In a time of unlimited opportunities more young people than ever have mental health issues and are going off the rails in all sorts of ways.
Although the entire globe is digitally connected and plugged into knowledge, we have ever more teenagers on medication for depression and multiple different personality disorders. Up to 45% of children at some schools are reported to be on medications and/or labeled with a disorder.
I am not out to demonise technology. It has enormous potential and can be an incredible tool, but basic family connections are suffering greatly.
Traditionally adolescence was a time when communities acknowledged and celebrated the transition of their boys to young men and girls to young women by creating community-based Rites of Passage.
My concern is we are now letting technology replace our community wisdom in initiating our teenagers into adulthood and they are getting knowledge about vital life skills from the internet including sex education through porn.
In studying Rites of Passage around the world, 19th-Century French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep identified three basic phases that all these rituals, independent of each other, had in common.
1. The separation – boys and girls were taken away by elders and separated from the rest of the community.
2. The transition – the history, values, beliefs and knowledge of the community or tribe were passed on appropriately; a challenge was created and importantly each young person was acknowledged for their individual gifts and talents, their genius and spirit.
3. The return – The final stage was when the young men and women returned and the whole community gathered to witness, celebrate and honour the young person.
No wonder many our adolescents are struggling – in our culture we have replaced these meaningful rituals with watered-down ‘transitions’ to adulthood – getting your first smart phone, graduation ceremonies, Schoolies Week, formals, losing your virginity, getting your learners’ permit, your first tattoo, 18th birthday parties.
These things, as ‘big’ as they may seem, do not necessitate a transition and they are not always helpful. For example as an ER doctor I have seen many kids come back from Schoolies Week with STIs, drug-induced psychosis, broken limbs or alcohol poisoning and asking for the morning after pill (A lot come home unscathed too but we don’t see them in the ER!).
The point is that a true Rite of Passagehas as one of its core aims the movement from child behaviour to healthy adult behaviour.
Child behaviour is all about the individual who seeks power, denies responsibility and thinks they are the centre of the universe. Healthy adult behaviour is about the community, the bigger picture and long-term sustainability.
In many ways the problems we hear about every day in the news: domestic violence, war, coward punches, obsession with body image, destruction of the environment – these all occur when adults (often our leaders) in society display child behaviour.
As adults of course we all display child behaviour from time to time but someone functioning with a healthy adult psychology is aware of it and therefore has choice.
If we are to see any meaningful shift in these issues – and in outcomes for our young people – then I think part of the solution must be returning to healthy ROP.
What I’ve seen time and time again through almost 30 years of running Rites of Passage programs is a profound shift in the teens and their parents – and importantly in their relationship.
For many mothers and daughters/fathers and sons, just having a few technology-free days away in nature, and sharing stories with other teens and their parents, being real with each other, is transformative. It’s a chance to see each other with different eyes.
A contemporary Rite of Passage ritual — which anyone can create — is also a chance to formally and ritualistically guide and support our teens, to challenge them and to honour their unique genius or spirit.
They come home walking taller, having a sense of who they are and hopefully with some mentors who can help guide them through the years ahead.
Surely, this is a simple step towards growing the world up in the right direction.