My conclusion after 30 years of advisory and therapeutic work with adolescents is: there is no conclusion to be drawn.
Generalisations and sweeping claims of this kind fail to do justice to the individual adolescent. My attempts to re-establish communication between adolescents and their parents were regularly made more difficult by the prejudices and fears which parents projected on to their pubescent children and from which they derived their actions in bringing them up. Individual observations – a fourteen-year-old cannot be bothered after school to engage in long conversations with his mother – lead to generalised judgements: “Adolescents close themselves off from their parents.”
Fifteen-year-old Alex prefers to go to a rock festival with his friends rather than to Aunt Emily’s eightieth birthday with his family. That translates into: “Adolescents don’t have any sense of family”. The other source of such generalisations is a superficial knowledge of developmental psychology: It is “general knowledge” that adolescents want to change the world, that boys from age fourteen have nothing but sex on their minds, that growing young people in this age group are at risk from drugs. The uselessness, indeed, harmfulness of such views when dealing with adolescents is revealed over and again but no lessons are learnt from it.
People have seen a few black swans and conclude on that basis that “all swans are black”. Someone knows a couple of dope smoking fifteen-year-olds in their surroundings and concludes: “adolescents are at risk from drugs”. But most swans are white and most adolescents do not do dope, at least not regularly. If we now treat the non-dope smoking or occasionally dope smoking adolescent with mistrust as if he or she was at risk from drugs, the silver thread which still connects adolescents and adults will break. Each one is different. Laws of development, knowledge of psychology or certainties arising from the anthroposophical understanding of the human being can provide a frame of reference for recognising and understanding the individual, but they do not replace a perception of the individuality.
The community of peers as refuge
“Adolescents don’t have any sense of family” – so says Mrs M. who separated from the father of the now fifteen-year-old Patrick five years ago. Shortly afterwards, Patrick joined a music band whose members spend their free time together. Patrick states very clearly what the group means to him: “That is my family.”
Almost 50 percent of adolescents have parents who are separated. They are caught between two stools; most of them live with their mother because that is how custody has been determined, but often inwardly with their father whom they see at weekends at most. Others do not know their father at all.
Where the family is conventionally intact it can provide a safe haven for the adolescent from which to deal with the community out there. Where the family is only superficially intact, but is subject to divisions, hostility or indifference within itself, something which adolescents are quick to see and criticise, the end result is disillusioned withdrawal. Mrs T. says: “Our Penny interferes in our marriage. She wants to tell us what to do but spends every weekend with her friend.” Penny says: “I try to mediate between the two of them. It doesn’t work. At weekends I can at least get away to my friend’s family.”
Some end up being forced in the role of adjudicator after the separation of their parents while others are turned into messengers: “Tell your father I will go to the authorities if he does not pay up with his maintenance soon.” And from the other side the child hears: “Tell your mother I am no longer prepared to finance her life of luxury.” A young person in that situation is alone with no one to turn to. The community is his refuge.
“All my son does is rebel, as they do in puberty,” says Mrs K. How did she get such an idea? She: first, it is common knowledge; second, Patrick “constantly” refuses to do what he is told. He does not want to take the rubbish to the rubbish bin outside the house, put his dirty washing in the washing basket or tidy his room. The boy himself tells me he has more important things to do: the next annual meeting has to be prepared in the youth section of the Red Cross; for school he has to write a presentation about Martin Luther King. He chose the subject himself. Where in all that is the rebellion, let alone the “typical” rebellion? In my talks with adolescents I have heard many critical things – about teachers or about parents – but I have never heard a fundamental criticism of the school system, for example, or of the training opportunities. I have heard about concerns as to how adolescents can get to do the training they want, whether or not they will be able to find their way into a job or whether or not they will one day earn enough money to afford a place to live and to support a family. I have never come across a fundamental rebellion against the “conditions” or “society”; on the contrary, I have experienced a striking pragmatism: fifteen-year-olds are already planning the best routes to achieve their career goals, have investigated grants and other support available.
Parents talk about “rebellion” when adolescents do not do what their parents think they should be doing. This always relates to private, family matters: cleaning their own room, listening to a different sort of music, admitting that mum or dad are right. If parents then impose sanctions (“No computer for a week!” or similar absurdities of parental justice) the adolescents withdraw into their room and stop communicating. And the parents say: “He has turned rebellious.”
The pill at sixteen
“The only thing on his mind any longer is sex,” says Mrs D. She has discovered some porn clips on her son’s smartphone. When I talk to the son about it, he is quite unembarrassed: “Everyone does it. You have to join in. I would never do anything like that with my girlfriend. I like her, we cuddle, I like to feel her, nothing more. We’re in no hurry.”
We adults might find the way adolescents consume pornography to be of concern but it seems to me that the subject of sexuality is accorded too much prominence in this context. To put it more bluntly: for adolescents, (the consumption of) pornography has nothing to do with (their private) sexuality. Here, too, I experience a – perhaps even too early – sense of responsibility. One example: two sixteen-year-old sweethearts come for counselling. Treating each other with respect, they are already planning their joint future: they want two children, but when is the right time? After school, after training? It is not easy in the first years of a job either because you have to be fully committed to your employer. Both of them are sixteen but they are already thinking like adults. In some ways I wish they could be more spontaneous, leave themselves greater room for manoeuvre. They have not slept with one another yet. But Ramona is taking the pill – at the insistence of her mother.
Longing for approval
“They all smoke dope.” Thomas hangs out on the drug scene in the town park at weekends. His older brother is a high flyer at school and, furthermore, involved in competitive sport – the model son. Thomas never stood a chance in comparison to him. At first he admired his brother, sought his approval. But his brother patronised him. Thomas has found friends on the drug scene who respect him. Now he often skives off school. Recently he was caught dealing. A black swan. Thomas turned into a white swan after there had been success in kick-starting the dialogue between him and his brother. “Adolescents are at risk from drugs,” says his father who likes to have “a beer” (three or four bottles) every evening. A drug is always a surrogate for something else. What the father is compensating for is not relevant here. His son is using cannabis to compensate for the absence of success at school or indeed lack of parental interest.
Drugs are often a reaction to pressure to achieve, an avoidance mechanism. Sometimes it is an anaesthetic in the face of an unbearable familial farce being played out by the parents at home: Maximilian has long caught on that his parents no longer have anything to say to one another. He knows that his father has a girlfriend. On birthdays, at Christmas or family celebrations they still play at “happy families”, a rotten farce. On the drugs scene he finds honesty, there is no pretence.
The social media are real
“Our Marie-Claire no longer lives anywhere other than in the illusory world of the Internet.” The Facebook generation begs to differ: the most important thing about the Internet, particularly for girls, is maintaining the social community. This is not an illusory world but part of the real world. Relationships are sometimes more important than homework. When Marie-Claire’s friend has been stood up by her boyfriend, she has to be supported with a stream of texts, the event has to be discussed on Facebook, commented on on Twitter. That is social life, not its surrogate. It provides a sense of security that the private sphere, at least within the community, is public.
How is that an illusory world? To a young person, Uncle Harry’s Pigeon Breeder’ Club to which he devotes himself with fervour can represent an illusory world to escape reality, or the endless meetings which his or her father has to sit through each day as an administrative official. There are black swans here as well, of course. Someone can be engulfed by the Internet because they cannot cope in the world, have suffered failure or were bullied. In that case such a person probably needs specialist help to get out of that again.
Adolescents are not a problem group
We could continue the list of sweeping judgements about adolescents ad infinitum. All of them have a negative or, at best, concerned undertone. They are rarely accurate about the individual case – and when they are, then there are other reasons. Young people in puberty and adolescence are not in themselves a problem group. They cannot be characterised by using platitudes. Sometimes they can be a lot of hard work and sometimes we cannot understand them, at least not at the first attempt. Only dialogue will help here. But this starts with – and lives by – a listening ear: not by an exchange or the proclamation of prejudices or accusations by the parents.
The difference between swans and young people is that swans are either always white (most of them) or always black (very few). Young people, in contrast, can be white today, black tomorrow and white again the day after that – sometimes maybe grey. Every person is different, and adolescents in particular.
About the author: Mathias Wais is a member of staff at the Dortmund “Advisory Centre for Children, Adolescents and Adults”, extensive lecturing and seminar activity. He is the author of numerous specialist books.