Adolescence – a challenging and difficult stage.

Has your beautiful child suddenly become an out of control monster?
Is he/she:

  • unable to articulate feelings or contain anger and frustration;
  • critical of and seeking less contact with the family;
  • resistant to and at times dismissive of family members, other adults and academic or orginisational institutions;
  • choosing to eat alone;
  • unrealistically concerned with body issues;
  • withholding information;
  • dressing in a manner that challenges family standards;
  • useing language that is provoking and confronting;
  • experimenting with drugs and alcohol; and/or,
  • exploring their sexual emergence without much consideration for consequence.

Well much of this is normal and all of us get to go through this stage in development. You might recall some these experiences in your own younger life.

So what is this thing called adolescence?
Developmental theorists suggest that adolescence occurs at puberty which starts at around 10 years for girls and 12 years for boys. Adolescents are generally defined as youth ages 10 to 18 (American Psychological Association, 2001). Changes result from hormonal and neural shifts that occur for the adolescent. The effect of hormonal changes is visually evident in changes to the body’s appearance but changes also occur in the brain which as Cozoline (2006) suggests “undergoes disorganisation and reorganisation from the onset of puberty into the early 20s…[T]hese changes represent a process of selection and reorganisation of neural networks … [preparing for] new relationships, new self-image, and to learn of new roles in society” (pp.44-45).

Broadly, the main adolescent development tasks that occur are:

  • Independence from parents and other adults;
  • Development of a realistic stable positive self-identity;
  • Formation of sexual identity;
  • Negotiation of peer and intimate relationships;
  • Development of realistic body image;
  • Formulation of their own moral/value system; and,
  • Acquisition of skills for future economic independence (Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation Ltd, 2013).

Three phases of Adolescence that might reflect what you are experiencing with your teenager and what support a therapist can give.

Mark McConville(1995) outlined three hierarchical phases of adolescent development including a disembedding phase, an interiority phase and an integration phase – these may be recognised by the following symptomology:

  1. The disembedding phase is a period when adolescents establish boundaries from family in an attempt to gain an individual sense of self.
    1. The adolescent may seek less contact with the family, choosing to eat alone, to withhold information, dress in a manner that challenges family standards and use language that is provoking and confronting. They may experiment with drugs and alcohol and explore their sexual emergence with little consideration of consequences.
    2. As the adolescent seeks independence from the family they conform to peer pressure in the pursuit of inclusion within a peer group. The teenager is likely to experience feelings of isolation, loneness, confusion, anger, frustration and fear (McConville, 1995).
    3. At this stage adolescents tend to look outside themselves and project responsibility or blame for their confusion and pain onto others, they are not particularly able to acknowledge or articulate inner feelings.

 At this stage the work of the therapist is to build a non-judgmental, non-manipulative relationship based on trust and safety where the adolescent can explore their world with an adult who is openly supportive of their individuating process. As Oaklander (2006) says and as I have experienced with the students I teach, “kids desperately need someone to listen, validate and support them”(p.102). During this phase it is often useful for the therapist to work with the adolescent and the family together. 

  1. The interiority phase – Adolescents explores personal, private experience with greater interest and awareness and there is a tendency to reflect inwardly.
    1. During this phase adolescents may allow themselves to be vulnerable to others, sharing personal insights and feelings of which they previously had little awareness. They may engage in their first romantic relationship but the very act of reaching out to connect with another makes them vulnerable and is fraught with the danger of rejection.
    2. Adolescents begins to be interested in adults in new ways and this interest also extends to the wider world where an empathetic concern for global issues may start to be noticeable, as exemplified by the fundraising school students initiate for charities.
    3. Adolescents may write poetry, make artworks or explore music that reflects inner feelings, thought and fantasies. As the adolescent struggles to link their inner world with the external world a sense of isolation and despair may arise (McConville 1995).

During this phase the work of the therapist is to acknowledge the adolescent’s personal experience and to support integration, growth and ownership of their inner/outer worlds. Therapists work toward building a relationship with adolescent clients that supports the adolescent to build boundaries that allow them to achieve resilience and strength in their relationships with self and others. At this stage it is useful for the therapist to work interpersonally with the adolescent in series of one to one therapeutic encounters.

  1.  The integration phase – Indicative of this phase is the reestablishment of relationships within the family where the independence established earlier becomes interdependence and new kinds of interactions emerge between the adolescent at this stage and parents.

Simultaneously the adolescent becomes interested in what life might hold,    choices concerning partners, career and values become important.

During this phase the role of the therapist is to support the adolescent make choices and commitments for the future, to witness, reflect and challenge the adolescent and to provide opportunities for new ideas and experiences. It is useful for the therapist to conduct individual and/or group therapy.

Adolescent development is a time of major biological and interpersonal change. The broad and general malaise of adolescent development is confusing and challenging, it is a complex stage where disequilibrium and disorientation may be present. All adolescents encounter these ordeals to some degree but many vulnerable adolescents also combat other stressors including:

  • Body image;
  • Eating disorders;
  • Depression;
  • Sexual identity;
  • Learning difficulties;
  • Bullying and cyber bullying;
  • Addiction;
  • Abuse; and,
  • Suicide ideation.

“The onset of mental health problems at this time of life can therefore have significant impact on the development of important life skills if left untreated” (Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation Ltd, 2013).

If this information resonates with you and you would like some support please call me on 0419 041 624 or email me at gay@gaybucknall.com

Reading List
American Psychological Association. (2001). Developing adolescents: A reference for professionals. Retrieved August 16, 2013, from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/develop.pdf

Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. New york: W.W. Norton and Company.

Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation Ltd. (2013). Parents and carers: Adolescent development. Retrieved September 24, 2014, from Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation Ltd: http://www.headspace.org.au/parents-and-carers/find-information/adolescent-development.

McConville, M. (1995). Adolescence. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass Plubishers.

Mortola, P. (2001). Sharing Disequilibrium. Retrieved October 13, 2012, from Gestalt Review: http://www.gisc.org/gestaltreview/documents/SharingDisequilibrium-ALinkBetweenGestaltTherapyTheoryandChildDevelopmentTheory.pdf

Oaklander, V. (2006). Hidden treasure a map to the child’s inner self. London: Karnac Books.

The Better Health Channel. (n.d.). Puberty. Retrieved August 16, 2013, from The Better Health Channel: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Puberty