Adolescence is the phase in life in which every individual experiences profound transformations that affect the body, the identity and all the relationships engaged in by the teenager.
The timing of this journey that ferries an adolescent from childhood to adulthood, varies from adolescent to adolescent.
The teenager is unclear about what is happening to them, but feels overwhelmed by the unsure journey that their body and head have embarked upon, a journey from which they cannot escape.
The teenager’s body is inhabited by new impulses and desires but, at the same time, it is gripped by doubts and fears, even and especially for their future.
The teenager faces a world of immense possibilities and all without limits. Yet, the absence of any certainties and limits is also an exhausting endeavor as one must figure out how to move forward in uncertain circumstances.
This set of events generates within the adolescent internal confusion that can be seen in the disorder and shambles in which they live in their spaces, such as their bedroom, closets, and lifestyle.
The biological pressures to which an adolescent feels unintentionally subject to require the teenager to change their life and face new tasks in numerous areas. Everything that until a few days before had been experienced as normal, is now being questioned: one’s body and how to wear clothing, the relationships one shares with parents, peers, love relationships, the choices one makes in lifestyle, outings, and schedules. The adolescent begins to come into contact with their sexual being through the gaze of others: parents, peers, teachers who like a mirror translate into words the physical novelties that make their appearance. The new look then continues at home with the discovery of the mirror in the bathroom of which the teenager makes great use. Body changes are welcomed by the adolescent but with conflicting attitudes as they can trigger difficult feelings to live with such as shame and inadequacy. In this work of building their new body image the teenager also includes the redefinition of their canons of beauty and ugliness from which will derive in part the development of their self-confidence. Boys train their muscles because they no longer want to look like children but build a body like men. Girls experiment with new haircuts and tricks to enhance their new appearance and femininity. Excessive use of makeup, however, can identify a girl who is prone to wanting to mask her frailties. Other manipulations on the body, visible to the world, are tattoos, piercings which expressly are used by teenager to convey a very personal message. This manipulation of their body may not represent a sign of protest against the parents but rather, it can be a message that their bodies no longer belong to their parents and that they are exerting personal choices on how they want their body to be seen.
In this search for a new identity the teenager needs to research, sift through, process and redefine their values. There is a strong need to question family values since the adolescent no longer wants to be influenced by them. Redefining one’s family values is then carried out without the teenager wanting to talk to their parents about them. Next the adolescent will need to test new modes of the expression of their identities, and here comes into play the importance of the adolescents friend of the heart and the group of peers who go precisely to fill the space where before there were parents. Friends work perfectly as an intermediate social area between the family and the outside world, a kind of world other where the teenager can find on the one hand family security and on the other experience the new. Membership in a friend group is often enshrined through the use of the same clothing that usually refers to an idol. Friends do not serve as a way for the adolescent to go against the adults, but rather, friends are an important emotional support allowing teenager freedom to explore new situations, ideas and thoughts that concern the redefinition of the teenager’s evolving sense of identity and personal values. When the teenager is unable to relate to his peers their refuge into virtual reality comes into play. In virtuality remote relationships replace close relationships that have been experienced as too risky because they require physical exposure, courage and self-worth that are still too lacking. Distance relationships can also be a good relationship gym as long as they don’t become the teenager’s only safe haven.
Another very important step for the adolescent is the transformation of the relationship with parents. With them, especially with the mother, a second separation takes place after that occurred in childbirth. The teenager no longer looks at their parents in the same way that they saw them in childhood. The idealization of parents finishes in adolescence, allowing the adolescent to see their parents as real and human, and with all of their merits and defects. At the same time that parents are absorbed in the difficult task of processing the disappearance of their little child so is the teenager mourning the loss of both his idealized parents and of himself as a child.
The teenager, during adolescence, claim the right to be himself, by asserting a new identity. They no longer want to be the complacent and respectful child that they once were. Instead they want to know everything, to discuss everything, and to express their thoughts, disapproval or even disobedience to what their parents say in a concrete way, often even with arrogant tones or unusual behaviours that affect different aspects of their life such as in their clothing, study, and rhythms of life. If parents aren’t ready to change the relational games and the demands they make to the teen, the risk of high levels of conflict becomes real. In addition parental relationships which attempt to use strength in their relationship to have power over their teenager can be highly counterproductive. Instead it is more effective for parents to abandon the way they once worked with their child and to renegotiate and find compromises with the new needs of the teenager, thereby lowering the level of control over him and giving him greater confidence and responsibility while tolerating the fears that they have about the teenager’s use of this new freedom. The provocations, attitudes and behaviors of the adolescent that parents often live as hostile, should be reframed as attempts by their child to separate themselves from them by seeking their own affirmation and identity. The purpose of this attitude by teenagers is therefore not to be against adults but rather to assert themselves. The teenager desperately wants to escape the control of their parents. Even passivity on the adolescent’s part can be seen as an affirmation, although distorted. The teenager, afraid to face reality, fights being passive by exerting control over themself as they do not yet have the power to actually transform the environment in which they live.
In adolescence there are no half measures, it oscillates between black and white as grey does not yet exist. Therefore the teenager may experience some difficulties such as dramatic impossibility. In some particularly serious cases the thought of taking your own life may emerge as the only solution to stop your suffering, to stop you from being disappointed and to stop you from disappointing your parents. This dramatic experience is never to be underestimated and often has to do with a strong feeling of powerlessness and inability to face one’s own reality, with the fear of getting involved, taking risks or even failing.
In the process of separation from the parents, the adolescent, precisely to distinguish even more, makes great use of originality and diversity. They have a need to explore and experiment in the world, doing it alone, without sharing it with their parents. These explorations, discoveries, challenges belong only to themselves; they are private, secret, sometimes transgressive to what parents think. For example, the silences regarding what adolescent do in their life, the closed door of their room, the lies they tell all demonstrate the beginning of their need to have a secret area for themselves, different from how it was when as a child everything was shared with parents. The teenager must also prove to themselves that they are able to keep things private, tolerating this new relational space connoted by separation from parents. Once the teenager will feel more structured, his need to tell lies will decrease. This is because he will feel more forceful to support his point of view in the relationship with the other.
The emotional divestment of the parenting couple paves the way for the teenager to search for new loves. The adolescent faces the important task of defining their gender identity. Specifically, what kind of man or woman does he or she want to become, what individuals will he or she want to mate with and what types of relationship will he or she want to establish with them. They will need to explore, taste and invest in the new couple that he or she will form. A couple who will be born when the teenager encounters a look that will recall those ancient feelings of love, of care lived with the mother in childhood but this time without feeling the same level of dependency as it used to be. Teenage love also has a special meaning precisely because it conveys the need for development of both the two teens involved. These love relationships serve the teenager for the construction of their own self.
The teenager is a little bit like Christopher Columbus who has embarked on his own journey without knowing the final destination. They left a safe harbor, the family, because they absolutely needed to get overboard, they could not do without it. This biological instinct conflicts with the need for dependency, security, belonging, and pampering from their original world to which occasionally they still need to retreat. On this journey the teenager encounters seas that are sometimes stormy and sometimes calm, climates of various kinds to which they will be more or less prepared. All conditions that well tell of the fatigue of the inner journey that the teenager is making, the successes achieved or the disappointments to face without, hopefully, being crushed. The teenager needs to feel that parents understand this journey of research and self-discovery and that they participate by offering emotional support but also a distance that needs to be defined moment by moment. Parents must be able to welcome the new social state of their teen by saying goodbye to their little child that was. Parents may sometimes find themselves disoriented by their child’s changes and sometimes excessive behaviors. Or they may find that teens can manifest a very strong discomfort during their growth journey. To understand the meaning of what is happening parents can resort to a psychotherapist who will first try to understand how the relationship between the teenager and his parents is structured. The analyst will then try to reorient the parents’ gaze towards their child by leading them to understand the deep meaning of the adolescent’s behaviors and how these move them to act like they do. The most incomprehensible, unreasonable and excessive behaviors convey a message that must be translated to the parents so that they don’t fall into the trap of engaging in strong ineffective counter reactions or power plays with their teen.
Even the adolescent’s body can become the home of great conflict with parents or with the hardships of growth he is facing, as it happens with anorexia and bulimia. Many of the teen’s bodily discomforts express the deep anguish that they experience as they attempt to disengage from their historically familiar and known world without yet having anything new and solid to anchor to. It is important that parents remain open to dialogue with their teens, to understand the profound meanings of what is happening to them on their difficult journey to individuation. Parents who will be asked to come to terms with their own adolescent journey.
The therapeutic work offered to a teenager and, separately, if needed with parents can be thought as the construction of a space to think, a place where the experience of the adolescent can be shared and elaborated. In order for the teen not to stop for too long in the same port but rather to continue his journey in the discovery of the Americas.