Symbol of the Month: The Feather, November 2019
We think of individual feathers as light and airy, such as the ones I found the other morning upon opening my puppy’s crate. It seems that while the rest of us slept peacefully, she destroyed an entire feather pillow, which was left by mistake on top of her crate. Her little puppy teeth managed to pull the pillow in between the wires of her crate and then to rip it open, producing a snowstorm of feathers for me to clean up. I was surprised by how light and fanciful each one was, proving very difficult to capture whether with wipes or a vacuum.
When all of those feathers join together, they provide something substantial enough to rest our heavy heads on all night long. They can also become “an orchestrator of movement, granting freedom and agency to its owner” as stated in the content card. It’s interesting to ponder how one thing can be so free-spirited and unruly, yet so instrumental and powerful when part of the collective. Maybe we, as humans, grapple with this same duality? Lucky for us, we adults have had decades to contemplate this confused sense of belonging. Our adolescents are just beginning to understand it.
Many kids have a strong desire to belong. They can’t wait to wear the school colors, the team jersey, the college sweatshirt. They long for a place that tells them what to value and how fiercely to value it. That deep sense of belonging is reassuring and comforting. We see it in our adolescent girls when they ALL want to buy the same type of leggings or sneakers. When they see themselves mirrored in others, it is satisfying. When they notice odd things about themselves that set them apart from other adolescents, they attempt to tone these parts down. Finding a tribe and demonstrating commitment to the tribe means everything at this age. Acceptance by that tribe is crucial for these kids’ self esteem.
Other kids, however, have a very strong sense of self, a quest for independence that’s mature beyond their years. For these kids, it’s a struggle when our culture asks them to surrender that fierce sense of self in order to belong to a larger group. Their spirited voice may be just the thing that allowed them to survive a tough childhood or a competitive school environment. When asked to sublimate that voice, even a little bit, these kids tend to resist. They dig in their heels, sometimes exaggerating the thing that sets them apart so that others won’t miss it. These are the kids who do not enjoy a pep rally on homecoming weekend. You will not find them asking their parents to put the school bumper sticker on the back of the car. Wear school colors during spirit week? Never! Defining themselves as “one who seeks membership” in a larger institution is threatening to their core belief system.
Maybe some of these thoughts resonate with you still, even as an adult? Is it hard for you to join the collective for a greater cause? Or do you dive in, head first, in order to enjoy that unified sense of belonging? Knowing that your beliefs and sentiments are echoed and validated by many others can be very reassuring to some of us. Others bristle at the very notion of allowing the group to soften the edges of their belief system; their unique sense of self being so crucial to their existence.
Sometimes parents and teens clash on this very point. If parents tend to be “joiners” who cherish the idea of membership to larger institutions, such as a church, a team, a school, a synagogue, a country club, those parents usually hope their children aspire to the same things. But what happens in a family where a fiercely independent thinker is born? The parents raise all the kids the same way, but they have an outlier. One of those kids needs to define herself boldly, apart from how the rest of the family defines itself. This can feel like rejection for the parents. When we feel rejected, we tend to experience anger and disappointment, which often makes us seek control. We clamp down on our teen, forcing or cajoling her to submit to the larger belief system we uphold. Therein lies the rub. These parents are backed into a corner and are forced to reckon with what they can tolerate in their family system. Can they handle a free expression of self that looks foreign or different to them? Or do they immediately shut down this outburst of self because it disrupts the thinking pattern or belief system they established long ago for their family?
My suggestion to adults who are parenting “the free-floating feather” is this: BE CURIOUS. Do not make any assumptions about your kid. Ask them questions about how they landed on certain beliefs. Ask them if they can understand how you arrived at your belief system. Be open to believing that they are explorers at this age. Some of them like to try on many identities before settling on one. If you demonstrate openness and acceptance, they are more likely to be flexible, themselves. They may adopt one style of dress or lean towards one type of music, but then continue to evolve. If you thwart this process by rejecting what they choose, this type of kid is more likely to settle in deeply to this phase because it seems to elicit such a strong reaction in you. Stretch yourself out of your own comfort zone to at least be curious, if not accepting of all the identities they are trying on at this age. They are developmentally “on-task” and will be more secure adults for having fiddled around in this way.
Our monthly content is ideated and written by Cristina Young, LCSW, who has more than 25 years of experience providing professional support to children, adolescents, adults, and families.