Recognising the critical importance of Rites of Passage in lives of our teenagers – revisiting the start of the STEP journey.

ROP tee pee

Every traditional society in the world recognise they need to create a coming of age Rite of Passage ceremony.  Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term Rite of Passage(ROP) in the early 1900’s – community- created and community directed experiences that transmit cultural values and knowledge to an individual(s). The ROP process not only guide’s the individual’s transition to a new status, but, equally important, it created public events that celebrated the transition and reaffirmed these community values, which inform and guide expectations for behaviours essential to the groups survival. 

In February 2017, I attended an incredible Global Rites Of Passage Leadership Training  in the hills of Mullumbimby, NSW ( yup, the sunrise from that tee pee was  magical).   Led by the talented Dr Arne Rubenstein, I found it was the missing piece in a puzzle I had been working on in my desire to help connect youth and the Elderly. Applying the thinking around the stages of Rites of Passage gave me a critical framework to complete the design of the intergenerational story sharing program I was working on.

Whilst for thousands of years, Rites of Passage events may have involved the killing of a lion, or walking over hot coals to prove the move into manhood, what is crucial today (as we have moved on from needing to hunt for our food)  is the acknowledgment of social and moral maturing as a result of challenging encounters. I realised that for Teens today, this encounter could be entering an Aged Care environment and facing the ‘challenge‘ of an environment where there is no escape from the concepts such as ageing, immobility, dementia and even death.

In his TedX Talk below, Arne speaks of the concerning decline in life satisfaction graph that begins in the early teen years and troughs around age 16 that led him from practising as a GP to find out why ( watch his talk below if you want to know also!)

His subsequent study of ROP ceremonies around the world found that they always;

  • Involved story sharing, facing a challenge &  an acknowledgment of their ‘spirit’
  • Marked shift from ‘child’ psychology (” I am the centre of the universe. It’s all about me ! I don’t take responsibility ” ) to ‘healthy adult’ psychology
  • Led to a deep and profound sense of belonging in their community, they learnt the history of their community and knew they were part of something bigger than them.

TedX -2013 Arne Rubenstein

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 11.21.22 am

When I saw this graph, I was as worried as Arne.

I developed STEP (Seniors and Teens Empathy Program) as one of the possible small solutions ( of many that will be needed in an wholistic approach to community mental health and wellbeing) to help halt that steep decline youth appear to be on,  a program that aims to nourish and develop the souls of adolescents on their path to find purpose and meaning through a vision of life that is bigger than self.

STEP launched as an initiative between Bupa Aged Care, Kids Giving Back and Heart & Soul Story on October 10, 2017 (World Mental Health Day) and has been running with teens and aged care residents ( albeit due to the chaos of COVID changing our worlds in 2020, now as a virtual program). You can read more about the thinking behind this initiative here Intergenerational Programs .

The development of purpose is intricately woven with the development of identity – the biggest problem growing up is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness

Bill Damon, Stanford Lead Researcher Purpose & Adolescents

Using nature to show the important work we need to connect our young and old, share their stories and this be recognised by their community to ensure the ripple effect of the healing power of this story sharing is widened. This was an exercise I did as part of Dr Arne Rubenstein’s Rite of Passage Leadership training. It represented my wish to bridge the gap between young and old by bringing them together, the rocks on the side represented the challenges I thought I may come up against ( I didn’t know the half of it!) and the leaves in front represented the witness of the coming together of these two generations by their family and community, and the beneficial ripple effect this would have also on them.

How do we keep our Elders socially connected in this time of social distancing?

Wow. What a time. The government and health industry are working incessantly to bring together the best heads to continually figure out the correct strategy to protect the health of our nation, and in particular its most vulnerable, to stay safe from COVID 19.

Part of that strategy has this week announced that visitors to Aged Care be limited to 2 at a time, with school groups and overseas visitors banned. These measures are vital to protect the health, and lives of our precious Elders, but they also of course bring to bear the mental health concerns of socially isolating so many who are already so socially isolated for much of the time ( social isolation can be as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day). 

 Following advice from NSW Health, Heart and Soul Story immediately called a stop to our face to face visits to Aged Care for the Seniors and Teens Empathy Program we have been running with Bupa Aged Care and are set to run with Opal Aged Care from April. Given the aim of the Seniors and Teens Empathy Program, to Bring Community Back Together, is the exact antithesis of the necessary ‘social distancing’ measures being encouraged across the globe, Heart and Soul Story will be working with teachers, students and staff at Opal and Bupa Aged Care to come up with ways to keep the relationships & connection between the young and old in alternative methods to face to face contact. ( A quick search on Google trends shows that until around the 1st of March this year, ‘Social Distancing’ was a basic flatline of a search term, it has climbed steadily since.) 

This week we have already been keeping up the connection with letters written and pictures drawn by students to be delivered to residents. One of those students was proud when she finished her letter and actually commented “ That’s the first time I’ve done that, I usually just write texts!” …. But of course, we are going to need to do more, as we need to do when any flu or virus hits, and Aged Care’s are forced into lockdown mode. We need and are in discussion with the Aged Care’s to be working on innovative technological solutions of course, but do we also need to look back to taking the time to teach our students the patience of scribing words of encouragement and love in a good old fashioned letter, (and have them emailed through if not through good old Australia Post ?) 

To continue reading this article, please go to How Do We Keep Our Elders Socially Connected and please join the conversation