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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1994 Issue #26 

by: Gabriel I. Rivera
TREX Inc. Bend, Oregon 

(TREX is a 21-day personal growth program for adolescents that is wilderness-based. This article is the first of a series that Gabriel is writing about the adolescent personal growth process.) 

In my work with adolescents and their families, I keep discovering that recognizing "character in motion" enables a perspective that can allow us to support adolescents in their efforts toward autonomy, rather than feel limited and often powerless in our various attempts to achieve behavioral compliance. 

When a kid blows out, inevitably the first thing a parent wants is control. Controlling an adolescent's inappropriate behavior can certainly be necessary, and is usually temporary. Without taking into account the essence of the external as well as internal and typically uncomfortable but always very real quest of today's youth, we perpetuate the control-based "them and us" strategies, and prolong the transitional difficulties experienced by adolescents and their families alike. 

"Character in motion" is a term I use to best describe the essence - not the form - of what I see going on with adolescents. It is marked by the advertent or inadvertent beginnings of physical, psychological and spiritual struggle that happens for every young person. It surpasses gender, socioeconomic and cultural boundaries, and can be a "diamond in the rough" with his black leather jacket, pierced nose and earring, or a "Johnny-be-good" showing all the outward signs of promising success. "Character in motion" is what happens when a young person responds to the inevitable inner call to embrace "the journey," and chooses to honor that journey above all else with a courage that relies upon connecting with their "warrior energy" (in Robert Bly's terms.) 

I address adolescents from the "character in motion" perspective because it calls them to the "long haul" view and not the "quick fix" tendencies of a predominantly addiction-prone society. It's my way of emphasizing that the substance of our abuse is not our "drug of choice," but rather the substance of our very being. Whenever I get a kid who starts trying to justify his negative behavior and thinking, the issue of honoring values is immediately brought to the surface when I say, "Do the right thing." He or she knows exactly what I mean, and they know, inside, what the "right thing" is - I don't need to tell them. 

"Are you down?" is today's youth's way of asking about commitment and personal fortitude. I'll use the terminology - it fits my particular style - in order to focus on whether or not a kid understands the essence of what they're saying. And if I ask a young person if they're "down," he or she doesn't mind answering as long as they can ask the same of me: "Hey man, yeah, I'm down. Are you?" "Character in motion" is taught by the legacy of living example. In the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and inconvenience." 

During a phone interview with a parent, regarding the recent behavior of her 15 year old son, she described him as out of control on bad days, totally compliant on others, dressed in the usual "gang-related" garb and demonstrating a noticeable amount of restlessness. I replied, "That's great." It nearly floored her. Then I explained the difference in our perspectives: she was viewing her son according to the "gang-related" behavior and her associations with that form, while I was listening to the "essence behind the form" of this 15 year old's clothing and actions; here was "character in motion" - a warrior, seeking his rite of passage. 

So I said to the mom, "It sounds like your son has some genuine needs to prove himself, but has chosen some injurious ways of doing that." When I asked her what she needed, she said, "I just want him to be Brian again." She was wanting the form she understood and felt in control with, while missing the essence. And I knew that - like so many other 15 year old sons I had worked with - Brian was missing the essence of his journey too: that he had embarked on his quest for manhood, however, was undeniable. 

I see young people as standing at the threshold of their man/woman-childhood, inherently summoned to the center of "life's arena" to do battle with the honesty of their truths. It is an end of the innocence and a time to take stock of preconceived forms. Honoring this process, and supporting our youth in their efforts to discover who they are "underneath it all" - through "character in motion" - is as much our responsibility as caring adults as it is a necessity and generational tradition for our children. 

We, as parents, are called to step into the arena as well. But rather than become our children's opponents, our challenge is to stand in their corner as their managers, supporting their efforts while also examining our own motives: Did we experience a rite of passage of our own as a teenager? Have we dealt with the unfinished business of our own tumultuous adolescence, or did we push through young adulthood, glad to survive the experience and never wanting to repeat it again? How much of our son or daughter's struggle reminds us of our own unhealed wounds or failed challenges? What of our own "character in motion?".... (More later on the parenting aspect of the adolescent personal growth process.) 

Copyright 1994, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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