This last blog I am going to do on adolescence looks at the final years of this age group. As I have highlighted in my previous blogs in order to grow into an adult your child has to begin to be able to manage the world as an independent person. This will involve them needing to leave the intense emotional relationship with parents which has been a vital part of childhood and early teens. This will allow a space to open up for other relationships to develop with partners, university and the world of work. University needs more independence and maturity to manage but it is the movement into the world of work which requires the biggest shift as the young person leaves the world of education and steps into the work place where self-motivation, managing authority and discipline, and working with others has to be tolerated and embraced. If all is well these are the years when you begin to see this process being realised. In these blogs I have been thinking about how in order to do this the child has to begin to develop a mind of their own. In this blog I am going to continue to think about this. How can this happen? How can your child begin to have a mind which moves from dependence to independence?
All through their life children are taking in a model of parenting, this will have been coloured by their personality and other parental figures that the child loves and admires, maybe teachers, maybe grandparents but it will be a model of parenting none the less. By the time children hit 17 years they have to be able to use this internalised model to take care of themselves, to look after themselves in the world outside the home. Many young people will have a model which is based on parents who can tolerate emotions and who use both their emotions and their logic to make measured and thoughtful decisions. If they can carry this model with them then they will feel able to face the future with a hopeful expectation that the world is manageable and they can tackle any difficulties they might face. Some young people, particularly if the child has had a difficult experience of parenting or has had a good experience but has internalised it in a skewed way, may not feel their internal model is so robust or flexible. If this is the case this model will be difficult to rely on and this can make the idea of becoming an independent adult feel impossible. In these cases your adolescent may increasingly retreat from friends, back into their family and in some cases may suffer a breakdown.
In order to move to independence there is much that will have to be mourned. Firstly the loss of childhood has to be mourned for both parents and the young person. It is a time when the young person has to let go of their parents but also parents have to let go of their children, allow them to find their own way, make their own mistakes and have the opportunity to resolve their own difficulties. For the young person the loss of childhood means the loss of having someone who protects you from the outside world, who helps you negotiate the world around you, who provides for you physically and emotionally. These losses all have to be mourned.
Secondly children and adolescents have to let go of and mourn the loss of an idealised version of themselves. Children and adolescents will have had a view of themselves through life which may not have equated to reality. This view, particularly If it is a long way from reality becomes increasingly difficult to hold onto as independence and adulthood are approached, for example there may be a dawning realisation that their singing voice is not going to be good enough to allow them to be a pop star, or they will never play for their favourite football team or their grades are not going to be good enough to train to be a vet. This might initially lead to feelings of disillusionment which has to be worked through. Having a helpful parent or teacher around who has not been carried away by this self- idealisation can be very helpful in assisting the young person to come to terms with the loss of who they thought they were and to help them see realistically who they might become. ‘I might not be able to do this as well as I thought but I am good at this’. This is not just a letting go of an idealisation about what you might achieve concretely but also who you are. Because children and early adolescents have been so entwined and protected by their relationship with their parents it has been very easy for them to deny their own difficult feelings – something like:’ I know I was angry but it is nothing to do with me, it is caused by my parents getting it wrong’ or ‘I am the nicest person in the world it is my friends who are mean and selfish’. Developing insight into who they are is essential if they are going to be able to make the most of your adult life and if a child can be helped to develop this insight before they hit adulthood this is going to help them move into adulthood more easily.
One of the most significant aspects of this part of adolescence is a desire to find a mate. The group, which has been an essential part of helping your child, to begin to establish their independence, a kind of half-way house, becomes less important. This age group is now more truly independent and able to stand on their own two feet. Up to this point there has been a lot of interest and experimentation with relationships, a finding out who you are and who you are interested in, a playing around the edges of relationships but for many young people in this age bracket there is a move to something more serious and long term. For the first time the sexual will become part of intimate relationships. This has never happened before as the sexual world is not a part of a child’s actual family relationships.
For some young people the idea of adulthood is very frightening and one way of managing this is to become an adult by suddenly acting in a way that they believe is adult. It is a kind of dressing up in adult’s clothes rather than having an internal and hard won maturity. It is a kind of pseudo-adulthood. The difficulty is that without the internal maturity the young person will struggle to become truly independent.
What to do as the parent of an adolescent?
- A wise parent will already have started to let go of their children, gradually giving them more responsibility and freedom, trying to help them problem solve rather than just rescuing them, physically and emotionally. If you have not you need to start now. If you do not know how get help.
- Encourage independence wherever possible; do not make decisions for them but encourage them to make decisions for themselves. By all means talk it through with them or if you feel you struggle not to jump in and take charge, encourage them to speak to a family friend, or uncle or aunt who you know is particularly good with this area.
- Fathers are generally better at helping children to separate and become more independent. If this is true of your family then: Dad’s step up. Mum’s step back!
- If your child is retreating back into the family then keep an eye on them. This is a natural response if your child has had a particularly bad time, i.e. the breakup of an important relationship, but if it persists gets them some help.
- Your child should be beginning to be getting a more realistic view of themselves by this age but if the idealisation persists do seek help.
- I know it is difficult but do not try and rescue or absorb or distract your child from their difficult emotional experiences. This applies to any age but particularly this age. Part of growing up is being able to manage your own emotional state, whether good or bad.
- If your child has remained preoccupied with you as their parents rather than beginning to move into the outside world do get them help.
As you may be aware I have suggested in most of my above points that you or your child seeks help from outside the home. This is because by the very nature of this age group they should not be relying on parents but finding a way to resolve their own difficulties which does not include parents. Do seek help from someone who has training with this age group and is aware of the particular developmental tasks which they are struggling with. Someone who has trained as a Clinical Psychologist and has experience of providing help to adolescence or an ACP registered psychotherapist will both have in depth training with this age group.