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July 31, 2020

First Generation Teens: Walking the Tight Rope

Written by Dr. Sharon B. Kirlik, PhD, LCSW, Behavioral Wellness Therapist


Angst, heartache, drama, highs and lows — Ah… the tell-tale signs that your teenager is off on their journey of self-discovery to explore who they are as individuals. It’s never been easy to navigate the stress of adolescence and the teen years.

But… imagine yourself walking a tightrope hanging above your world. On one side, you are feeling the strong, instinctual desire to “fit in” with your peers and, on the other side, you are feeling the strong pull of loyalty, respect, and obligation to honor the struggles and achievements of your family’s culture and their desire to provide you with the best life possible. This is the experience of first-generation American teens.

One of the biggest developmental jobs of a teenager is to explore who they are as individuals separate from their families. Many times, the journey to find themselves is filled with emotional potholes as they move towards frequent comparisons between themselves and their peers. The pressure to “fit in” is not only a trivial, self-imposed mandate however, but emphasized and celebrated by our society as a whole. From the time we are born, society tries to impose its views of what our lives as females or a males “should” look like; girls “should” be meek and mild and need a man to come and rescue them…think of the fairy tales we tell children. Girls “should” like pink and boys “should” like blue. Girls “should” like dolls and boys “should” like cars. The constant exposure to social media, “reality” TV…that really is not based in reality, and fashion magazines completely cons us into believing that this is what “should be” rather than what is. We are constantly “shoulda-d on” (Say it several times quickly and the kids love it!) from all directions from the time we are born. Kids who are labeled as different…kids who are “othered” in any way suffer from being socially outcasted and, at its worst, bullied.

The process of immigrating to a new country is extremely difficult. We see emotional difficulties even among immigrants from countries that share similar cultures like Canada. It is an extremely scary process that involves drastic changes, many losses, and sometimes physical danger as well. Oftentimes, families leave everything they know in their country of origin with the mere dream of providing a better life for future generations. People miss their foods, the smells, their families, their people. At this particular time in our country, immigrant people have been placed under a microscope and have been used arguably as a dangerous political ploy for hatred that has multiplied the emotional stress they feel under normal circumstances. The want to “fit in” has become an urgent need to “fit in” and a chase sometimes, to achieve the unachievable. The typical teenage pressures to “fit in” when you are visibly different from the majority and sound differently from the majority is not fully possible. The constant chase to achieve something that is not possible is like trying to run a marathon on a hamster wheel; the faster you run, the harder you try…gets you nowhere but exhausted, stressed and depressed.

How does therapy help? If you could wave a magic wand…within the limits of the law…what would your life look like? Keeping therapy engaging is important when working with teenagers! We do a lot of “societal myth busting” to explore the messages society tries to sell us versus the reality that research and observations tell us. We work on self-discovery by interviewing family members as “news reporters” to develop stronger communication and involvement within the family, to create a stronger appreciation of their experiences and to identify and respect their uniquely defined values. Eventually the teenager is encouraged to make a running “Keep & Store” book. The “keep” side includes those traditions, recipes, games they want to keep as behaviors going forward into their own lives. The “store” side includes those things from their family traditions that they wish to “put on the closet shelf” for now and revisit at another time. These decisions are not permanent and may change at different stages of their lives. Kids discuss the importance of attracting people with their real selves rather than using a mask. We use the story of a bunch of single socks in a drawer. Each sock is looking for its matches in the dark of the closed drawer. Just because one sock is a blue sock and the other is a black sock does not make them “bad” socks, it just makes them different socks. The conversation centers around identifying how everyone is different and the same. We compare and contrast family members and then expand the circle outwards eventually identifying that everyone in the world has differences and similarities; some you see right away and some you don’t. Throughout all stages of therapy but particularly during the last stage, we focus on the importance of self-care and practicing different coping activities that help when uncomfortable feelings become overwhelming.

Eventually we develop a strong sense of self, a strong self-concept, a stronger support network among our family, and learn that: Differences are just different; they do not require judgement; positive or negative…just a willingness to learn from each other with mutual respect for each other’s humanness

Dr. Sharon Kirlik, PhD, LCSW graduated with her Masters in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Georgia. Later, with the adoption of her African American son and then, her Haitian American daughter, she realized an even deeper passion for working with children and families who were societally marginalized and oppressed. Her interests have compelled her to travel throughout the countries of Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and India allowing her to become immersed in the respective cultures. While completing her PhD with distinction, Dr. Kirlik was publicly recognized in Chicago for her programs created to improve the quality of life for foster care children. Her programs later took her to several countries throughout the continent of Africa, and have won acclaim and recognition among many South African organizations and other government leaders.

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