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Exploring Adolescence

A Space and the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies (CPS)  at the University of Essex co-hosted a conference at Iniva in July 2013 on the challenges and opportunities presented when working therapeutically with adolescents in secondary schools.  Papers were given by Angie Doran, Researcher, Sue Kegerreis, Director (CPS) and Lyn French on related subjects. In this blog, Lyn provides a context for these papers. 

Iniva Creative Learning is hosting the papers that were written for this event, which you can download from the Free Resources section of our online store.

Adolescence is a time when identities are being shaped, new kinds of relationships are being formed and the teenager’s role within the family, re-positioned.  The developmental tasks associated with this phase of life are numerous.  We’ve all been teenagers ourselves so we know how ‘up and down’ these years can be.  The emotional highs and lows, the frequently confusing array of choices to be negotiated and the peer group dynamics to be sensitively navigated present emotional challenges for every generation.   Artists, writers and filmmakers are well placed to explore the complex experience of growing up.  Take Juan Pablo Echeverri’s work miss fotojapon. 

One way of interpreting it is to see it through the lens of adolescence – his photographic self-portraits can be a reminder of the way in which our internal perception of ourselves is ever-shifting and the choices we make about ‘the face we show the world’ always driven by changing agendas. ‘Who are we and where are we going?’ are key questions throughout life but perhaps never more so than in adolescence.   It is a time of change and transition and for many the experience can be akin to entering uncharted territory without any kind of map. Young people whose early life may have been marked by poverty, parental illness, distressing family changes or a combination of adverse circumstances which remain unnamed and undigested are often inadequately equipped to deal with the turmoil of teenage years. Losses which haven’t been mourned can make the central adolescent task of separation and individuation that much more daunting.  A flight into pseudo adulthood might be a way of avoiding the uncomfortable feelings triggered by being ‘betwixt and between’ but can put vulnerable young people at risk.  Most teenagers long to be independent yet at the same time are still too young to be fully self-reliant and this tension has to be borne.

Those for whom childhood has been anything but idyllic may have missed out on the containment and emotional security which families with greater privilege or stability can offer their babies and young children. Adolescents with such a history may not have developed the capacity to think ‘in the round’. They might lack the ability   to step back and observe themselves objectively from more than one position, a personal skill which depends on having had an early life experience of being thought about and being held in mind.

Possessing an awareness of ‘having a mind’ and being able to ‘use one’s mind’ are two very different concepts. The ability to reflect, think for themselves and give shape to their experiences from different perspectives, that is, to mentalise, is often missing or underdeveloped in many adolescents whose early home life has been troubled. Being able to mentalise relies on having the sense that our mind can not only generate an on-going narrative which describes experiences, interprets perceptions and names emotions but can also forge meaning out of the raw material of everyday life, meaning which is not to be taken as ’the truth’ or ‘the only reality’ but which is flexible enough to allow for modification in the light of new experiences.  A large number of the adolescents who are asked to see a therapist or who are put forward for emotional learning projects have not fully developed this capacity.  They have what Peter Fonagy, a well known British psychoanalyst, describes as ‘a specific defect in the apparatus of thought’.

Sheldon Bach, an American analyst from the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research in New York, describes the kind of client who may be unable to give a coherent, consecutive, narrative account of themselves or a history of their life or even of their recent past. Bach says that with such clients, ‘their past history does not yet psychically exist and a large part of the therapy will be devoted to creating a mental space and a mental capacity that will allow past history to come into existence, allowing thinking to develop in a way that is necessary to construct a personal history. In a first meeting conducted along psychoanalytic lines, we are primarily trying to listen to the client in order to recognise who he is or at least to let him know that we will be available for this purpose should he desire’.

Teachers are centre stage in the life of the adolescent; providing the environment for young people to ‘come into full consciousness’ and enabling the development of their critical faculties are important educational aims. As well, psychotherapists, arts therapists and arts practitioners have an important role to play in supporting adolescents who may have missed out on ‘good enough’ experiences in their formative years.  We all share a common desire to foster the development of critical thinking, the capacity for creative play and an interest in de-coding and making sense of the world.  Teachers, therapists and artists from diverse disciplines want young people to have the chance to use their mind for the best possible purposes – to be able to make informed decisions about the kind of person they would like to be, what they might want to do with their lives and how they might contribute to making the world a better place.   ‘Finding their voice’ is often a crucial step in this process.

Any adult working with young people will know that forming an alliance with adolescents takes careful work. To be too friendly or open is compromising and may trigger scorn or contempt if the young person feels we are trying too hard. On the other hand, to take up a position that is too aloof may be equally off-putting. Striking a balance is an art and one that depends on attention to the language we use, an awareness of our own potential for stereotyping, respect for cultural differences, a degree of transparency and the capacity to listen without judgment or expectation.  ‘The relationship’ is the most important aspect of our work with adolescents. The opportunity to engage with them has many rewards, not least putting us in touch with our own teenage years and providing the impetus to re-process residual feelings left over from that time of our lives.

As psychotherapists, creative therapists and arts practitioners, if we want to be in a position to offer a service to young people, we need to ensure that it is seen to have value. All professionals who are commissioned to work in the educational sector should be able to formulate realistic goals and assess outcomes so that the input provided is valued by the senior staff who make decisions around funding.  This needn’t be ‘counter-intuitive’ or a paper bound task. Instead, such exercises can be used to promote co-ownership of the work being undertaken. Young people need opportunities to internalise a positive image of themselves which is based on personal qualities and meaningful collaborative experiences rather than academic achievement alone.  Indentifying goals together, modifying them over time and assessing progress at regular intervals is hugely beneficial – research shows that authentic feedback charting relational and emotional progress given at various stages throughout a course of work is one of the key agents of change.

Every new relationship is a voyage into the unknown. It can be helpful to have some navigational aids to support our endeavours. There are those which we internalise from our training and from our own life experiences which provide us with an inner pool of knowledge to draw on. As well, there are resources such as those found on this website which can help us to bridge the generational, gender, and cultural gaps which are inevitably going to be felt when working with adolescents.

Written by Paddy Chatterton