Title Page

1 Beginnings: A vision for the teenage years

2 The wisdom of the teenage years

3 ‘Whose life am I living?’ A key question for parents

4 The importance of parents parenting themselves

5 Some key dimensions of the parenting of teenagers

6 Expressing individuality: A key process in the teenage years

7 The importance of boundaries in the parent-teenager relationship

8 Teenage sexual self-expression

9 Teenagers in the holding world of education

10 Teenagers who are troubled and troublesome

11 What most alarms: Teenage addictions

12 What most alarms: Teenage psychiatric labels

13 What most alarms: Teenage depression, shyness, self-harming, suicide attempts and suicide

14 Endings: Letting go and leave-taking



Also by Tony Humphreys and Helen Ruddle

Copyright Page

About the Authors

About Gill & Macmillan


Beginnings: A vision for the teenage years

Adolescence is about starting the process of becoming independent and self-reliant and, depending on the young person’s experiences in infancy and childhood, the teenage years can be a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows or a relatively smooth ride into maturity.

It is important to distinguish between being an adult and being mature; it is not the passing of years per se that brings about independence and self-reliance, and being of adult years is no guarantee of maturity. Children who move into their adolescent years with considerable fears, insecurities and doubts about their worth will find facing the challenges involved - emotional, social, sexual, intellectual, educational and career – very difficult. These adolescents will find powerful and creative ways of postponing or avoiding these challenges; they may be ‘wild’ in their presenting behaviours. Parents, teachers, and other concerned adults may view with alarm the young person’s seemingly irresponsible and difficult behaviours, but it is the adult who possesses maturity, who will see a deeper reality that needs to be resolved for the troubled, and troubling, young people to progress towards self-realisation.

A belief that will echo throughout this book is that young people who present with challenging and difficult responses are not out to make life difficult for others, but they are trying to show how difficult life is for them; they are being ‘wise’. Attention to what lies hidden behind their distressing responses is what is required for these teenagers to begin to make the progress towards mature adulthood that they, in their wisdom, want to make.

Regrettably, often the very adults who are best placed to respond to the wise manifestations of these teenagers are not in a mature place themselves. Adults who are in turmoil themselves cannot recognise the underlying wisdom and tend to respond to adolescents’ troubling responses with blame, exasperation, aggression, over-protection, ridicule and, perhaps, denial. All of these responses mirror the inner insecurities of the adults and, sadly, their defensive responses serve only to escalate the distress being experienced by the young people around them. In this situation, teenagers will rightly feel that adults do not understand them and they are pushed further into seeking comfort and protection from their often equally troubled peers. Of course, what the teenagers cannot yet consciously see is that those parents, teachers and other adults who respond defensively to them need as much, and often more, understanding and help than the teenagers themselves.

This book seeks to help parents, and other significant adults in the lives of teenagers, to uncover the wisdom beneath troubled and troublesome behaviours exhibited by young people. The first step always is for the adults to become consciously aware of their own troubled and troublesome responses and to seek resolution of their own inner insecurities.

A not uncommon response on the part of parents, and other adults such as teachers, is to seek a psychiatric or psychological label for young people’s challenging behaviours. The most common labels include attention deficit disorder, attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, Asperger syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and dyslexia. The assumption is that these syndromes have their source in biochemical, neurological or genetic factors, and treatment often involves medication. But parents, and other concerned adults, need to be aware that there are other approaches to challenging behaviours that differ greatly from the ‘disorder’ model; approaches that focus on the overall psychosocial context of the young person’s life. This book is based on the latter model and adopts the stance that all behaviour has meaning and purpose when understood in the context of the person’s life story and the network of relationships in which she or he is involved. This book rests on psychological foundations that recognise that insecurities and vulnerabilities have their source in early relationships and, accordingly, it is through relationships that resolution occurs.

There is research to show that between 20-25 per cent of adolescents experience considerable undetected turmoil. Ironically, it is often their

peers who recognise their fears and insecurities but peers are not in a position to provide what the young person most wants – unconditional love. In this book, we provide guidelines on the kind of unconditionally loving relating that children and young people need, in the various holding worlds of which they are part, if they are to feel safe to give open and real, rather than defensive, expression to the different dimensions of self – emotional, intellectual, behavioural, physical, sexual, social, creative and spiritual. The term ‘holding world’ refers to the network of relationships within a particular social context – starting with the womb and extending into family community, school, workplace and wider society. When adult, your own relationship with yourself becomes the ultimate holding world.

The manifestations of adolescent insecurity that tend to most distress parents are those that can be described as ‘acting-out’ behaviours; the most common examples of which include:

• argumentativeness

• verbal aggression

• physical violence

• refusal to co-operate

• school phobia, school refusal, school dropout

• lack of educational motivation

• self-harming

• suicidal thoughts

• anorexia nervosa, bulimia, over-eating

• non-conformist clothing

• body piercing, tattoos

• drug taking

• drunkenness

• stealing

• emotional withdrawal

• social withdrawal

• shyness

• self-consciousness

• constant rebelliousness

• sexual activity inappropriate for their age.

What parents and other adults often miss is that those adolescents who are over-dedicated to their studies, who thrive on success and who dread failure, who ‘keep their head down’ and never cause any trouble – adolescents who can be described as ‘acting-in’ their turmoil – are often more at risk than their ‘acting-out’ peers by missing out on vital emotional and social aspects of adolescent development. Sadly, because the ‘acting-in’ behaviours of conformity, addiction to success, and attempts to gain recognition through performance and achievements do not pose threats to the worlds of parents and teachers, these flags of inner turmoil are often flown in vain. Another flag of inner distress often flown in vain by young people is illness; illness usually being responded to solely in physical ways without recognition of the equally important need for emotional responsiveness.

In this book, we seek to help adults understand that every teenager has a unique life-story and that the protective strategies a particular teenager develops will match perfectly the particular circumstances of that life-story; flags of distress can look very different from one teenager to another – some will be of an ‘acting-in’ nature, some of an ‘acting-out’ nature and some will involve physical embodiment.

The book emphasises that in responding to teenagers’ challenging behaviours, parents, teachers and other adults need to appreciate that no matter how difficult the young person’s behaviour, it is creative and always makes sense. Appreciation of the wisdom of what is often termed ‘problematic’ behaviour by itself goes a long way towards helping the young person to resolve what is troubling him or her. Reactions such as judgement, condemnation, labelling, blaming or throwing up one’s arms in despair, only pose further threats in the already unsafe holding world that is contributing to the adolescent turmoil. Parents, and other adults, are in a better position to respond with understanding and compassion when they understand and recognise the wisdom and meaning of their own defensive responses.

An important consideration when responding to the challenging behaviours of adolescents is to evaluate whether the presenting behaviours are ‘new’ or ‘persistent’. It is inevitable that teenagers will experience ‘new’ difficulties as they become part of wider holding worlds. Most of these difficulties will resolve themselves through experiences of trial and error, peer support, the passage of time, and the encouragement and support of adults, particularly parents and teachers. When the difficulties are of a ‘persistent’ nature - stretching back into childhood and continuing into adolescence – then it is a more serious matter that urgently requires compassionate and determined responsiveness. Attention, too, needs to be given to the frequency, intensity, duration and persistence over time of the challenging responses (this also applies to the behaviours of the significant adults in their lives). For example, the adolescent who steals several times in a week needs considerably more help than the one who has only ever stolen once. The amount stolen is an important mirror of the teenager’s hidden distress as is the answer to the question: how long has this stealing being going on – six months, a year or several years? In terms of aggression or sulking or withdrawal or other such symptoms, the question of how long the response endures in the presenting situation is an important clue to the level of distress – is it one minute, five minutes, an hour, several hours, a day, a week, a month?

In helping young people progress down the path to maturity, we propose that there are certain understandings that all adults, but particularly parents, teachers and other significant adults – for example, grandparents, club leaders, sports trainers – need to have; the more important of which include:

• the nature of the self and the development of self-esteem, both in oneself and in children and adolescents

• the wise purposes of the various stages that teenagers go through

• the crucial process of finding realness and authenticity

• the key factors involved in the preparation of young people for adult maturity

• the adult defensive behaviours that pose threats to the wellbeing of young people

• the issues that adults who are troubled and troubling need to resolve

• the identification of the signs of inner distress during the teenage years

• the best ways to respond to ‘new’ and ‘persistent’ teenage problems in living

• the wisdom and creativity of what traditionally have been known as ‘problems’, ‘maladaptive behaviours’ or ‘dysfunctions’ but what are more accurately seen as ‘substitute’ (as opposed to real) responses to threats to wellbeing

• the nature of parental ‘letting go’ of young adult children, and teenagers’ ‘leave-taking’ of their parents.

This book emphasises that the nature of the relationship that the parent, teacher or other significant adult has with the young person is critical to the resolution of any presenting difficulties. Indeed, the very source of the young person’s distress may very well be the nature of the relationships experienced with significant adults. The helping relationship needs to be unconditionally loving, compassionate, non-judgemental, empathic and genuine. It is consistent relating of this kind that creates the safety for the young person to begin to consciously identify what is troubling him or her and, with the support and encouragement of parents, teachers and, where necessary, a counsellor, to seek resolution of what has lain hidden. It is almost always the case that parents need to reflect on their own ways of relating to themselves, to each other and to each of their children. Parents do well to hold on to the reality that each child in a family has a different mother and a different father and that children are ingenious in developing their own individual and creative responses to the kind of relating they experience from each of their parents.

In this book, we emphasise that the creation of ‘safe holding’ – essentially unconditionally loving relating – is an integral part of the parenting and educating of children. This ‘holding’ needs to be there for the various expressions of self – physical, sexual, emotional, social, intellectual, behavioural and creative. The nature of safe holding for these different expressions is examined, so that adults who have responsibilities towards young people can engage in best practice of these responsibilities. Essentially, safe holding involves the creation of patient, nurturing, secure, encouraging and non-threatening responses to the young person’s self-expressions. It will be clear in the book that such holding is not a licence for young people to do what they like, but a development of responsible freedom. A useful rule of thumb with regard to the development of responsible self-expression is that ‘the more responsibility shown, the more freedom given’. Many young people resent the fact that parents are responsible for their total welfare up to their eighteenth year and need – and deserve – to know where they are, whom they are with, what they are doing and what time they will be home. When adolescents do not co-operate with the responsibilities of parents, the parents need to maintain very definite boundaries around their own wellbeing; a challenge that can seem daunting but is in fact an act of love that, as this book shows, is attainable.

The book is structured so that each chapter stands on its own, enabling the reader to focus in on specific issues that may arise in their own and in their teenagers’ lives:

• The wisdom of the processes taking place in adolescence (Chapter 2)

• Parents’ own sense of self (Chapter 3)

• Parents parenting themselves (Chapter 4)

• Key dimensions of the parenting of teenagers (Chapter 5)

• Creating safety for the expression of individuality (Chapter 6)

• The creation of boundaries with teenagers (Chapter 7)

• Safe holding for teenagers in their sexual expression (Chapter 8)

• Safe holding for teenagers in the school holding world (Chapter 9)

• Responding to teenagers who are troubled and troubling (Chapter 10)

• Responding to teenage addictions (Chapter 11)

• Responding to teenager given a psychiatric label (Chapter 12)

• Responding to teenage depression, extreme shyness, self-harming and suicide (Chapter 13)

• Creating safe holding for teenagers to leave the nest and for their parents to let them go (Chapter 14).

Whilst this book is primarily directed towards parents, teachers, counsellors and other adults who have charge over young people, it is a book that older adolescents certainly could read, not only to enlighten themselves on what the passage through adolescence is all about, but also to assess to what degree their parents and other significant adults have achieved a strong sense of self, a solid interior life and strong sense of self-realisation.


The wisdom of the teenage years

• The challenge of independence

• Stages on the way to independence

• ‘Adults know nothing’: A wise illusion of teenagers

• Being your real self: A key challenge for teenagers

• Threats for teenagers against being their real selves

• How parents can help teenagers find the safety to be real

• Teenagers want to belong

The challenge of independence

With the coming of the teenage years, a young person starts to move out from the earlier, narrower holding worlds of childhood into the wider worlds of education, friendship, community and, possibly, work. This move into wider worlds brings with it many new challenges and possible threats, but adolescence is also the time when the person has the possibility of starting the process of independence – starting the process where the self becomes the ultimate holding world.

In her early years, the child is completely dependent on the adults in her life – particularly her parents. Clearly, the child is dependent physically but at a more profound level the child is dependent on her parents for love, visibility, recognition and a sense of her capability; she is dependent on her parents for safe holding ‘to be’ in the world. The child, from very early on, will already have had an unconscious awareness of any threats present in her holding worlds; she will have learned how ‘to be’ for her parents, how ‘to fit around’ them – this may involve rebellion, but the parents are still at the centre of the child’s life. The child will have developed her own particular protective strategies for managing whatever threats were experienced; she will have developed a ‘screen self’ that has enabled her to fit with, and have a sense of belonging with, the most important people in her life – her parents, on whom she is utterly dependent to know her worth, lovability and capability. Depending on the nature of these early relationships, a child’s screen self will manifest how much of her real self is emotionally safe for her to show.

With the coming of adolescence and the move into wider holding worlds, the young person need no longer be so dependent on her parents in order to know consciously who she really is – a person who is unconditionally lovable, powerful and unique. The crucial process in the teenage years is about starting to become your own person; it is about becoming independent; it is about taking responsibility for yourself and your own actions; it is about finding the safety to be true to yourself, to be authentic. It is important to recognise that the teenager is only at the beginning of what is, in effect, a life-long process. Becoming independent does not happen simply with the passing of years; indeed, there are many adults who are not in a solid place of self-realisation and realness. Sadly, neither are such adults – parents, teachers, others in charge of young people – in a mature place to guide young people towards establishing independence and self-realisation. Clearly, when teenagers do not have adults in their lives who model maturity, it is difficult for them to make progress towards independence. The reality is that the very people teenagers need to support and aid them in their pursuit of independence are often struggling for independence themselves. It is unusual for a young person to find a model of independence among her peer group and so the co-dependent relationships that have been part and parcel of family and school life are repeated with peers.

Young people have a dawning consciousness of the challenges that face them as they trek the terrain of their teenage years and, wisely, they usually approach these challenges in a staged manner. The challenges are primarily concerned with finding their own particular ways of giving open and real expression to the several dimensions of self – emotional, physical, behavioural, intellectual, social, sexual and creative. The fact that the central challenge in adolescence is about finding realness and authenticity is often missed by parents and teachers, who overemphasise academic and career progress to the detriment of the more profound challenges young people face.

The onset of adolescence is marked outwardly by physical changes; the more obvious being breast development and menstruation in girls, and beard development, voice breaking and wet dreams among boys. These physical changes happen automatically and are outward manifestations of the shift from childhood to adulthood. The outward physical changes enable the development of certain elements of independence but it is the inner shift – from childhood dependence on others for a sense of self to independence – that is the more crucial process.

While accommodation of physical changes can bring its own challenges, the more important challenges are concerned with changes in the inner world of a young person. A key change is that the young person is faced with letting go of the relative safety of the childhood holding worlds of home and community – primary school, church, neighbourhood – and moving into the wider and much more challenging holding worlds of adulthood – such as second-and third-level education, the workplace, and wider society. The ultimate challenge for the young person is to reach that stronghold where she looks to herself as her primary holding world. Maturity means having a sense of your own unique person, becoming self-realised, being emotionally and socially independent, establishing your own beliefs and values, carving out educational and career paths that realise your particular intellectual and creative potential, and establishing financial independence. There are also the challenges of creating friendship relationships with same and opposite gender peers, and the exploration and development of intimacy with another person.

Given the enormity of the challenges involved, it is no wonder that many teenagers create substitute behaviours – such as rebellion or withdrawal – in order to reduce their fears. Young people whose earlier holding worlds have enabled the continuous development of a strong sense of self will take on the challenges, not necessarily with ease, but certainly with determination. Those adolescents who bring lack of confidence and lack of competence from their childhood years will struggle with the demands of becoming independent and may carry these struggles into their older adult years, even into old age.

In order to meet the challenges arising from the search for realness and independence, and from participation in the wider holding worlds of adult life, young people unconsciously attempt to create opportunities to establish their independence. There is a realisation among young people that further supports beyond the family are required – a development that parents can feel threatened by – but there is also a knowing that parents’ influence is still a major factor in their lives. Of course, the nature of that influence is determined by the individual parent’s present level of maturity; parents are effective in supporting independence in their sons and daughters only to the extent to which they themselves demonstrate independence. When the road to independence has been paved from the early years of childhood, adolescents take on the extra responsibilities of adult life with relative ease. When a child has not been given age-appropriate opportunities to stand on her own two capable feet – due to being over-protected or over-controlled – then the path to independence will prove difficult.

Stages on the way to independence

There is a wonderful wisdom in the staged way that the teenager attempts to reach independence; recognition of this wisdom by parents and other significant adults is a very important support for the young person. The early stages of adolescence are marked by gender polarisation in interactions with others – boys with boys and girls with girls. This is often referred to as the gang phase or the group homosexual phase. The intelligence of this phase of the process of independence is that young people need to discover whether members of their own gender will back them up in the much wider world into which they have entered. The qualities of loyalty and co-operation come to prominence during this time. Conformity – dressing and looking the same as one another – is common during this phase. The purpose of peer conformity is to establish a group identity that is different from that of adults – the very adults from whom the adolescents need to find independence. Identifying with the group is a way, too, of a teenager postponing the much more difficult challenge of establishing her own individuality. There is always the possibility of being excluded by some of your peers, but the ‘gang’ provides the security of having others who will provide support in times of crisis. Towards the end of this gender-polarised group phase, the establishment of the ‘bosom pal’ of the same gender begins to emerge. It is a clever movement to have a ‘bosom pal’ of the same gender with whom the teenager can talk safely about anything; things she would not discuss even with the other gang members or with her parents. Often the bosom pal becomes a life-long friend and an enduring source of support. The value of friendship in supporting independence and self-realisation is discovered through the bosom-pal relationship.

Around mid-adolescence, there occurs a transition phase. This is largely concerned with the challenge of checking out the other half of the population – the opposite gender – to see what level of support can be found from them when taking on the challenges of the adult world. The problem here is that, up to now, the opposite gender was ‘off limits’ – girls saw boys as rough and uncouth and boys saw girls as silly and ‘frilly’ – and now the teenager has to climb down from this rigid, earlier stance and open up to the potential of friendship with members of the opposite gender. The value of encompassing within yourself the different qualities often described as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ is discovered through these opposite-gender friendships.

This transition time is typically marked by ‘moodiness’; partly due to the embarrassing capitulation needed to attract members of the opposite gender, but also because time is moving on and more adult responsibilities are coming the teenager’s way. It is important that parents and teachers realise the sensitivities of this time in an adolescent’s world and that they do not personalise the teenager’s moodiness as a rejection of them. Staying on the sidelines and offering support from there is what is needed. Any attempt to intrude into her inner world by demanding to know what is going on will only further alienate the young person. Tolerating moodiness does not mean accepting any show of aggression or disrespect but it is essential to remember that the young person does not deliberately want to upset or cause hurt, but is struggling within herself. Any behaviour that is of a threatening nature towards others needs to be challenged firmly, but calmly and without judgement and in a manner that does not jeopardise the relationship between the adult and the teenager. When adults react to a teenager’s difficult behaviours, such reactions can be even more threatening than the behaviours of the young person. Reaction provides no resolution and the unhappy situation only escalates.

Moving on from friendships, in the next phase, the teenager begins to explore the possibility of more intimate relationships. For any particular teenager, the orientation may be towards a same-gender or opposite-gender intimate relationship. It can be very difficult for teenagers to make a free choice in this regard, as all the pressure is towards the development of an opposite-gender relationship. It can be quite dangerous for a young person to follow a choice for same-gender relationships, and to do so, she needs very safe holding in her family, school and friendship worlds (see Chapter 8). At this stage, teenagers tend to be ‘promiscuous’; the wisdom of this being to check out how many are likely to provide support in the future. This promiscuity does not spring from insensitivity or from lack of caring, nor is it intended to cause hurt to others; its purpose is to ascertain the level of security that is to be had among peers. For the young person with low self-esteem, great hurt can arise when the other person’s attraction proves to be short-lived, and the ending of the relationship can be experienced as emotional rejection. Parents need to be vigilant for signs of over-involvement in any particular relationship in the early teenage years. Sexual conquest is not the aim of this phase, but the number of young people attracted is important.

Eventually, the need for a more enduring one-to-one relationship emerges and this heralds the onset of the romantic phase (akin to the bosom pal). Again, at this stage, it is friendship that matters most – sexual interaction is often not on the agenda, or at least is not the priority. At this stage, a young person wants to experience a fully intimate relationship – a soul-mate – not with any intention of being together in marriage, but with the intention of having one person in her life on whom she can rely totally. This reliance on another is the precursor of independence; an ambition that can take considerable effort over time to accomplish. At this stage, adolescents ‘in love’ tend to idolise each other, ‘warts and all’. For many teenagers, the in-love experience tends to be short-lived because, inevitably, the insecurities and doubts that have been masked begin to come to the surface. A young person with low self-esteem will cling for dear life to such a relationship and, when it ends, she is likely to be devastated, even sometimes to the point of suicide. The adolescent who leans on the intimate relationship as a life-saver will not have experienced strong and supportive relationships within the family holding world and is unlikely to have developed a bosom pal. But the reality that young people have to face is that we can save only our own lives and dependence on another puts us at high risk. Unless the young person resolves her vulnerabilities – whatever their extent and depth – through the formation of a strong sense of herself, intimate relationships with others will continue to be troubled.

‘Adults know nothing’: A wise illusion of teenagers

Mark Twain made the wonderful observation that: ‘When I was 18 I believed my parents knew nothing and when I was 20 I couldn’t believe how much they had learned in two years.’

In their late teens, young people can be utterly convinced that they ‘know it all’, that they are the ones who are going to save the world while adults just ‘haven’t a clue’. Some people label this simply as an idealistic phase that young people on the brink of their adult years go through, but there is more to it than that and, in truth, there is sound reason underlying this illusion. In speaking with teenagers, it emerges how absolutely unready they are for the responsibilities, demands, upsets and rollercoaster ride of mature adulthood. It is wise and clever of teenagers to create unconsciously the illusion that they know everything in the face of what can seem like overwhelming responsibilities. The illusion enables them not to run away and, indeed, sends them headlong into a world where ‘angels fear to tread’. This headlong plunge into the presenting challenges makes it more likely that the young illusionist will learn from her experiences and, like Mark Twain, eventually become a realist; parents need to recognise that what the young person is doing is creating opportunities for mature development. The armoury of the illusion means that the teenager neither looks for help nor do they welcome being advised about what to do. Parents would do well to see the ‘vice’ in ‘ad-vice’ and, rather than advising, show belief in the young person’s capability and intelligence and encourage her to reach her own answers.

When, out of fear, adolescents avoid the necessary emotional, sexual, intellectual, occupational, social and spiritual challenges of adult life, they can find themselves stuck in dependence, with life being very limited for them. The choice of the avoidance path is also wise as it signals that there were experiences of major threat in earlier holding worlds, and that the young person is not even remotely psycho-socially ready for adulthood. Resolution of the abandonment persisting from childhood is required before the safety to proceed to maturity will emerge.

Understandably, parents can experience great frustration with what they perceive to be headstrong, arrogant and irrational behaviour. It helps if parents, rather than blaming the young person, own their own responses as being about themselves – their frustration is about their need for the young person to make the ‘right’ decisions, to be sensible and to listen to and avail of the parents’ experiences. There is a saying ‘you can’t put an old head on young shoulders’ and indeed it is not wise to even try. It is the mature parent who allows the adolescent to learn from her own experiences and who recognises that teenagers are not here to live their parents’ lives but must, instead, follow their own unique paths. Parents who find this hard to accept will exclaim ‘we’re only saying this for your own good’, but, in truth, they are saying it for their own defensive purposes. Some parents defend their intrusiveness by saying, ‘we’re only trying to protect him from making the wrong decision’, but implicit in this is the message that only the parents know what is ‘right’, and there is an underlying demand to see and do things the parents’ way. When parents view teenagers as being ‘arrogant’ and ‘irrational’, they are revealing their own defensive arrogance of believing they know what is best for the teenager and their own defensive ‘irrationality’ whereby they do not see that teenagers need the space and the support to learn from their own lived experiences.

Within the boundary of maintaining their own dignity and self-respect, parents can best respond to a teenager’s illusion of knowing it all with a silent understanding of the wisdom of the illusion, with continuing to relate unconditionally, with waiting on the sideline for the teenager to come to them for help and support, and with manifest belief that she will come through this very challenging time of her life. The presence of unconditional love and belief are the two critical supports needed, not only for the teenagers but also for the parents.

Parents sometimes ask: ‘How do I respond when my teenage daughter declares that, “School is stupid, teachers are ancient and know nothing, poetry is useless.”?’ It is crucial that the parent does not get trapped into conflict with the teenager by attempting to argue how ridiculous she is being in what she is saying. Maturity calls for an open response such as, ‘I hear what you are saying and I’m wondering how things are for you in school?’ A likely response is, ‘I just hate school and I want to be out working and making lots of money.’ The secret is to return responsibility to the young person for what she is saying; in this way, the focus stays on her and the decision-making lies with her. This process of uncovering the real hidden issue is likely to take time and patience. The truth that may eventually emerge could be, ‘I know little or nothing about life.’ When this truth is present, a parent can then affirm how much she knows about what it is like to be on the brink of adulthood and can show her willingness to offer the support and resources that will best enable her daughter to negotiate this particular time of her life.

Being yourself: A key challenge for teenagers

During their childhood, the key challenge for teenagers had been to find a ‘fit’ with their parents. As teenagers begin to expand their relationship networks beyond the family, the key challenge now is to start becoming their own person; to start the process of acting from a real place rather than from the screen self. The ultimate goal is for the teenager to form a secure and strong sense of their unique self; this sense of self has a critical influence upon their ability to form relationships and effectively manage all the responsibilities of adult life. In order to start the process of discovering who they are as unique individuals, teenagers go through a process of questioning; for example, questioning how they feel about relationships, religion, spirituality and career, and questioning their values, beliefs and ethics. Finding answers to such questions is not what ultimately provides a secure sense of self, but it does provide the beginnings of some sense of being one’s own person.

Teenagers who already have developed a strong screen self – arising from their experiences in early holding worlds of home, classrooms, schools and community – will struggle with finding their own answers to these questions. These teenagers experience confusion around who they really are; an experience that some psychologists refer to as a confused identity. Teenagers with no definite sense of self will often try out different ‘identities’ – particularly the characteristics of idols, such as soccer players, musicians, singers, a teacher, peer, uncle or aunt whom they admire – in an attempt to see what might fit for them. This is a wise exploration but one that needs to be concluded at some stage in later adolescence. The young person who already has a strong sense of her unique self – whose screen is not so strongly entrenched – will not experience such painful levels of confusion and will find it easier to reach her own answers and conclusions around the questions that arise.

Teenagers who are in deep inner turmoil tend to stay confused and carry that confusion into their adulthood. Insecurity and uncertainty dog their steps and affect everything they do. These adolescents are understandably very frightened, which can give rise to moodiness, anger and depression, as if they are trapped in some dark prison from which they cannot escape.

Some adolescents do not go through the rebelliousness and confusion that can signal the attempt to find one’s real self but, instead, continue to ‘fit around’ and identify with their parents and any other significant adults who posed threats in their earlier holding worlds; this position is referred to by some writers as a crystallised identity. This ‘crystallisation’ is a wise process in the face of emotional perils such as rejection, diminishment, humiliation and hypercriticism. In the face of such experiences, the young person unconsciously – and very wisely – concludes that conformity is the best strategy and chooses to suspend her own individuality. There are many families where young people feel compelled to follow in their parents’ professional footsteps – being, for example, a farmer, doctor, teacher, business person, nurse or working in the family business. It can be very difficult for a son or daughter to rebel against such parental expectations when there are threats of being isolated and exiled as being troubled, troublesome and ungrateful. But, if truth be voiced - which is unlikely within such families – the young people who do conform are more at risk that those who rebel.