When their oldest child becomes a teenager,
parents often feel unprepared for all the changes which creep up on them without warning. In addition to the accelerated growth spurts, they see dramatic, and often unwelcome, changes in attitude and behavior in their young adolescent.
Parents are often at a loss to understand what
has happened to their formerly cooperative, respectful and predictable child. And they are desperate to understand why adolescence is such a problematic stage of development for so many children.
Sometimes parents read or hear about the term, adolescent turmoil. The term is often cited as an explanation for
much that confuses and confounds the parents of teenagers. This chapter answers the question some parents are too afraid to ask: What is adolescent turmoil?
The late teenage years are often referred to as
adolescence. Adolescence literally means that stage of development between childhood and maturity.
Adolescence seems to be an especially emotionally stressful period. As an age group, for example, adolescents have a disproportionately high rate of psychiatric hospitalizations. In fact, if any form of mental illness will develop during a persons lifetime, it is most
likely to emerge during retirement, old age, or adolescence.
Why is adolescence such a period of turmoil and
stress and why do adolescents present so many behavior problems for their parents?
Looking at the life cycle developmentally, each
stage in life can be characterized by the primary task which must be mastered at that stage. The developmental task of infancy, for example, is for the infant to learn to establish a close, secure and trusting relationship with his or her mother. The primary task of adolescence, however, is for the adolescent to succeed in separating himself or herself from his parents enough to establish his own independence.
Lest all teenage readers parade to my office to
decorate it -- and their parents march behind them to burn it down -- I should clarify what I mean by independence.
Children will always need their parents till 120, and they should keep contact with their parents, no matter how old the children get. Nevertheless, older children should not depend on their parents to satisfy the same needs as they did when the children were younger. What parents provide for a child of 10 need not always be continued for the same child five years later, and so on. In short, independence is to some extent synonymous with growing up. It means separation without amputation.1
All of this may sound rather simplistic, especially
for parents who have not yet dealt with an adolescent. Anyone who has knows that this is a very difficult stage. But if the adolescents and their parents share the same goal, namely, for the adolescent to achieve greater independence, then what makes it so difficult?
The fact is that both adolescents and their parents are ambivalent; they have mixed feelings about the adolescents developing maturity. All are concerned about the possible unreadiness of the adolescent. They are all unsure of his judgment, reasoning and experience. All fear the adolescents failure and are apprehensive about the unknowns of the
future. Some of these fears are justified. Others are not.
More specifically, the adolescent and his or her parents dont always see the adolescents development of independence
as something positive. The adolescent, for example, enjoys the luxury of parental support -- financial and otherwise -- and may be unwilling to give any of it up. The parents, on the other hand, feel more secure and comfortable, with the higher levels of control they were able to exercise when the adolescent was younger.
In short, no one seems to be prepared to easily
secede the dependency and control inherent in the parent/child relationship.
So if that is the case, how does an adolescent
manage to let go of the rail and learn to swim, so to speak?
There are two major factors which facilitate the
growth process and help most adolescents develop to maturity.
The first factor is the growth in importance of
peer relationships. Never before adolescence -- and never again after -- will friends be so important. The friendships made during adolescence, for example, are usually the ones that survive intact, seemingly unaffected by later separations of many miles or even years. When the adolescent succeeds in establishing close friendships, it helps ease the loss of emotional dependency on his parents and eventually makes financial dependency an embarrassment.
The second factor is that some conflict between adolescents and their parents is normal. At times it is actually helpful. And I must once again clarify that I advocate no disrespect of parents by children of any age. However, conflict between family members can take many forms, the worst of which, of course, is disrespect. Other forms of conflict include maintaining and expressing different opinions, or the adolescents very
painful realization that parents, too, are not always perfect and can make mistakes.
With the support of strong friendships and the
impetus of some conflict with his or her parents, the adolescent is helped to complete his or her natural developmental task and grow to mature adulthood.
Is there anything that parents can do to minimize
the crisis of adolescence for their children?
Yes, most definitely! Parents should sit down with
one another and ask themselves the following four questions.
1. Is there anything we are doing which makes
dependency too attractive for our adolescent children?
2. Is there anything we are doing which makes
premature independence a necessity for our adolescent
3. Are we opposing our adolescents move
toward independence because of our needs or our childs
4. When our child gives us the mixed message of
wanting both dependency and independence, are we more responsive to the former or the latter?
I mentioned above that the adolescent usually succeeds in achieving mature independence. Unfortunately,
that is not always so. And the reasons for this failure are manifold.
At times, the adolescent is unsuccessful because he
fails to establish close, meaningful friendships. This causes the young man or woman to remain socially isolated and withdrawn. In other cases, the conflict with the parents is so intense that it preoccupies the entire family.
In these instances, professional counseling can
often succeed in making the transition proceed more smoothly. Although these families may often feel helpless, they can be helped, and the
adolescent can be assisted in moving through the natural life cycle and ultimately go on from adolescence to a happy and full maturity.
One example comes to mind, immediately, not so much
because the case was unusual, but because of the unique circumstances of the referral.
One of my first private referrals came from Rabbi
Boruch Green,* the principal of the Radziviller
Yeshivah.* I was flattered by his vote of confidence in my clinical skills. But when I learned that he was referring his teenage nephew, I became quite apprehensive about succeeding enough to maintain the positive image I had in Rabbi Greens eyes.
The nephew had a chronic stuttering problem. This
caused the young man considerable shame, resulting in extreme shyness. I quickly discovered that stuttering is hardly amenable to individual psychotherapy. After six wholly unsuccessful sessions, the young man withdrew from treatment. His uncle, I concluded, would never again refer anyone to me.
I was wrong. Five months later, Rabbi Green called
with another referral. I was quite surprised. But I was truly astounded when I learned that Rabbi Green was referring his 14-year-old son, Pinchas.
For some unexplained reason, Pinchas was found to have, n more than one occasion, slipped out of yeshivah to go home in the middle of the day. While some boys Pinchas age
occasionally do things like that, Rabbi Green acknowledged, this was totally uncharacteristic of Pinchas, who had always been an outstanding student.
Rabbi Green insisted that I meet Pinchas at their
home, as Pinchas was too embarrassed to come to my office. Unencumbered by the pressures of a busy practice, I complied.
Pinchas and I met in his bedroom. He felt extremely guilty about having been caught doing something that any rational person would realize would inevitably be discovered. After all, how could the principals son repeatedly sneak out of yeshivah, come home
for a few hours, and not expect to be caught?
It did not take long for the focus of our
conversation to shift to the relationship between Pinchas and his father. Pinchas idealized his father, a prominent member of the community. He saw his father to be a distant, larger-than-life personality. And Pinchas felt himself to be a dismal failure in trying to please his father.
Pinchas could not bring himself to express any of
these feelings directly to his father. Instead, he tried symbolically and literally to avoid him, eventually calling attention to himself by his foolish and inappropriate behavior.
Although Pinchas had never discussed any of this
with his father, he did agree to meet together with his father and myself the following week -- in my office.
The following week, a somewhat stiff, uncomfortable
Rabbi Green came in with his reticent, anxious son.
So, please tell me, Rabbi Green began, taking charge of the session from the outset. What do you think is wrong with my son? What is your diagnosis?
He is suffering from a very common malady, I replied in a somber tone. It is called adolescence.
I then went on to explain -- as clearly and simply as I could -- my analysis of Pinchas feelings of anxiety and how they
were connected to his relationship with his father. Rabbi Green apparently misunderstood what I was trying to convey.
But Pinchas and I have always been very close, Rabbi Green protested. How could he be afraid of me?
He is not afraid that you will get angry with him, I replied. He is afraid he will disappoint you, that he will not live up to your expectations for him.
Rabbi Green jerked his head around to face Pinchas directly. Is that true?!
Pinchas broke eye contact with his father and
looked down at the floor. Then he nodded silently in agreement.
Rabbi Green looked as if he had been hit by a truck. I had no idea -- , his voice trailed off.
Pinchas burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Rabbi Green shed tears, silently. Then he leaned over to embrace Pinchas. Father and son remained locked in each others arms for two of the longest minutes of
my professional career. I took out a tissue to wipe my own moistened eyes. The emotional discovery which had taken place was intense for us all.
Pinchas never did play hooky again. He resumed his
formerly successful learning in the Radziviller Yeshivah. In a follow-up phone call six months later, Rabbi Green assured me that his son was progressing in his studies, keeping up with his friends and, most important of all, maintaining the openness and honesty which began in my office. Seven years later, I met Rabbi Green on the street. He beamed proudly, informing me that Pinchas was engaged and planning to continue his learning in the Radziviller
Over 20 years ago, with what fishermen call beginners luck, I had been able to help Pinchas and his
father break upthe logjam with one another. It took far less time than such work normally takes. Although the length of treatment was unusually short, this case provides a window of just how mired and despondent a child can become when caught in a very typical adolescent conflict. (That conflict will be elaborated upon more fully in the next chapter.)
This case also illustrates how successful an
adolescent can become when he is released from his conflict and is enabled to continue on to the next stage in life. Finally, this case also highlights the constructive role professional help can play in the life of a family coping with an adolescent in turmoil.
1. I am grateful to my colleague, Hannah Parnes,
C.S.W., for permission to use this phrase which she coined.
* Not the real names.