Read an Excerpt
What This Book Is All About
Your Developing Identity
This is an important time in your life. Who you are as a person—your identity—is being developed, and you are beginning your lifelong journey of personal sexual understanding and expression. By identity, I mean your values, your beliefs, what you like and don’t like, how you treat others, and how you treat yourself. Yet this is also a time when there are so many pressures to be how others want you to be. You may be tempted to be different from who you really are so that you’ll be popular with a certain group, or seem cool.
Sexuality is not just about body parts, STIs, and contraception. It is also a large part of a person’s identity, and that is why this book is also about relationships and feelings. How you understand and deal with them will help form your identity. I also write about the media and culture because they, too, can influence your identity—and not always for the good.
Adolescence is the gateway to adulthood, a stage of life filled with changes, with its own unique joys and challenges. In this book, I’ve tried to address the whole you, all the different parts—the physical, mental, and emotional things that are part of the adult person you are becoming.
Key Ideas I Hope You’ll Learn
Here are the key ideas I hope you’ll learn from this book:
1.This is the time in your life when you should begin to really know who you are as a person, who you want to be, what values you claim for yourself. Knowing who you are will help you make decisions that are right for you.
2.Your body is still developing and you have a right to understand how it is changing. Your body is not to be feared, nor should you feel shame or guilt about it, no matter what.
3.Abstaining from sexual intercourse when you are young is the best way to reduce your risk of pregnancy and infection—of course!
4.Do not start having sex just because your friends say they are sexually active.
5.You can say “no” to any form of sex—kissing, touching, anything—anytime you feel like it, for any reason. Boys and girls are both responsible for seeking each other’s permission before any sexual touching advances.
6.If you start having sex, be sure you are able to discuss contraception with your partner and use it correctly every single time.
7.Being with someone you trust and can communicate with, besides someone who turns you on, helps ensure your experience will be pleasurable. Young men and women are both responsible for talking about feelings and asking about feelings.
8.If you have been sexually abused, assaulted, or harassed, it was not your fault. You need to talk right away with a trusted adult and tell them what has happened to you.
This Is a “Dip-in” Book
You don’t need to read this book from start to finish—although I hope you will. You may prefer to dip in and out of this book, or read the parts you most want to know about. Flipping to topics of particular interest to you is fine, and I’ve structured the book that way. I hope you enjoy it and learn from it.
Your Identity: Who You Are and How You Feel About Yourself
Your Relationship with Yourself
There is no doubt the most important relationship we have is our relationship with ourselves. By that I mean having a sense of your own values; starting to have a sense of what your strengths and weaknesses are; feeling that your actions accurately reflect who you are and not just things you do because other people want you to or just to please others. There’s nothing wrong with pleasing others, but not if that betrays who you are. If you have a good relationship with yourself, it’s easier to have a good relationship with others. Later in this book we’ll talk about relationships with family and friends.
Your awareness of self as a separate individual usually begins during puberty. Puberty is the biological part of the early adolescent years, when the sexual and reproductive systems start to mature. For some, puberty starts even sooner and for others it can start later. Some of you in high school will still be going through puberty. Boys usually go through puberty one or two years later than girls do—between ages eleven and fifteen. Each person goes through puberty in different ways at different times, which is normal.
Your Teen Years
Your teen years begin at age thirteen and end around nineteen or twenty—when you have a completely adult body, though not yet a completely adult brain. The final development of your brain—the really important part in the front of your brain that handles decision making and planning—won’t be complete for a few more years, around ages twenty-four or twenty-five.
Besides all the visible and invisible changes that are happening to your body, your personality is changing as well—how you think, how you feel, and how you relate to other people.
Thoughts and Feelings
At your stage of life, there is a lot of worrying about how you look, whether you come across as cool or nerdy, whether you are dressing right, whether your hairstyle is what it should be to make you look your best, whether your body is developing fast enough or too fast, whether you are popular, whether you should start hooking up.
Thinking in New Ways
During early puberty, a person’s thoughts are likely to be mainly about what is happening right at the moment, not what might happen someday—what is known as “concrete thinking.” In puberty, it’s common to begin to think more about big things, such as your future. Arguing positions, exploring possibilities, considering new ideas and moral issues, is called “abstract thinking.” Abstract thinking has a lot to do with your developing identity.
Thinking About Who You Are: Your Identity
Maybe you’ve begun to examine the values and beliefs that you’ve been brought up with. You are starting to think more for yourself and, as you continue to learn and grow over the years, you’ll notice that things you feel sure of today may change many times.
During your teenage years is the time when your identity is being developed—who you are as a person, on your own, separate from your parents and friends. Because you are just getting to know who you are, it’s easy to be influenced by what others think of you—classmates, teachers, coaches. It’s a good time to appreciate who you really are instead of what others want you to be. Think about the ways that you are different from your friends and family and the ways you are the same. Try writing them down, in a notebook just for you. Sometimes, when you write things down, it’s easier to think about them, analyze them, and feel sure of opinions.
What kind of person are you, or do you want to be? Do any of these words come to mind: kind, considerate, generous, honest, loving, funny, smart? I didn’t ask what you wanted to do in your life; rather, my question is about your being—how you’d like to be in the world. Write down the things you’d like to be and from time to time think about whether or not your actions, the friends you choose, and the things you do are contributing to your becoming this person.
Your adult identity is being created and you are developing self-esteem. Self-esteem means having positive feelings about yourself. This is different from what others think about you. Self-esteem comes from inside yourself. What are you good at? Sports? School? Music? Making people laugh? Putting things together? Cooking? Writing? Helping others? Drawing? Being a good friend? Think about trying to get better at the things you’re already good at. It helps our self-esteem when we know we have skills and qualities that are valuable no matter what anyone else says.
People who say mean things to other people have their own problems. They may not be nice people or they may just be having a bad time themselves. Maybe you’ve said mean things yourself.
Ask yourself if maybe the person who’s being mean is jealous of you or has a reason to upset you. Maybe he or she doesn’t feel very good about him- or herself and acts mean to feel more powerful. What we can do at times like these is think about our good qualities—think positively. Positive thoughts can become a habit and help develop self-esteem. What we mustn’t do is base our feelings about ourselves on what other people say or do to us.
Young people who are passionate about things like music, drama, drawing, robotics, horseback riding, writing, and volunteering, and are involved in those activities, show more self-esteem. Girls and boys who engage in sports and fitness are less likely to have low self-esteem or engage in risky behaviors.
Everyone in the world has times of self-doubt, but this is a good time to learn ways to begin to overcome self-doubts and raise your self-esteem. For one thing, try to notice the people and situations that make you feel bad, and avoid them. Take different routes. On the other hand, think of the people and situations that make you feel good, and try to make them more a part of your life.
You may meet people who seem to have too much self-esteem. This probably means that underneath their cocky “I’m the best” attitude, they don’t really have a lot of confidence.
Don’t let anyone make you feel ashamed of who and what you are. Whatever your gender, race, beliefs, body shape, sexual orientation, economic status, or religion, no one can or should make you feel less than anyone else.
Your body is producing a lot of new hormones—estrogen in girls and testosterone in boys. These are what cause some of the mood swings that are so common in puberty and adolescence—perhaps more for girls than for boys.
If you feel sad and depressed for more than a week or so, try to talk to an adult who you know will listen to you. Hopefully you have the kind of relationship with one or both of your parents or a guardian that would make it easy to discuss your feelings with them. Maybe it’s hard for them to start such a conversation. Maybe you’re the one who has to get it going. If it’s hard for you to talk to your parents, seek out another adult you trust who has proved wise and caring. Maybe there’s a relative, a teacher, a coach, the parent of a friend, or a religious leader whom you like and who cares about you. Often just having someone listen to you can lift your spirits.
Chances are you are experiencing more drama or stress in your life now. It might make your body feel tense. You might feel nervous or anxious. Now is a good time to begin to notice when you feel stressed and cranky. See how drama makes you act and learn to manage it rather than acting out or just trying to live with it.
Ways to Cope
Exercise and Depression
Depression can take many forms in teenagers. You may feel sad or hopeless, have difficulty sleeping or concentrating, have low energy, have lost interest in things you like to do. You may feel grumpy or irritable. If there is a history of depression in your family, you may be at higher risk for depression. Try to talk to an adult who you know will listen. Exercise and sports are a good way to make yourself feel better when you’re down. Aerobic exercise—running, jogging, swimming, dancing, and biking—produces feel-good chemicals in your body called endorphins. You can actually feel the good sensation after 30 minutes or more of these activities.
Often stress can be caused by lack of sleep. Sleep is really important at your age. You actually need more sleep now, to maintain alertness, than you did before puberty. Make it a priority. Experiment with ways that can help. For instance, drink a cup of warm milk right before bed. Milk contains a natural amino acid called tryptophan that is calming. Try not to eat or drink things in the evening that contain caffeine, such as chocolate and soft drinks. Starting about a half hour before you want to go to bed (and get those nine to ten hours), begin to relax, listen to soothing music, do things that you find calming. Deep breathing is an excellent way to make your body and mind relax and calm down. Roughhousing right before bedtime may be fun but it won’t help you get ready to sleep. Turning off electronics thirty to sixty minutes before bed will help. Ask your parents to help you with all this.
Identity and the Culture You Live In
A lot of how we feel about ourselves is influenced by our culture, so it’s important to become more aware of what the culture you live in is and how it may affect you.
What Is Culture?
Culture is a combination of the ideas, behaviors, and values of a society. We learn to interpret life through the lens of the culture we live in. You can’t always see it, but culture is what tells us (and our parents and friends) how men and women, boys and girls, are supposed to be, look, and act.
The media—television, radio, film, music, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, advertising—is part of the culture, probably the part that you interact with the most, the part that has the potential to influence you the most.
Many of your thoughts and ideas come from outside you—from the media. Some of what you see and hear in the media is wonderful, but some of it is not so good, especially in terms of the messages it sends about gender roles—how women and men are supposed to be.
Much of the media is created by people and corporations whose main goal is to make money, and the ideas they put across may or may not be the right ideas for you. You don’t want them to “have” you, to have power over you, do you? Probably not, so this is a good time to think about who you are, who you want to be, and what the media is telling you to be.
The general culture we live in is referred to as “mainstream” culture. It is not set in stone. Every decade or so culture tends to change—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. For example, when I was growing up in the forties, fifties, and early sixties, we saw only white people in TV commercials and on popular TV shows. We never heard women speaking in TV commercials, even those that promoted products used by women. News broadcasters were all white men. White men and male voices were considered more authoritative and were the only voices we heard. On the radio, in movies, and on television, women characters almost never worked outside the home. They did “women’s work,” which meant they were housewives—period! In the fifties and sixties, male models in magazines or TV ads were not all buffed up with six-pack abs and female models were not nearly as skinny as they are today. These are just a few examples of cultural change.