Why are Adolescents so Adolescent?

For about the first eighteen to twenty-five years of our lives, a major developmental task is separation and individuation. This basically means that we have to figure out a way to move from being umbilically attached to our mothers to becoming physically and mentally fully grown adults who can completely take care of ourselves. It's a big job!

In a way, we have to do this twice. It's not a completely linear progression of growth, however. Instead, we seem to kind of cycle back on ourselves, separating and individuating a good amount, and then kind of starting the whole process over, but at a higher level. The first growth spurt partially prepares us for the second, but it seems like most everyone forgets that infancy restarts around a child's thirteenth birthday.

Let's break it down. Adolescence is a second childhood. Zero to about twelve years of age is a developmental stage comprised of becoming separate from mommy and daddy, becoming, in effect, a big kid who can do things for him or her self. Practically speaking, the number of developmental tasks that really can be mastered in this age range is pretty limited. At best, a healthy kid can successfully become a 'big kid' in his or her first decade or so.

As most adults will agree, the demands of life and reality are relentless. Autonomous functioning requires a relative mastery of very complicated skill sets, both social and vocational. The healthiest, most evolved twelve year old just ain't there yet...

So, much to the chagrin of parents throughout history (Re-read The Iliad lately? The Bible? Romeo & Juliet?), adolescence marks the rebirth of the separation and individuation process. This time, however, the stakes and tasks are much bigger. Whereas the earlier developmental task was based on simply becoming a bigger, more competent kid, this time the stakes are much higher, as the goal of adolescence is true separation from mom and dad. Moving out and getting a job is different than simply being big enough to take the trash out as part of your weekly chores.

Adolescents must manage a complex set of variables, such as the physical and hormonal changes associated with puberty, the complicated social demands of junior high and high school, and the desire to be independent while simultaneously craving the safety of dependency. Adolescent confusion commonly centers around issues of thinking something can be handled autonomously when it really cannot. Another word for this is "omnipotence" - the belief of having more power than one actually has. Teenagers tend to get into a fair amount of trouble due to their omnipotent beliefs about certain situations.

To make matters more complicated, there is often an inherent 'catch-22' dilemma for teenagers engaged in this struggle. They refuse to return to their parents to ask for help with tasks they cannot handle by themselves. Sometimes their parents have proven themselves unable to help with such tasks, so the adolescent understandably feels they must "go it alone." Sometimes an adolescent just does not want to admit their own limitations, especially to themselves, much less mom or dad. Adolescent omnipotence often leads to poor choices, psychological symptoms, and general discomfort for the teenager as well as those close to him or her.

Psychotherapy provides an interesting option for adolescents. They can receive help without having to appear needy or small in their parents' eyes. They can make use of another adult's "parental shadow" to discuss important issues and make important decisions. They can "borrow" some of the "adultness" from the therapist while simultaneously "growing" their own adult inside themselves. They can relax and still be kids without denying the adult responsibilities that are creeping upon them.

The goal of adolescent psychotherapy is to help young people begin to make the very difficult transition to adulthood without undue stress, drama, or poor decisions. It is an aid in helping adolescents become a more competent, adult version of themselves without having to omnipotently cast aside their childhood and the "small feelings" inside them. It can be nice to have a little bit of the best of both worlds.


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