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Comments about this Article

Mar 1, 2011 01:42

Some problems have solutions, others are better avoided right away. Sometimes we have to change our position - even a marginal change can be enough to let the problem pass us by - and then the issues dissolve into nothing. The girl is fourteen. Whey can't she go to school in England; stay with some relatives or go to a boarding school? And if that is not possible, why can't she go hom to her old friends for the vacations and the one of other weekend? There are cheap flights avaialble today.

Mar 1, 2011 09:09

Richard Harvey answers: Rites of passage in life – and there are of course several crucial stages e.g. adolescence, mid-life, the fifties threshold and old age - are not so much problems with solutions so much as rituals of life that enable and empower us to grow. Growing is not merely physical but also inner – psychical and emotional, even spiritual. If we are to truly grow therefore we need the experience of the rite of passage, because it is the way to develop as a human being. Avoidance or letting the problem pass us by only leads to inner deficiency which manifests as immaturity. The mature parents are the ones who know, or intuit, this and offer guidance and support to their children to enable them to face life and change.

First Published: Feb 24, 2011

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