Reflections on Adolescence

Adolescence is a time of tremendous turbulence and perplexity and I would be surprised if there is anyone, who, when they think back to the time when they were between twelve and seventeen or so, can really remember accurately how they felt at that time. It seems to be something that most of us have just blacked out. I think many people can remember fairly accurately how they felt when they were children and they can also have fairly good recollection how they felt then when they were adults some time ago. But it’s very very difficult to evoke the feelings that you had when you were an adolescent.

An example of the sort of youngster with whom I often come into contact is a 15 year-old called Charles. I heard that his parents had been divorced and they had got married again. And into my room came a very warm couple, very pleasant, obviously extremely caring of this 15 year-old. And they told me that in the past year he had truanted from school and insulted his parents. Charles told them he really hated them, teased his brothers and sisters, broken windows and shattered furniture, and stolen ten radios. Now one radio is a fairly useful thing to have in the house, but ten radios?

Charles and I started to talk and I asked him about things and either he said nothing, volunteered one line answers or he shrugged his shoulders. At first I gathered that he hated everything. Then he said that he felt sometimes as though there was a wild animal inside him that leapt out and said things that he didn’t really mean. And when this wild animal wasn’t there, he wanted to say things, but he just couldn’t find the words to say them. How does this happen to someone not yet out of their teens? For Charles, like the rest of us, the story starts when the baby is in the mother’s womb. This is the time when the child is at one with the mother. When the mother is sleeping, the baby by and large will be sleeping. When the mother is restless, the baby will be kicking hard, and when the mother is doing something that makes her heart beat fast, the baby’s heart can beat fast.

We don’t really know what happens to a pregnant lady when she’s emotionally upset, but there’s very good evidence that it has the same sort of effect on the child and that this may have a life-long effect on the child’s personality. Suddenly the mother gives birth to the baby. The baby has been cushioned in this lovely, secure environment and suddenly finds himself in this strange, outer world. And he feels totally helpless. The human baby is far more helpless than any other animal. The baby has a hunger for feeling the mother’s arms safely cradling him. And there’s another relationship too, which is an interaction between the mother and the child; so that automatically when the mother, or the father, smiles, the baby will automatically smile by reflex. When the mother starts talking to the child, or singing to the child, the baby will gurgle in response. When the mother starts patting the child or swinging the child, the child may shout in delight. There is an interchange between the parent and the child and this is what gives rise later to the child feeling that he is someone of worth and is loveable.

Now there are children, who in their infancy, have received beautiful physical care. They have been fed appropriately, they’ve been kept clean, but they haven’t received this interaction with their parents. And when these children grow up, they lack this central core of feeling themselves worthwhile and loveable. Most of them manage to compensate for this. They say to themselves, well I’ve got to prove that I’m worthwhile and maybe they work extremely hard, maybe they find some mission in life. But always, if you get close to these adults who have had this deprived upbringing, you will find they lack this central security and feeling that they’re worthwhile people.

One hero of mine who I put into this category is the great writer Charles Dickens, who, if you’ve read his biography, had a terrible childhood in which he was beaten, cruelly treated and given unfeeling tasks to perform. But he grew up with a wonderful skill of being able to write, spent the whole of his life obsessively writing magnificent books with the theme of children who have been deprived and who need loving and caring. He desperately tried to fill this gap in his own personal life; he had great difficulties in coping with emotional situations. And in this way you can see that a person’s core and feeling are developed in the first year of life.

In infancy, the child is exposed to the example of his parents and elder brothers and just takes it in. His mind is quite empty; he has no discrimination of good or bad — he just takes everything in and sets it as a standard for himself. His parents are his two models and he wants to be just like them. The models may be somewhat awry, if, for instance, father is someone who drinks heavily. The little boy sees his father drinking every night and that’s really all he sees of him so his idea of manhood is that,“I must be a real man and when I grow up I’m going to drink just like dad”. That is the symbol. Parents smoke — that is one of the symbols of adulthood.

Even if his mother tries to reprimand her husband for his heavy drinking, and points out to her son, “You shouldn’t be like your father; he’s not much good”, the boy will still take it in and later follow his father’s example and drink heavily while also following his mother’s example, by feeling guilty for it. And the difficulty is, of course, when he feels guilty and bad, he finds that this marvellous fluid of alcohol removes the guilt. And he drinks still more heavily. So he models himself on his mother and father. And in a healthy family the little boy says, “I’m going to be like daddy”, and mother says, “That’s the sort of person you ought to be like”. And so he has a basic model on which his personality develops.

He is going to pick up messages that come from the parents, but not always the ones they intended. Preaching, telling youngsters what to do is never very helpful. The most helpful thing, and the way children become, is what parents do. It’s what you do, not what you say. But there are messages that are given to children about the things that parents often say and these become very important. They are messages that may be put in words or they may be put in symbolic language. Supposing there is a father who comes in and he gets down on the floor and plays bricks with his son. The message is, “I enjoy being with you”. On the other hand, dad may come in and be feeling pretty tired and he sits down and he gets the newspaper and he puts it up and the youngster comes along and he says, “Hmm, I think you’d better go and play with your mother”, or “Here’s 20 cents go and buy yourself an ice-cream”. The message that gets to the youngster is, “You’re a boring child”. And this becomes part of him. He feels, “I’m a boring person”. Supposing the father and the youngster enjoy doing things together, and the youngster makes some little suggestion about something and the father says, “Good, that’s a good idea. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Let’s go and do it.” The message that comes over is, “You’ve got good ideas and they’re worth listening to. Go on producing them.” If, on the other hand, he comes up with his idea and the father says,“Oh, that’s no good” he gets the impression, “I’m stupid”.

These messages, in fact, become self-fulfilling so that the child who feels he’s stupid, boring and useless will behave that way. These little sayings we actually say to kids and our attitude toward them is something that is tremendously important in moulding them.

By now the child is beginning to walk and the mother takes him to the park. She sits down on the park-bench and begins talking to her friend. And what happens: he walks a little distance away, perhaps two metres. If he’s adventurous, four metres. It’s almost as though he is on the end of an elastic lead. He turns round, sees that everything’s alright and perhaps ventures a pace or two further, and then comes back. He is beginning to separate from his parents but he can’t go further than that. He must be in the presence of his parents. At age 5 or 6, the biggest milestone in his life occurs, his first day at school. This is a tremendous move because the child is now actually separated from his parents and instead of being bound by love and affection, there’s a new element that comes in that’s called attainment. No longer has he only mum and dad to mould himself on, but he has teachers, older boys and he’s introduced to the wonderful world of books. And so, with an enormous choice, instead of incorporating everything, as he did when he was a baby, he is able to use discretion and make choices.

Then comes the tremendous task of learning which has an enormous effect on adolescence. The great difficulty is that the ones who can learn to read quickly receive words like, “you’re a good boy, you’re clever, you’re studious, you’ll always do well”, whereas the slow learners learn that they’re stupid, lazy, they’re not worth teaching and they develop a very low self-opinion, so that even later when they learn to read, this feeling of badness has developed in them.

Suddenly the child finds that he’s 13 or so and tremendous physical changes are happening to him. He shoots up in height, he becomes very much stronger, he develops his sexual maturity and his emotions change and they become very much stronger. This period can be frightening for its pace of bewildering change, particularly when other people comment, “You’re not nearly such a nice boy as you used to be”. The child feels completely alienated from himself, he doesn’t understand it, but still his feelings change. For instance, he may have loved his mother very much and have been very close to her, when suddenly he finds his whole feeling towards his mother has changed. He feels this extraordinary attraction towards her, but it’s wrong to be attracted to your mother, and so he avoids her and mother, perhaps in her kindness, gives him a goodnight kiss and he pushes her away “Get away mum, I hate you”. If the mother doesn’t understand it, she can be hurt by what is happening. Likewise, the relationship with his father comes to an end and father feels shut out.

There seems to be a complete reversal. The youngster who used to come home with all his homework and the things he used to do at school, suddenly becomes secretive and won’t share anything and, like Charles, instead of telling mother everything that used to happen, becomes non-committal. I get everything they’re told, for many are really, when you get to know them, very depressed. The child undergoes alternate closeness and distance in relation to his parents until eventually he develops a comfortable distance at which he feels good. Eventually he is able to find someone else with whom he can share closeness and love and he is able to go back to his parents and develop a happy adult friendship.

In separating from his parents, he feels empty and wonders “Who am I? Who am I apart from my parents? What do I stand for and what is my place in the world? What am I going to do with myself? What am I going to contribute?”. As a child sees it, he has many different options, some of which parents like and some they don’t. Music, in particular pop groups, is something that fills the emptiness.

One of the lovely things about our modern generation of children is their development of friendships, often deep and meaningful ones. Parents often get a bit worried about close friendships with other boys, seeing it as the first step to homosexuality. But this is something that is transient. Other children develop what we adults think of as being impractical idealism. I think a kid like this ought to be encouraged in every way, but unfortunately as he grows older, practicalities level his aims.

Other children, who are unhappy, seize other things to fill their minds. If a youngster has learned that the world is dangerous and unkind, he learns to withdraw. Such youngsters are in danger of withdrawing completely by using alcohol or taking drugs. Perhaps one of the greatest things parents can do is to encourage youngsters to face up to life and to feel that problems are fun. If people face up to life, they’re unlikely to get involved with drugs, or other escapes.

About the Author

Dr Richard Griffith, was an English medical graduate who served in the Royal Airforce and after coming to Australia worked as a family doctor in a country town. Following his training in psychiatry, Dr Griffith became particularly interested in adolescents and worked as a community psychiatrist in Melbourne. He took a particular interest in the philosophy and approach of The School of Total Education during its early years.

This article was originally published in the Journal of the Helen Vale Foundation, Volume 3, Number 2, 1981. (Published on web site: August 2012)