Adolescent identity creation in the midst of grandparents –

an autoethnography


Dr. S.T.Janetius, Ms. Shilpa Thekkechangarampatt

PP.56-66 in Human Rights Abuse on Elderly People, ISBN - 9789350560983, Discovery publishing house Pvt Ltd, Delhi.



Abstract: Psychologists have marked adolescence as the most critical period in human development.  It is a period of ‘Quarter-life Transition’ (childhood to adulthood). Parents, grandparents and teachers who directly involve in helping adolescents are confused and perplexed due to their unpreparedness to guide these budding personalities.

Adolescents get into trouble due to various reasons, mostly dealing with their family members, specifically parents and grandparents.  It is because of the psycho-social development task of establishing self-identity that takes place in the in adolescents (Erickson, 1963). Psychologist Erickson sees adolescent development marked by ‘identity crisis’ in which adolescents make a clean split from childhood to form an identity of their own. The recurring thought – I am not a child, I need freedom from my home; I need my peers; I want to do things in my own way – are some of the symptoms of quarter-life transition.

This study is an autoethnographic description of an adolescent seeking for identity living in the guidance of elderly grandparents. The researcher uses self as the subject, presents a personalized account of the complexities, interpretations, and reflections towards creating what Erikson calls ‘self identity’. Through an insider’s point of view, using autoethnography qualitative research methodology, the study looks at both the positive and negative sides of living with the elders, facing the day-to-day problems and the generation gap experiences. The autoethnography research methodology felicitates in explaining the daily lived realities and the psycho-social development struggles through the personal experiences of the researcher.


 Introduction: Psychologists have marked adolescence as the most critical period in human development. It is a period of Quarter-life Transition - Childhood to adulthood (Janetius, 2006). Many parents, teachers, and others who directly involve in helping adolescents are unprepared to guide these budding personalities. Adolescents get into trouble due to various reasons, mainly dealing with friends and family; include violence, parental problems, and gangs. Establishing self-identity is the main developmental task in adolescence. I am not a child, I need freedom from my parents; I need my peers; I want to do things in my own way: these are some signs of Quarter-life transition.

 Erikson sees adolescent development marked by "identity crisis" (Erikson, 1970). Identity creation takes place in and through our social interaction. As we develop interactions with others, family members, outsiders, friends and other, a general question often raise in our minds: Who am? What is my place in society? etc. Often the adolescents are confused without any clear answer; an overall feeling of uncertainty about themselves & future trouble them. It is a crisis because adolescents make a clean break from childhood to form an image of their own. It is a process of adolescent growth where a balancing act between different aspects of the self, dos & don’ts, personal aspirations, the social structure and the environment and the reality of life makes one to think  and develop who we are.


Here, role models become very important in establishing their identity. The major help expected from parents and teachers at this process of development is to provide them with healthy role models in their lives. Adolescent, who does not get a role model at this stage, in his parents or teachers in the school will sure suffer some identity problems in the process of growth (Janetius, 2006).


Methodology: This study is an autoethnography description of an adolescent’s development seeking for identity. The researcher uses self as the subject, presents a personalized account of the complexities, interpretations, and reflections of an adolescent living with two elderly people in the house. Through an insider’s point of view, using autoethnography qualitative methodology, the study looks at both the positive and negative sides of living with the elders, facing the day-to-day problems, the generation gap experiences and the elder’s adjustment problems to old age.

This autoethnography narration is the self report of the author and her issues related to the growth as adolescent and the issues in dealing with the elders at home. Autoethnography is a recent qualitative research methodology which connects the personal to the cultural (Ellis, 2004; Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Chatham, 2009). Autoethnography focuses on the writer's subjective experience with a scientific outlook rather than the beliefs and practices of others. This study has been divided into three major divisions. In the first part the author describes the daily challenges that affect the identity creation. In the second part the developmental issues of grandparents with whom the author faces life challenges every day and in the final part the threatening crisis of identity creation.



The positive side of elders in identity creation: The elders give us a clear comfort zone at home. ‘There is someone to take care of my needs and the safe felling that there is someone to guide me when I am confused and help me to look forward in the future’. This feeling of personal and social security put me at ease in times of trouble to boost my growth and development.


1) Day to day challenges that affect the identity creation

a) Disagreement among grandparents on daily chores: Disagreement becomes a daily occurrence at home when adolescents live with elders. It is quite irritating when we see fight going on in the house between elders over trivial matters, like, why there is less salt in the curry and how the tea became cold etc... etc. As a young adolescent, for me it is not a matter of discussion or quarrel for unnecessary things like food and salt. However, it is not so for them and that sometimes make me yell “Will the both of you just stop? I don’t get up in the morning to listen to your yelling!” which is contradictory to my volume level. The irritation I feel is so high that I have the urge to shout even louder. But as far as they are concerned arguing and debating on small issues and concerns are their way of living and adjusting to the situation. I am too young to understand such day to day chores and constant arguments. I know that yelling doesn’t solve anything. But I have to pitch my voice higher so that they listen to me. If I had said it in a lower tone, it wouldn’t even reach their ears. They would keep on arguing as if I never existed. There would be silence following my outburst and then they would start muttering “See! The child is upset because of some other people!” so that the other could hear. Then the sparring match begins again. I just close my eyes and tuck all the irritation away, knowing no matter what I do it would all be futile.

b) Imposing life style and the thought of living alone: I have talked to almost all my classmates regarding this point and blindly everyone says that this is the norm at home when there are elders. There are countless times I wish that I could live alone just so that I could actually hear the silence around me. But I do what I have learned to do best. The general complaints of the elders start from saying that I eat little because I don’t eat huge amounts of food like others do. I don’t need such huge proportions of food to sate my hunger. According to them, I am unhealthy, which I’m not. They then complain that I don’t eat vegetables, but the truth is that I eat all the vegetables they give me and to them, being healthy means being fat, which I’m not and don’t intend to become.

Another repeated grievance of the elders in the early morning would be: I don’t read the newspaper or have any exercise. They conveniently forget the fact that first thing I do when I wake up I to walk in the courtyard with my dog and finish reading my newspaper then itself. They claim that I have no routine but in face I have a written timetable which I try to follow religiously. My dad has instructed me to have a timetable and I follow it. I get up at 6am no matter the climate and let the dog out. I walk up and down for 10-15 minutes, read both the English and local newspaper. Then I finish my studies and do all the preliminaries before I go to school. Although I am serious and systematic in my daily activities, following my own timetable religiously, still can hear complaints from elders that I lack routine, healthcare, daily exercise, and poor general knowledge. I felt ashamed often when I hear grandparents complain as if I behaved like a spoiled child. Imposing and expecting their lifestyle in me make me often think, “Am I an irritable baby, who makes a fuss when I don’t get what I wanted”.

It may sound as if I am making my own conclusions, but the elders seems to me more like a stubborn child than they think I am.

c) Undue interference in privacy & managing friends at home: One of the major things I expect as I am growing is my privacy and liberty. Many psychologists have also pointed out that freedom is the most important aspect of adolescent development. However, there are instances in which I used to feel that the privacy I desire is lacking at home. I feel that the elders are behind me to overhear my conversation which I have with my friends and classmates. Well, it may be the way of monitoring me as far as they are concerned. But for me it is so annoying that somebody is supervising me so closely at home that eats up my freedom. Sometimes the elders overhear partial conversations and make prejudiced comments without knowing what the situation is.

It also applies when my friends come home. As a way of initiating conversation my grandparents would keep on degrading my behaviour until it seems that I have no other job but to whine. This would create in me internal fear thinking, ‘what my friends would think about me? Will not my friends change their positive opinion about me and my family?’

 2) Development of Grandparents

a) Personality changes in the grandparents: A major thing I have noticed together with my won development at home is the development of my grandparents. We used to talk about everything ranging from the trivial and fun aspects to the mysteries and meaning of life. We used to agree on almost everything and we had such a great friendship between us. But as I grew up, I notice that they are more preoccupied with some kind of unfinished business or that sort. I see them growing and becoming more irritable and short tempered. The cheerful disposition and enlightening words that I get from them in my childhood seem to come rarer and rarer as days pass by. Their snide comments just leave me stunned as they would be totally out of context to what the conversation was. I can’t imagine how much I missed the old conversations which we used to have until I would be at the end of my patience and close to spouting my anger. Then suddenly I remember that she has indeed become older and my anger vanishes.

b) Fear of death and health concerns: I know that I would give whatever it takes to keep my grandparents from being afraid of becoming old. When one of our relatives passed away with no health problems, the grandparents were shaken and the fear of becoming old as well as death is evidently noticed by me.

c) Poor handling of loneliness at old age: Grandparents feel lonely whenever I leave for school, and that it becomes unthinkable about the time when I leave for college. They want to live in their world of small arguments and complaints. I know how lonely they’d feel without me but they don’t see that I’d miss them too. It’s a scary prospect to leave your nest once you mature but I have to go forward. I cannot stay forever here. I have to test my wings so that I could start my future. They think that my love for them is superficial and it wounds me when they throw that in the face. I want to leave for college happily that they have a life together and long and by cherishing all the good memories rather than wondering what mistake I did before I left. So I try to help them in all the ways I can. But if I help, it becomes an issue. If I don’t help it is also an issue. So I am left floundering as to what I have to do. It wounds me to know that I cannot do anything. I don’t know what their behaviour or reactions would be. When I try to lighten the moment with a silly joke, they take it seriously. They find fault in every little thing that happens. It is as if I have never had happy memories with them. All the joyous times I had with them, not grand or important, but the silly little things of everyday life, seem like vague dreams.


3) Crisis in identity creation

a) Lack of Appetite: Normally I would eat my breakfast with absolutely no appetite or taste and seethe. As my appetite is no longer present sometimes I give up the pretence of eating food and wash my hands saying ‘I’m not hungry anymore’. They would start lecturing me and scolding me for not eating my breakfast and then continue to blame each other for making me lose my appetite. The sense of futility I feel at such times is so great that I would resort to anger. But there is no way for me to express it so it just churns inside me.

b) I am growing but still baby for grandparents: As for my grandfather, he used to be cheerful and sunny all the time. Now his smiles and jokes are rare. The funny nicknames we used to call each other are long forgotten and the way he’d comfort me when I cry are long gone. Almost every day on the way to school, he’d make me doubt my own beliefs by telling me that I am only a child with no thought about the future. That is an issue with both of them. They keep believing that I am only a kid with absolutely no thought about the consequences of my choices whether it’s about my education, life or profession.

c) Anxiety and the fears of future: I’m not saying it’s easy to live in an emotional roller coaster everyday and there are some days that I can’t take any more and want to give up everything. But I remember all the great times we had and the love I still have for them. They have always been closer to me than my own parents and now they seem as distant as strangers. They know about my dreams and ambitions yet they remain stubbornly blind to my need to be something. I do have my own future to think of, my own job and education. They don’t make my choices any easy as their actions force me to choose my own with doubts and anxiety. Life is not always about finding the right choice. But I do want to become what I am capable of and my love for them makes me want to find a balance between my dreams, my future, my parents and my grandparents.

Conclusion: Identity creation is really a struggle for adolescents and it is very true as far as my life is concerned. The conformations I get from my peers, classmates and friends make me think that I am not alone and all adolescents face similar problems in varying degrees and proportions. Often adolescents look for peer support, parental guidance to understand their identity and form their identity. Preparation for adolescent identity creation is a must as far as I am concerned; seminar/workshops at schools and colleges are highly recommended to facilitate the growth and development of adolescents.  Creating more awareness about identity creation issues would make the adolescents feel at ease at this time of confusion and turmoil.  Good role models in the form of peers, mentors, teachers, parents and elders would solve a great deal of problems and help the adolescents in their identity creation.



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