Just reading the title and the word 'adolescent' probably brings up so many feelings for you adult readers. So many of us, if asked, would never go through that stage of life again. What I have learned is that adolescence doesn't end at 18, for some, it never ends. I think of these folks as “Peter Pans” because they have not continued to develop or mature. We all know those folks who, even at the age of 30 or 40 are still doing the same thing that they did on Friday nights back when they were 18, the same group of friends, same conversations, same emotional issues. They may be working respectable high paying jobs with lots of responsibility over others, on the surface, but on the inside they are still very young.
The Lonely Bind
Most folks, even me at some points, don't even want to spend time with dealing with their own volatile adolescence. Many of the feelings and experiences are so overwhelming - a sense of desperation, and all in all not knowing what to do. For most adolescents, they are experiencing some feelings for the first time in their life. They're all alone. It doesn't feel safe to talk to their friends because they want to be accepted and fit in. It is beginning of the time of individuation, and they don't want to talk to their parents anymore. Most adolescents are in what I would call a lonely bind.
Most people don’t want to deal with the drama, yet they are craving to get some attention and feel safe enough with someone that they can get help with the drama of their life. This is not like the experience I have spoken about in my writing around delusions (schizophrenia). They can’t trust others and they can’t trust themselves out of fear of being annihilated by their feelings. It is no surprise that so much of what goes awry in our adult life can be traced back to our adolescent years.
Debunking the Adolescent Rebellion Myth
I suspect that most people in the western world would have loved to have had someone to talk to during their junior high and high school years. If asked to do those years over again for a million bucks, most would still turn it down. Wholesome doesn't exactly fit into the frame of adolescence. More like anxiety. Worse still, this period is portrayed in the world and media as a season of rebellion and emotional intensity. Which, alone, is a stereotype which only serves to bring about more fear within ourselves towards our adolescent experience. This stereotype still lives on within us shaping who we are today, and coming alongside and engaging with the complexity of adolescence in our lives.
There is a huge difference between individuation, where a child starts becoming an adult and forming their own opinions which could differ from the parents, and the act of rebellion. They are not “rebelling” but becoming their own person on a biological and psychological level. “Rebellion” speaks of an emotionally based opposition of a perceived injustice and you rise up against what you think to be “wrong”. Teenagers might rebel against the outdated discipline methods of their parents. They are seeking new methods for resolving conflict.
The truth is that most of us look back on our adolescent years as being some of the hardest years of our lives. Why is this? I would venture to say that this season of life is much more about learning to navigate relationships with yourself, others, and what’s going on around you than about putting out the fires of rebellion.
“The idea that people (including young people) should instinctively know how to act in life, especially when we haven’t (in most cases) trained them to properly use (and value) their reasoning minds, is one of the more stupid – and destructive –ideas out there. Sometimes this not-quite-named contradiction is what adolescents are rebelling against, in the first place. Dr. Michael Hurd.
Adolescent Anxiety, Our Anxiety
I have said in other posts that we all go about this life with some level of anxiety. Ontologically, we are all anxious because we are born into the world unprepared for what is asked of us. Some examples are that we need to be slapped to begin breathing. Attachment research with infants has taught us that when the parents are unresponsive to the child's communication or needs, that it has long-term traumatic effects. This act of withholding is now barred from research with infants due to its effects. We don't know how to handle things. We are in some way, lost at sea in a world where we have no bearing unless we've gone through it numerous times.
This anxiety is so prevalent, or more external and expressed during adolescence than potentially any other time. The Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report found that 60% of children with diagnosable depression are not getting the necessary treatment. One of my colleagues in theology school did her entire thesis on the stigma in the western world of avoiding the messiness of adolescence. The messiness of intense and ballistic emotions, hormonal changes, and clinginess towards others. She posits that we are turning them away. Leaving them to find their way. (it would be great to reference her name here)
The Need to Belong at Any Cost
The theme of belonging is one of the most prevalent issues in my counseling work with involving adolescents. The questions or fears of "will I be accepted?", "will I be alone forever?", "does he/she like me?" dominate. As adults, we still struggle with these dilemmas. It's a natural process of trying to find ourselves in the world as we develop the “I” in relation to another. We all struggle to do this, and it is completely normal not to know what to do with our feelings.
When things get hard, anxious, and we don't know what to do or how to make sense of what's going on inside or outside, we retreat inside ourselves to find some comfort and to make sense of what's going on. When there is no structure within the mind, built up through relationships with the parents and others, we act out to get us what will give us the most relief to get us through the NOW. There is such complexity, such messiness within the adolescent, and within ourselves that we have not come to learn, feel and bring compassion too.
Depression can be fueled by the extreme vulnerability adolescents are feeling. Their hormones are changing and all of the new sensations can bring a feeling of instability. This is where the warped self image can start to develop or issues around sexuality. You can see some teens “acting out’ whilst others “act in” according to Michaela Bernard who looks at insights for parents around recognizing and understanding depression in their children.
Staying Tuned In
So we are either the adolescent or the parent, friend, or therapist of the adolescent with this narrow thinking that we are working with rebellion rather than stumbling-relationality. An article in The Wall Street Journal talks about a longitudinal study which suggests that it is far more beneficial for parents to remain empathetically engaged during their child’s adolescence. The popular belief is that at this tumultuous time parents should take the foot off the brake and step back. The research is pointing to the necessity for parents to actually stay more emotionally connected with their children at this time. It’s vital for parents to intervene in their children’s lives at a time that is so fraught with anxiety and the desire to “fit in”. Often times this doesn’t happen which is why in working with adolescents you end up working with the parents as well. Parents also need to work through their own “adolescence” to resolve the traumas experienced during that time.
You might not want to go “back’ to that time but it might be stopping you from going positively forward in your life. Give me a call so we can talk about your adolescent or your own adolescence that is affecting your life at the moment.