Better Late Than Never

Getting a later start on building your own life creates some unique challenges. Dale Decker offers a few ways to handle a delayed adolescence

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” —Berke Breathed, cartoonist.

If you ask me, that cliche should read, “It’s never too late to have a happy adolescence.” It’s nearly impossible to stop the growth in our bodies and minds as children; happy or not childhood is pretty much on rails and you’re along for the ride. Even the biological events that signal the end of childhood are out of our control. Ready or not here comes puberty! Adolescence, on the other hand, can be stunted, delayed, or avoided indefinitely. Unfortunately, queer folks regularly miss out on adolescence for a variety of reasons such as growing up in places where it wasn’t safe to be out, or discovering their true nature later in life.

What exactly is adolescence anyway and why can’t you just skip it? Adolescence is the time when we forge our individuality and find our path; we can’t fully express ourselves without going through it. Psychologically speaking, adolescence is about our relationship to others. We must first become an individual separate from our family, figure out who we are, and then bond with our peers. The withdrawal, recklessness and defiance that teenagers display serves to tear us away from our family long enough to form our own likes, dislikes and value systems. It’s the human equivalent of the mother bird pushing her fledglings out of the nest.

Most teenagers have a fairly clear script for how to behave once outside the nest: Rebel, withdraw from your parents, fall in love, dress like an idiot, experiment with sex, and try out lots of different personalities in the process. Queer people, however, must navigate a world of relationships that is radically different from the straight world that they explored—or avoided—in their youth. Not only are we generally older than the average adolescent, the road map we learned from our straight peers doesn’t necessarily fit. Fear not, no matter what your age when you begin, you’ll make your way out the other side to adulthood. There are some simple (but not necessarily easy) things you can do to help make adult adolescence flow more smoothly.

How We Can Help Ourselves

Find some parents. Really lucky queer people have a parent who is comfortable discussing intimate details—particularly body image, dating, and sexuality. Unfortunately, sometimes the parents you grew up with just aren’t up to the task and that’s the time to seek out more mature (not necessarily older) peers to guide you. Find your own “queer parent” and a good circle of friends to share the ride. I was fortunate to find a coming out support group where I met my “gay mothers” who were confidants and teachers in my early days as a gay man. They helped me re-learn social skills and adjust to a different culture. As I recall the concept of friendly bitchiness was particularly foreign to me and I needed lots of coaching and reassurance.

Do damage control. As a 15-year-old, you can get away with stealing dad’s car and driving like an idiot; as a 30-year-old, you’ll go to jail for that! Adolescents aren’t known for their impeccable judgment which means you’ll have to put some effort into finding ways to explore new identities and behaviors without risking your relationships, job, and physical security. Here’s where those parents come in handy. I can still hear mine saying, “Oh, honey stay away from him, he’s trouble. And don’t wear that plaid shirt again!” Of course at the time I thought they were idiots. Hey, I was an adolescent after all.

Make sure you’re going somewhere. It’s possible to get stuck in youthful behaviors, they can be really fun! At some point though they are simply habits and become a barrier to happiness. For most people, having a steady sense of self is important and keeping that in flux for too long can be unsettling. Your parents can help push you forward when you need it, or hold you back when your experimentation is getting out of hand. Listen when your mother says, “Don’t you think it’s time to pick just one hair color?”

Enjoy yourself. Try as many things as you can. Err on the side of making mistakes; it’s much worse to regret an opportunity lost. Adolescence should be exhilarating and terrifying. These strong emotions help us bond to others and give us the courage we need to step outside expectations and old patterns. You might get some glares, or make a few messes, but it’s a small price to pay to find your true self and bond to your peers. If someone accuses you of acting like a teenager, just flip your hair, snap your gum, give a withering look and say, “As if!” It’s never too late to have a happy adolescencee.

Dale Decker has been a psychotherapist and substance abuse counselor in our community since 1994. He can be found online at www.daledecker.net