Understanding Adolescence

The teen years are a “very tender, sensitive time of life”. They are the most crucial years in the development of the mature, human personality, and they are, for this reason, the most painful for the maturing person. Not only is he expected to reach full physical maturity, but he is also expected to reach some sort of solution to many of the great problem areas of life, including human relationships, establishing a balance of dependence versus independence in relation to the family, vocational choice, crystallizing a system of values and a moral code, and establishing a sense of personal identity. And, he is to achieve these goals while at the same time undergoing the greatest personal upheaval which occurs in any one lifetime.

One of the characteristics of adult maturity is a reasonably well-formed sense of personal identity: “Who I am and what I am about”. The contemporary American psychologist Erik Erikson bases his whole concept of the development of the human person on the notion of the gradual development of the human person.

Towards the later years of childhood, the child has a relatively settled self-concept. New talents which have emerged up to this time are integrated into the total personality. With the onset of adolescence, youth enters what Erikson calls a psychological moratorium. Previous identities seem to melt, become diffuse, as the adolescent enters a whole new world of experience, and sets about trying on new roles and new identities. This period of classic identity crisis varies in intensity from person to person.

If the adolescent could give vent to what he is feeling deep down, he (or she) would probably say something like this:

“I feel physically awkward, socially shy and ill at ease, emotionally unable to cope with many situations, and generally psychologically confused. In short, I don’t know who I really am, or where I am heading.”

This can be a rather disturbing experience for the adolescent. He feels unsure, hesitant, insecure. In the face of this basic insecurity girls and boys react somewhat differently: girls usually become shy and timid, retiring, mistrustful, withdrawing into their protective shells; they like to appear self-sufficient and are annoyed when disturbed. Boys try to hide their insecurity under a camouflage of aggressiveness and opposition. Deep down, however, both feel anything but self-sufficient or aggressive, and this is where the understanding parent or teacher sees behind the Rock-of-Gibralter-like attitude to the unsteady and unsure person within.

The experiences of these years are crucial in shaping and directing the ultimate development of the person. Thus the educator must be someone who is sensitive enough to be attuned to the wavelength of the uncertain teenager, who is able to hear behind the superficial, aloof, “I-don’t-need-anyone” exterior to the need for warmth and understanding and reassurance.

Since a balanced self-esteem and self-love is the cornerstone of health from the psychological point of view, it is essential for the teacher or parent to provide genuine acceptance and not to give the impression of condemning the person when it might be necessary to disapprove of the behaviour.

Emotional Instability

The mature person is emotionally poised, and his emotional expression is balanced and spontaneous. There is a deep awareness of feeling life and the capacity to allow appropriate feelings to flow into appropriate communications.

As emotional balance is closely associated with a secure sense of personal identity, one of the first symptoms of the onset of adolescent identity crisis is a certain instability in the whole area of emotional response. The adolescent is noticeably emotionally unpredictable. What is loved one day is hated the next; today’s ambition is forgotten tomorrow; what brings happiness one day brings sorrow the next. The young person is very sensitive, and his or her emotional reactions appear with very little provocation.

The reactions are usually quite extreme (no degrees between love and hate), and they change just as quickly into their opposites (from love to hate). Moodiness becomes the prevailing wind, and the educator does not know whether his gentle request will be met with ready obedience (not to be expected) or with a “can’t-you-leave-me-alone” scowl. In summary, the teenager is emotionally suspended, in the sense of not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Often, if we are sensitive enough, we can see both reactions in the one response: really wanting to cry, but laughing all the louder to cover the hurt. In the extreme case it is almost as if all control has gone, the emotions are running rampant and dictating the whole gamut of the person’s response.

It is normal, then, for the adolescent to exhibit a wide emotional fluctuation, and, if anything, to have more than his share of unpleasant feelings. Maybe the reason for this is that these feelings are more part of adult life than that of the child who in many ways lives a life protected from the harsher realities of living and responsibility.

One conclusion from all this, consoling for the educator, is that general emotional calm and consistent control during adolescence are not necessarily to be highly lauded, nor are they necessarily signs of sound psychological maturity. Such calm and control could have their source in, for example, fear of reprisal or punishment from authoritarian figures for expressing emotions, or alternatively could result from the inability to know and express what one is really feeling. Neither case is likely to be conducive to psychological growth and continuing development.

A relatively uncontrolled spontaneity of emotional response is characteristic of adolescent development, and is a good and necessary phase if the full emotional life of the individual is to develop and be integrated within the total personality. The best preparation for such spontaneity is a healthy childhood atmosphere. Where during childhood the individual has been able, and even encouraged, to express the full spectrum of emotional responses without guilt, fear, or anxiety, then this type of healthy emotional development can be expected to continue.

To maintain such an attitude to teenagers can be very demanding on the educator. Above all he has to be the sort of person who has an understanding heart, who can be sensitive to the frustration and turmoil and uncertainty of the adolescent, and to whom the adolescent feels he can go and open his heart without fear of being met with evaluative, judgmental or moralistic reproval.

Independence Versus Authority

The overall goal of adolescence is to enable the person to develop to full adulthood. Such development necessitates the attainment of a healthy and mature independence, which in turn implies a distinct change in attitude both of the adolescent to the educator and the educator to the adolescent. Since, as nature will have it, perfect educators are as scarce as perfect adolescents, educators tend to relinquish control rather reluctantly and adolescents on their part are overzealous in their desire to attain such independence. Clashes are inevitable and tension is to be expected. The irony of it all is that what is wanted most desperately by both the warring parties is to relate warmly to each other.

One sobering and realistic conclusion is that the educator should not expect, or even hope, that the child will graduate to successful adult independence without some kind of challenge to childhood authority figures. One learns to be wary of “model children” who have never expressed a negative feeling or never said boo to mum. As mentioned earlier, such behaviour could be the legacy of rigidly controlled school or home situations where any negative behaviour or spontaneous expression of negative feelings was rigorously punished. And once healthy emotional growth is stunted, the person can lose all striving for autonomous identity and become a colourless, amorphous, highly repressed, model blob.

In our time being a teenager is practically a cult. Not only do adolescents no longer look longingly to the day of emancipation into adulthood, but at times they even question the values and philosophy of life of their elders.

The teenage cult has its own customs in dress and grooming (how many young men today long for a “suit like dad’s”?); its own sacred music and dance; it worships the same heroes (the pop stars) and it seems intent to drown out any opposition of the oldies by the constant blare of the ever-present transistor radios or the loud roar of powerful exhaust pipes which have become symbolic of the teen tribe.

Perhaps it would be profitable to look briefly at some of the ways adults tend to respond to this teenage cult with its demands and ultimatums.

Firstly, tirades directed by baffled oldies only serve to strengthen cohesiveness, and make the teenager conclude that adults do not understand anyhow. Many adults talk to or at teenagers but rarely with them. That is, they do not convey to the young people an ounce of understanding, and since that is precisely what is most yearned for and wanted, there is no communication possible.

To put it succinctly, adults should be short on criticism and long on understanding. It all comes back again to the question of “listening”. Because the decibel noise level of the younger generation is so high, we find it difficult to realize that a large amount of it is a cover-up for quite deep feelings of personal insecurity, unsureness, the inability to cope with oneself let alone another, and the general feeling of “not-knowing-who-I-am-or-where-I-am-heading”. It is rather difficult to be conscious of this when one’s ear drums are almost splitting, but to react consistently to the mask rather than the real person with real needs is to widen the communication gap and convince the teenager he could never share his real feelings with such a person — and that is often his most desperate need of all.

The educator who is able to “be with” rather than “talk at” the teenager is often rewarded by encountering depths of feeling and maturity he would have been proud to see in himself at the same age.

In the whole question of independence, a natural fault of the educator, especially of the parent, is not knowing when to let go.

And perhaps not only not knowing, but being unwilling to let go. Some are plagued by their own feelings of inadequacy to the extent that a large amount of love shown to children is possessive rather than freeing. The child is loved not for his own sake but because he satisfies the frustrated needs of a parent who is unable to break dependency ties because he would be faced with the realization of his own unsatisfied needs.

To know when to let go and to do so places a very great demand on the educator for emotional poise — a demand to show that greater maturity which is so often claimed, to be able to read the hidden messages of insecurity and unsureness and need for others behind a camouflage of aggressiveness and apparent self-assuredness. If we, as authority figures, can hear the real message, we will often respond in a more mellow way than if we react just to the externals. We may not even react at all, we might let the incident go over our heads. As the wise proverb says: “There is a time to speak and a time to keep silent”. If we can hear behind the abrupt “I don’t need you”, a fear of human relationships and deep doubt about self-value, we will not react in an equally gruff (and immature) fashion, but will, through our understanding response, lead the teenager to less fear of himself and increasing sureness and confidence in his own worth as a person.

The Need for Human Relationships

Our selves and our self-image are in a constant state of dynamic growth, re-moulding, adjusting, solidifying, with each new significant experience. Our present self-image is more or less a composite of past and present relationships, and we take our cues in reflecting on ourselves from what we guess other people think of us.

While in adolescence the biggest question is “Who am I?”, there are other questions that can be the source of anything from fear to ecstasy. One of these is posed with the growing awareness of genuine, adult love. The love of the child cannot be other than mainly self-centered (in the good sense), the child thrives on and is nourished by love, and its capacity to absorb the giving of another is almost inexhaustible. But one of the signs of the onset of genuine maturity is the ability to give oneself to another, genuine concern and compassion, in a word, to love.

One of the felt needs of the adolescent during this time is to be involved with people, to be where the action is. He wants to try out some of his new feelings, and he even wants to try out this new self he can feel emerging to see how it goes down. So he needs a wide variety of personal relationships (albeit prudently guided by the educator) so that he can bounce his emerging self off others and see how they like it. And through this dynamic give-and-take he begins to form his own image of who he is and what he is worth.

Of all the relationships of this phase, the most significant and important by far are those of the home, and the nature of the relationships existing in the family is the major factor in determining the direction and depth of personality growth during adolescence. The parents are the key figures in the life of the maturing person, and nature has intended a very special place for all the love and care and warmth the parents shower on the child. The maturing person needs to experience the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of the home to come to a mature awareness of his own lovableness and self-worth and so be able to stand on his own two feet and face the world squarely. In this sense we need the love of others, especially our families, to become ourselves.

The lack of this love, with its inevitable consequences of low self-esteem and self-worth, explains many teenage behavioural aberrations. They are often manifestly pathetic and futile attempts for acceptance.

The principle, then, that each of us needs others to become himself, is of central concern for the teenager. And the teenager who has the surest guarantee of a happy resolution of the varied human relationships at this time is the one who has experienced from both parent and educator that warmth and acceptance and understanding which precludes any need to prove to oneself or others that one is worthy of trust, worthy of respect, and worthy of love.

Value Confusion

As well as emotional instability, anti-authority feelings, and the need for human relationships, value confusion is one of the more readily apparent symptoms of adolescent identity crisis.

Because its rational powers are not yet fully developed, the child is psychologically incapable of a theoretical justification of the norms of right conduct. Consequently the values and principles it accepts and lives by are those of its educational authority figures — parents and teachers. The mature adult, on the other hand, directs his life, at least theoretically, from deep personal conviction of the rightness or wrongness of the actions in question. The end product is usually the same: neither the child nor adult steals, or injures others. But the motivation is different: for the child, exterior; for the adult, interior. That change in motivation begins at adolescence and often involves a complete rethinking and temporary rejection of many childhood values. As most of these values have been received from authority figures, these latter tend to become the straw gods who have to be dethroned, or at least moved out of the way, to create psychological space for the rethink. This attack on authority often covers all areas of life: home (“Why should I come home at midnight?”); morals (“What’s wrong with premarital sex?”); religion (“I don't believe in God anymore!”). But what this blatant and often rather aggressive rejection really means could perhaps best be paraphrased thus: “I don’t accept values anymore just because you tell me to. I want good, sound reasons why I should believe in things and do things, and many of these reasons I haven’t yet discovered.” And if we could dare to complete the sentence for the young person it would be: “…and could you please help me?”

Another way of expressing the same phenomenon is to say that the adolescent, as it were, puts his learned values in the deep freeze to see if they are the ones he wishes to accept as guiding principles for his life. If the already acquired childhood value-system is sound, we usually witness in late-teens and early adulthood times, the gradual re-emergence of these same values, but now as part of a personal interior motivation and not the furniture of the environment. This stage of value rethinking usually causes more traumas for the parent or educator than for the teenager — presuming of course that the former are not so disinterested as to adopt a laissez-faire, couldn’t-care-less attitude not unusual today. The most common fault of educators is that of over-reaction, of mistaking what are perfectly normal and healthy developmental signs as indications of incipient delinquency and of using moral and even physical pressure to force conformity to learned standards.

What is a healthy attitude for the adult to try to take (“try”, because it is very difficult to sit on the sidelines when one’s charge seems about to commit moral suicide)?

Firstly, the educator must realize that sooner or later the adolescent will and must take responsibility for his own life, and it is contrary to sound developmental principles to postpone that time in the unrealistic hope that over-protection will somehow or other breed moral maturity. The adult who has not thought through on a relatively personalized and deep level the principles of right conduct remains morally infantile and can scarcely be expected to survive even minor challenges to his personal integrity.

Secondly, perhaps the initial reaction of the educator should be to encourage such questioning as a sign of approaching adult responsibility, while at the same time emphasizing the seriousness of the quest in terms of responsibility that must be borne ultimately by the individual himself for his chosen moral convictions.

Finally, the educator should attempt to convey to the teenager his genuine desire to be a companion in the search, to assist actively, or merely to be there if that seems best. And if the relationship prior to this time has been one of trust and warmth and acceptance, such an attitude can be a great source of strength for the teen in his search for a deeper and more real self-identity.

Two contemporary factors make this teen quest for values particularly acute. The first is that perhaps never before have so many traditional social and moral structures been questioned and/or discarded with such readiness. In itself this is neither good nor bad, but it does have the effect of leaving the questioning teenager without many of the props and unbroken traditions which in the past automatically excluded certain acts and behaviour as taboo.

And secondly, there is undoubtedly a certain credibility gap between teenagers today and the adult world. The adolescent is very quick to perceive a lack of genuineness and authentic behaviour in the adult, and this inauthenticity is probably one of the predominant sicknesses of our age, whether in the sphere of private family and marital life, the business world, or the stage of international politics.

Value-Acceptance and the Maturation of Conscience

The gradual achievement of self-identity and personal maturation is closely associated with the slow but sure building up of a personal value system. This value system, through careful modification and refinement, assumes more and more importance in the life of the individual, becoming the arbiter for practical moral actions.

How is this value system built up, or, more precisely, by what norm or norms does the adolescent tend to accept some values and reject others?

In brief, as they begin to pass through and out of the more critical times of developmental crisis and achieve a more stable personal identity, adolescents and teenagers accept as positive values to guide their lives by, those they experience as good, as fulfilling, as making them better as people, as answering their problems and their frustrations and their needs.

Thus values, whether religious or secular, if presented to adolescents in an over-theoretical, removed-from-real-life, abstract context have very little effect on the positive formation of the maturing personality.

About the Author

Dr Peter Cantwell obtained M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Washington, and was a post-graduate scholar at the University of Munich in 1967. At the time of publication on this website (2013), he is in private practice in Melbourne and is on the staff of the Counselling and Therapy program at Swinburne University of Technology. He is a clinical member of the Australian Association of Family Therapists and a member of the APS College of Counselling Psychologists.

This article was originally published in the Journal of The Helen Vale Foundation, Volume 1, Number 3, 1977. (Published on web site: November 2013).