Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Not those silly seven minutes in heaven games in childhood, but the “tingle in your toes, can't stop smiling, can't eat, can't sleep” kind of falling in love? What an utterly pleasant feeling that makes people smile even decades after the fact. Adolescence is a time of firsts; first hand holding, first kiss, first job, first car, indeed a time of crisis and identity formation. Coupled with the fact that adolescents are at the peak OF(in) their physical fitness, they can eat endlessly, or go without eating for days, can stand extreme heat and cold, and most believe they are immortal contributing to risky behavior. An exciting time in any case. Adults close to these youths' lives are often perplexed, frustrated, and angry by some of the behaviors exhibited during this transition into adulthood. Parents and caregivers can and do have a positive impact in helping their teen regulate emotions, enter healthy relationships, learn work ethics, experience trust, and develop respect. It was my 14th summer when I fell in love the first time. It was the powwow in Rocky Boy. During the heady nights of powwows, groups of teens that weren’t dancing or singing at the time would walk around the branch arbor looking to snag. Snagging, as it is called in many Indian circles, consists of finding that special someone to be with, hold hands with, and even kiss. It begins with groups of girls walking around the arbor until someone would catch your eye or somebody would send someone to say, “Hey so and so wants you”. After the hook up, the couple would continue to walk around the arbor under the same blanket, share the same bottle of Coke, and maybe even sneak away from prying eyes to steal a kiss. So romantic! If your parents weren't around you would run away together and live happily ever after.
My first love, Cyrus, was a tall dark longhaired boy from Crow. He was a grass dancer. I didn't catch his last name, but that was not important; after all, we spent a whole night walking around the arbor under the same blanket. It was heaven, and it seemed like it would never end. After the powwow ended and he and his family left, I was heart broken. I had to see him again, and on the spur of the moment, I snuck away from my house and I hitch hiked to Billings, got there on just three rides. But with no last name to go on, my attempt to find him was unsuccessful. I cried my eyes blind outside of a seedy motel on Montana Avenue. An old couple that felt sorry for me called my parents and I rode the bus back to Rocky Boy.
My situation ended with my safe return. I pined for Cyrus for what seemed like months. But the memory the first kiss with him still makes me smile.
My life after Cyrus found me under lock and key by my parents. My world changed so drastically after that hitchhiking incident, my parents never forgot, nor did they let me forget. The more they restricted me, the more I rebelled. Just short of kicking me out of “their” house within the year, I was sent to stay with my Grandma Mimi in Canada during the powwow seasons.
Mimi lived in a tiny town in Saskatchewan that was all of 4 by 4 blocks in size. There were no other kids-all old retired folks. Grandma's house served as a bed and breakfast, lunch and dinner for 5-6 of our relatives that worked on some of the surrounding ranches for the summer. Me and grandma worked like ants to cook and clean after these guys. Up at 5 a.m. and to bed before dark 6 days a week.
We were together night and day. Grandma talked and listened to me and treated me like an adult. She trusted and respected me in a way that was loving and patient. She hugged me and kissed me, she brushed my hair, and sometimes, in bed, she would tell me stories late into the night. It was like going back to the cradle. She was shameless in her show of affection for me. In a short time, I felt confident to reciprocate this affection. If I fulfilled her expectations, I cannot say. Nonetheless I began to see what my life as an adult could be like. Through this sweet relationship, she put my life on a better path.
The experience of falling in love leads many teens to take unnecessary risks that can result in lifelong consequences. Why? Aside from the fact that adolescents do not yet have the developmental ability to predict consequences, researchers say that adolescents in love show a different pattern of brain chemistry than the brain chemistry found in adults or adolescents who are not in love.
Serge Brand and his colleagues from University Clinics in Basel conducted a study (Journal of Adolescent Health 2007) of 113 adolescents, 65% of whom claimed to be in love. These teens answered questions concerning behavior, emotional states, and sleep patterns. It was found that many of the love-struck teenagers' emotional state resembled that found in hypomanic behavior, characteristic of bipolar (Bipolar II) episodes. They demonstrated many of the symptoms characteristic of Bipolar II disorder. For example, most teenagers slept less than their peers who were not currently in love, acted irrationally, spent too much money, or became obsessed with a lot of grandiose ideas. The overflow of energy they experienced often led to risky behavior.
Even with the most vigilant parents to guide teenagers, this brain chemistry combined with the relatively undeveloped ability to make clear judgments characteristic of this age group, leaves teens with the highest death rates among all age groups. The Highway Loss Data Institute reports that teenage drivers have high rates of both fatal and nonfatal crashes compared with adult drivers. Center for Disease Control and Prevention states in 2007, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 (Center for Disease Control). The list of hazards for teens is extensive: suicide, homicide, accidents, unplanned pregnancies, domestic violence, homelessness, sexually transmitted infections, dating violence, and substance abuse.
We all have a need to connect and attach to another human being. Indeed our first love relationship is with our mothers, fathers, or caregivers. That first experience of love is the pattern upon which we base our later relationships (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). Adolescent growth and development brings more involved rehearsals of relationships, as young people mimic those who have influenced their lives the most. Their relationships will more than likely be modeled after those first “love” relationships.
So what are parents to do? Adolescents face many challenges and dilemmas related to illegal, immoral or otherwise dangerous situations. As they move towards independence, they begin to cut ties with their parents and caregivers. The most important people in their lives are now their peers. During this tumultuous time, teens are defining who they are and may be less willing to listen to feedback or advice from their parent. On the other hand, parents who are engaged with their kids may become worn-out, hyper-vigilant and frightened, and may be in need of help and support.
My parents loved me and only wanted the best for me. However, they were overwhelmed and stressed out over my reckless behavior. Fortunately, they had an alternative, that of sending me to live with my Kookum Mimi. During the second summer I spent with Mimi, I learned that Cyrus had been killed in a car wreck at a powwow. It was said that alcohol was a factor.
Forty years later, the first kiss with Cyrus, and the generous display of affection from Mimi remain two of the most powerful loves I have ever experienced in my life.
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1 Copyright 2012 by The Evergreen State College. For teaching notes on this case go to http://nativecases.evergreen.edu.
2 Mary Bigbow is a member of the faculty at Salish Kooteni College.