Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Teen Agers and Us


November 2006
by Christella Pellé-Douel for Psychologies magazine



How can we peacefully watch our own child becoming handsome and having a sex life? " When we say teenagers have a strange behavior, states Serge Hefez, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, we're talking about ourselves, of our fear of growing old, of how anguished we are to be separated from these future adults. This goes for everybody: the media, institutions, therapists..." And this fear expresses itself through negative judgments, violent rejection of teenagers, what Philippe Gutton, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the manager of the quarterly publication " Adolescence " honestly calls " adult provocation."

If we add to this we're demanding that teens be healthy, be interested in everything, don't get angry and be successful students- in short that they correspond fully to what an adult expects, neglecting their emerging expression of their individuality and individuation-, clashes and misunderstandings are round the corner. Jasmine, aged 19, is a good example: " My parents are divorced. Until I was 14, everything was rather going fine and normally...My stepmother was quite nice. And then I grew up really fast. In one year, I was 176 centimeters tall and had a big bosom. My stepmother's attitude changed completely. She became aggressive, she'd make comments about my clothes, my friends...My father pretended not to know anything about it. I couldn't stand it, I didn't want to spend the weekend at his place anymore. And of course, this caused massive fights with my mother. So I locked myself in my room, I didn't want to talk to them any longer, and my work was disastrous at high school..."

Indeed the eruption of sexuality in children's bodies and psyche provokes a deep change in parents. According to
Philippe Gutton, Serge Hefez, Françoise Marty and many other psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, this notion is crucial
: " Noone can escape this disruption of relationships, whether the change is conscious or not. " insists Serge Gutton,
author of Moi, violent ? ( = Me, violent ? ). This explains adults' ambivalent attitude: their desire to continue to view
the teenager as a child while unconsciously creating a relationship based on rivalry and hatred. Serge Hefez
symbolizes this using the story of Snow White, victim of a stepmother willing to make the young girl disappear in
order to remain handsome.


Adolescence is a time during which youngsters create their ego, an independent ego, different from their parents'
one. It's so deep a change that P. Gutton compares it to the artistic creation process. The presence of this new
person within the family is similar to the arrival of an intrusive stranger, who would come without being invited.
But where has the child we brought up and were so close to gone? He imposes a strange behavior, tries to wear
new clothes or changes his hairdo, becomes unpleasant, doesn't hold himself properly, keeps on giggling and
listens to his music full blast. These actions are viewed as provocations by the adults surrounding the teenager -
the brothers and sisters accept those changes which can amuse or irritate them, they never see it as a
provocation meant to make them put their attitude in doubt.

Language also becomes an expression of this research. " Incapable of putting his feelings into words, the
teenager tries to twist the meaning of words he used until now, explains P.Gutton. Whereas an adult wants
the exact meaning of words to cover the chaos he hears. " So " the misunderstanding " arises. Maxime, aged 16,
laughs about it: " I love to talk very fast on the phone using slang with my mates in front of my parents. It's
too cool, it annoys them. " Juliette, aged 14, can't stand being obliged to use " old-fashioned " language with
her family. " I like to speak normally, as we do. But when I tell my mother: " you're so cool ", my father corrects
me : " Talk properly! " He shouts etc... It's too sad."

Here's the paradox: teens test, try, seek, go backwards and forwards, create their ego by becoming unapproachable,
mysterious and referring constantly to topics unknown to adults. However, they seek the proof of their own existence,
of their ego by being deliberately misunderstood and provocative. They need to obtain a response, a reaction, a
resistance which enables them to check if the changing process is occurring. And they need to find out why
they're strangers to themselves : to them, this change is thought provocative and they feel " familiarly strange " if we
want to use the surrealists' expression.


This doesn't mean adults must become too close and develop an eternal " understanding " which is a source of anguish
for teens. Indeed, Oriane, aged 15, wears the same clothes as her mother for alleged financial reasons. The young girl
is dreaming of a " bit of shelf for me, with my own things." Adults mustn't become too rigid either by pretexting
teenagers need solid " bearings " but, on the contrary, try to find common interests and exchanges.

How can we give the teen the support he needs while giving him the opportunity to go backwards and forwards, a
necessary stage he must go through to seek his ego ( he connects with the family-he connects outside of his family. ) ?
How can we avoid leaving him alone and locking him up? How can we be flexible enough so that this major change due
to puberty occurs? There is no ready answer. But the specialists all agree on this: adults must stop a loving relationship
during which they cannot distinguish between themselves and their child, mustn't project their desires on their teenagers,
find the appropriate distance ( neither too close nor too far ), mustn't feel they're the cause - therefore feel guilty - of
all their child's difficulties. They are inescapable and necessary. They're part of the learning process. Teens are beings
who are not understood by adults. It's normal and that's the way we should want it to be. The change happens all
the more peacefully if the adults surrounding the teens refuse to label them...which makes the youngsters provoke adults.

It's not easy...but it's worth it. Don't ask intrusive questions but be willing to have a conversation about the news for
example or about how teens express themselves to refuse their teachers' authority...According to S. Hefez, " teenagers
expect adults to talk about a lot of things with them: politics, their own memories of their youth...At this stage, the teen
is using constructive language to socialize. A teen who talks about today's problems, the news, who seeks conversation -
even if it's in a confrontational way- is a teen who's well. " Because adolescence is also this wonderful period of life
during which everything happens for the first time, the period of a new outlook on the world, when everything is possible,
when feelings are pure ( they haven't been affected by time yet ), when sensations are strong and so is thoughtlessness.
Teens give us the opportunity to reconnect with this hidden part of ourselves, to come back to where we came from
without being envious or nostalgic about our early years. Let's not be afraid of them and that will help them grow.

Article translated by Anne-Marie Barré, Rennes, France

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