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Sushama Kirtikar

Not every developmental stage comes in neatly wrapped packages. Unsuccessful resolution of the psychosocial crisis of adolescence leads to identity diffusion for majority of teens. They are often plagued by self-doubt and self-consciousness, swarmed by negative thoughts of, “I am inadequate.” This is that fragile time when identity gets blurred.

For Indian Americans, the blurring is even more acute. What they hear, see and experience in the home may be at odds with what they hear, see and experience outside. In some families where extreme conservative thought is prevalent, it creates riotous havoc in the teen’s mind. The family believes that by associating only with other Indians or by adhering to all the traditions from back home with authoritarian firmness, they are ensuring that they are raising a healthy Indian. What we often forget is that by very virtue of the fact that we are on U.S. soil, we need to forego the illusion that we are raising an ‘Indian.’ This erstwhile fact alone comes with the presupposition that we are raising an ‘Indian American.’ If we insulate the teen from American society then we stand the danger of doing more harm, of marginalizing her from mainstream society. It is like raising a bird in a cage for majority of its life and then releasing it into the wilderness, hoping it will thrive. Its fate is sealed: it is sure to perish.

If your teen lashes out in confusion, do not panic. If Arun decides to color his hair orange, or Priya wants to wear black net stockings (in sultry 90 degree F), before raising your decibel level, ask yourself what might be their motivation to act out so uncharacteristically. There is an intrinsic desire to belong to a group, to fit in with peers and to be accepted. They risk the ire of their disbelieving parents. After all, if our love for them is unconditional surely they know that we will not disown them just because of an undershirt that hangs out from under their polo shirt, or their overnight passion for Fall Out Boys. They have less to lose hurting our sensibilities than they have to be outcast by their peers. They are walking on that balance beam of self esteem where they are beginning to crystallize the belief, “I am likable.” They are liable to fall off any time.

We can but guide them and catch them when they fall.

Some adolescents try their hand at rebellion; some test the limits further by resorting to delinquency. There is a transparent bravado that is plain to see, placing a thin veil over their emotional volatility. Behind the coarse façade, they battle with negative emotions such as shyness, embarrassment, guilt, depression and anger. If the teen acts out, he is not doing so in a vacuum. He is doing so as a cry for help for himself or for his family. It is important to look beyond the objectionable behavior and understand the motivation behind the behavior that seems so appalling and unbelievable to us.

Obviously, extreme behaviors do require resolute discipline with clear boundaries. Tolerance for wayward behavior some of the time does not equate tolerance for immoral behavior any of the time. Adolescents are infamous for refuting discipline with a quick riposte, yet yearning for boundaries in their sullenness. They truly look to us for guidance even though their outward behavior would appear to belie that very statement.

We have to remember that the best gift we can give them is constancy, consistency and calmness. So we buckle up and tighten our seat belts for a rough ride. Eventually, the tumultuous times will wane. The halcyon years have yet to come, and come, they do.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or e-mail at

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