Rites of Passage for Adolescents

Tamara Cotton, BA, CCLS, CLCC – Life-Cycle Celebrant, Doula, G Day Advisory Board member

G Day is an idea whose time has come.

If I had had G Days (and the community which accompanies them) when I was a girl, I know my life would have been very different. I would have felt more supported and less alone, more knowledgeable and less afraid, more confident and less confused. When it comes to adolescence, we have been lacking in healthy signposts, support, and guidance which youth can follow in order to transition into the next phase of life.

According to Developmental Theorist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, if one successfully passes from adolescence to adulthood it is called: “Identity,” which involves “seeing oneself as a unique and integrated person.” To me, a sense of community is essential in aiding youth in completing this endeavour – especially through teachings, support, and an official welcoming into the world of adulthood. We need to teach our youth to care for their whole selves, including their physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing.

If youth are not successful in maneuvering through this developmental stage, Erikson believed them to have “role confusion…over who and what one really is.” This is primarily where the downside lies in not marking a rite of passage: there is a risk of disorientation for the person going through the passage, which may lead to varying degrees of identity crisis.

Ritual Studies expert Ronald Grimes asserts that we will all ‘undergo’ passages in life – it’s just the developmental truth of human beings. He goes on to say that if we aren’t conscious of enacting the rites that go along with the passages, these “precarious, sometimes dangerous transitions can become ‘spiritual sinkholes’ around which hungry ghosts, those greedy personifications of unfinished business, hover.”

In other words, without having support, guidance, and teachings on how to be a maturing adult, children are not optimally prepared to take on new roles and responsibilities in society and are left to their own devices to learn how to become adults. Grimes talks about his neighbour who said “teenagers today are without moorings or elders capable of transmitting enduring human values to the young… If wise elders don’t initiate adolescents, won’t adolescents initiate themselves?”

I believe this may be why some youth engage in potentially dangerous activities such as drinking, taking drugs, having sex with multiple partners and other risk-taking behaviours: they are trying to find for themselves what it means to be an adult without the support and wisdom from elders, community and, of course, rites that mark the exciting, albeit difficult transition from one status to another.

In indigenous cultures around the world (and in other cultural groups who honour and mentor their maturing youth), there is little to no adolescent “rebellion” displayed.

A spiritual teacher of mine speaks fondly of growing up in his village in Africa whereupon turning 12, he and his peers were taken by the tribesmen on a journey for numerous weeks. While away, he learned skills such hunting, self-defence, swimming, drumming, weaving, and carving. His elders passed down specific songs, poems, dances and even a secret language. He and his peers learned how to survive in the wilderness.

Throughout their journey, the boys learned how to endure without complaining; they learned patience and discipline. In other words, they learned what it was to be an adult. Each boy came home a new person with a changed status and were welcomed as such by the entire village. He had a clear path to go from being a child to being an adult – with strong guidance during the challenging and risky aspects of being in the “in between.”