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Teen Health 411
Teen Health 411

Coming of Age

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In the United States we categorize the life cycle into three different stages – childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The period of adolescence, ages 13–22, includes physical changes associated with puberty completing middle school, high school, and for some, college. In spite of the major undertakings during this period, and the assumption of adult responsibility associated with them, we do not systematically celebrate or ritualize the transition from childhood to adolescence.

Granted, there are privileges to look forward to – driving, money management, working, going to college (for some), and legal drinking, but there is no formal acknowledgement that things are changing in terms of relationships with family, friends, and social institutions.

In many cultures, a ceremony, ritual or celebration rings in a time when a child becomes a young adult. For boys the age is usually 12 or 13 and for girls, the Coming of Age is usually celebrated at their first menstruation, which can be as early as 9 or as late as 15. A Quinceañera is celebrated in the Mexican culture when a girl turns fifteen. It is a social introduction and dates back to the Aztec and Mayan times, somewhere around 500 B.C.

In other cultures the coming of age is usually a celebration, and may include a tattoo, a trial, the piercing of a body part, or a period of isolation. Native Americans have many variations of the coming of age ritual, depending on the tribe. For the most part, girls have their rite of passage with the first menses and boys have theirs at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Both boys and girls are separated from the tribe to spend several days alone fasting. The hunger teaches the child patience and discipline. The isolations allows the child to stay completely focused on their goal, which is to have a dream or vision. This could take anywhere from four to fourteen days.

Girls stay in a wigwam made by their mothers away from the tribe, and after their vision, return to a feast. They are welcomed back with someone saying, “You left as a girl; you return as a woman. We sorrowed when you departed, leaving behind a girl we had grown to love. We rejoice at your return, new and different. Through you, the people will live.”

Today in the United States, boys do not usually mark the transition and for girls, periods is something kept very private and rarely spoken about with others, unless the family welcomes womanhood with a special gift, meal or celebration. When marking a Coming of Age, the ritual is acknowledging the shift in the relationship between parent and child, the ties betweens friends, and the path the person will take as an adult.

For many teens, as they enter adolescence parents begin to hand over some of the responsibilities they have had for the first 12 years of a child’s life. Parents may begin to shift some of the money management decisions to the teen, some will ask teens to do more chores around the house including helping with laundry and cooking, some teens begin to make their own doctors appointments, and most become responsible for their own homework and managing their time.

Relationships with peers change, as well. Friendships may change less frequently than they did in middle school as interests become solidified and friends become important emotional supporters and social allies. Teens spend much of their free time with their friends and those friends influence many of the decisions teens make about participation in church, clubs, sports, and other social activities.

Another important part of adolescence is choosing a life path, sometimes this includes deciding to put all free time into one sport, music, dance, or other hobby, starting to prepare for college applications, doing more community service, or learning about careers that may interest them.

No matter what the focus of the teen years will be, teens begin to spend more time away from home, everything changes at home, and you can design a ritual that focuses your child on both the joy of the childhood they have experienced and the beginning of the transition into adulthood. Developing a ritual opens the conversation about how relationships and people will change in the coming years. Not everything happens at once, but there is a definite change beginning – one that teens may be insecure about and families can embrace instead of dreading!

Below are a few ideas about how to create a ritual, but be careful. These should not be a surprise unless you know your child very well. One person’s celebration could be another’s most embarrassing moment. In the best of all worlds, the young person should be involved with all the planning.

Designing your own ritual

Where. Many rituals are performed in a circle because circles represent the flow of life, the never-ending circle of growth. The circle can be made of vines, a rope, or even chairs. The circle should be large enough to include all the guests and have an opening that people enter and exit through. Once everyone enters, the opening is closed and then re-opened to leave through.

Who. I suggest you invite the immediate family and a few close friends of the person becoming a teen. Make sure everyone you invite will be supportive and open to your homegrown ritual. The immediate family should each have a role in the ritual. The roles can include the person who opens and closes the entrance to the circle, the person who stars and stops the ritual with the bell, a narrator who explains what is going on, and a leader, that asks the youth to light the candles and then invites the guests to participate, where appropriate.

What. In most ceremonies there is an altar, that you can cover with silk or cloth, and on which you can put flowers, candles, a bell, matches, a candle-snuffer, a picture of the child as a baby, or anything else that signifies the change you are celebrating. I suggest two candles, one to represent childhood and one to represent adulthood. During the ritual you can ask the child to light one candle to represent the passing of the carefree joy of childhood, and then light the second to represent the path towards adulthood and other joys still to come, or ask them to light the second candle accepting the responsibilities of adulthood.

Music is always nice – a song that the teen likes, or one representing the change everyone is facing.

Activities. There are three activities I will suggest, but anything else you think of will work, too. The first activity is the lighting of the candles mentioned above and with any narrative you choose. The second activity is a ribbon cutting. The teen and the parent, usually the mom each have an end of a 6-foot length of ribbon tied (gently) to their wrist when they enter the circle and there is a pair of scissors on the alter. During the ritual, the mother might say something to the child like “I brought you into this world and our spirits will be forever joined. However, up until this time, I have led you through life and you have listened to everything I said. If you are ready, then today our relationship changes, and I offer my guidance and ever lasting love, but know that you have started down your own path, and may not always listen. I do hope that our new relationship is one of trust, honesty and warmth. You can cut away our old relationship today, but I will always be here for you.” With that, the teen can snip the ribbon, and maybe hug the mother!

This might be a nice time for the song to be played or sang, or a prayer said, then the leader can invite everyone to come forward, take a flower from a vase and give it to the teen (who you have seated by now), and tell them what they wish for their future and adulthood. No need to suggest what to say – there will be many blessings that are spontaneous and loving! Another variation of this is to ask all guests to share something about how they have changed from when they were 13 and what they wish for the young person’s adulthood.

The ritual ends with the snuffing of the candles, the ringing of the bell, the opening of the circle, the processing of guests out, and then ends with the sharing of a cake, meal or whatever your family likes to do.

Photo Credit: dgimages

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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