How to handle adolescent social relationships with understanding

BY Goolbai Gunasekara

At what age do children’s relationships begin to impinge on family life, behaviour, emotions and general life patterns? One would say from birth; but I’m concerning myself here with the dreaded adolescent period when hormonal changes inflict a totally new personality on parents, and teachers realise that formerly amenable little beings are no longer so.

Parents deal with adolescence in their own ways. Ours simply ignored whatever emotional problems we were having and treated us the same way they had all along.

House rules remained the same. Social activity was at a minimum and strictly taboo without chaperoning. There was a sense of safety that parents knew best. Around 17 or 18, children were over the difficult period and had somehow matured.

Today, life is not what it was a few decades ago. Modern teenagers are exposed to all types of new situations. Most international schools are coeducational and Colombo’s parents are not really used to it.

Whether they like it or not, there is gender mixing and new sets of problems are being felt. Social relationships among adolescents have changed and bewildered parents face problems their own never had to face.

From the point of view of coeducational international schools, children who have been classmates from kindergarten upward usually don’t have any gender issues. However, I have noticed best friends tend to be of the same sex; but that is often because their interests are the same.

Students divide up in the sports department such as at cricket, football and so on. Even here however, girls are now beginning to play sports such as cricket and football, which were previously a male affair. And netball, which was a girl’s only game, now has mixed teams playing each other comfortably.

So the divide is dwindling by the day…

But social relationships have to be gender-based in some respects. Personal problems of each sex differ; and as they reach adolescence, the sexes tend to separate. The question anxious parents now ask is whether romance has begun to enter the equation.

Of course, it probably has; but rarely between children in the same class – the reason being familiarity is not conducive to romance. If attraction is to be felt, both sexes look at children in other classes. Awareness is also noted at different ages.

A girl of 12 can begin noticing boys of 15 and over. She is rarely interested in another 12-year-old. Ditto for boys… except that they’re a little older when they begin developing such interests. I have found that girls mature faster at this stage and boys are still larking around socially.

I remember visiting a coeducational govern­ment school many years ago. The culture of this school ordained that there was no gender mixing…

Girls sat on one side of the room and boys on the other. If girls went to the toilet, they went in pairs. Girls and boys weren’t allowed to talk to each other at recess, and those who broke the rule were considered ‘fast.’

It was an artificial atmosphere, giving students some strange attitudes and wrong ideas about each other. I hope things have been more normalised these days.

Sensible principals and teachers can begin handling the situation early. Attraction between students can’t be prevented because it is natural. Artificial barriers only make things worse.

So how did I handle the situation in my school?

I conducted weekly talks with diverse classes at different levels. Usually, this was at assembly where students attended lower, middle and upper school assemblies on different days. I spoke with slight variations depending on which section I was addressing.

Firstly, attraction between the sexes is normal and there’s no need to hide behind doors. As far as the school is concerned, they could walk, talk and sit together – and no one would mind. But there was to be no public display of affection or unnecessary holding of hands. They were told that mutual liking is perfectly normal and we trusted them to behave.

This attitude worked well. Students didn’t need to engage in private meetings behind closed doors since no one in authority minded mixed gender friendships.

I can truthfully say we never had any trouble on that score. The only trouble we did have was when older students from non-coeducational schools joined us late in the day and had to accustom themselves to different relationship attitudes.

One or two went overboard and reacted immaturely. They were unprepared for this sudden interaction with the opposite sex on a daily basis. Most of them were brought down to earth by their classmates, who knew that the school’s authorities were liberal but not permissive.

I feel this proves that all types of social relationships can be handled with commonsense and understanding.