‘Adolescence’ – from Latin, ‘Grow to Maturity’.
British society has developed in ways that have elongated adolescence. Once a phase lasting a few years, it now stretches from the onset of puberty well into a person’s 20s. During the early years of adolescence, many parents opt to let go, to encourage ‘independence’ or because their child seems to have more fun with their peers. But adolescence is no time to relinquish adult-child bonds, it is a time for adults to claim their position as the key players in their children’s transition to adulthood.
Role of Adults in Adolescence
Our children begin life 100% reliant on us, gradually becoming more independent, before experiencing a dramatic lurch forwards in adolescence. The adolescent appears to want to separate from the adult, and this signal is often mis-read by parents who respond by letting go altogether. While they need to separate at times, they also need a safe home base of attachment to return to. In adolescence, our children are not just learning independence; they also need the qualities of adaptability and integration. These three qualities, detailed below, are nature’s demand of them, the ultimate goal being maturation, the basis for happy, healthy adulthood. To succeed in this challenge, adolescents need parenting figures as much as they did during their infancy.
To become independent, adolescents need to push away from their adult attachment figures. But to be able to individuate with confidence, they also need the adult to act as a safety net, unthreatened by their child’s engagements with the world. The parent’s unconditional positive regard – acceptance and support that does not depend on approval of behaviour – is what a child needs to become independent. A child without this will lack the confidence to go forth into the world and will remain preoccupied with his primary need, attachment.
Strong adult attachment is a lightning rod when upsetting events inevitably happen. To develop the metaphor, while a strong parent cannot prevent the lightning strikes of painful events, a secure attachment grounds the electricity safely, preventing explosions and fires that are inevitable when emotional pain goes unrecognised and a child feels alone or unsafe in the world.
A secure attachment enables an important life lesson to be learned: painful things happen but we are safe in this world, accepted and treasured. From here, the adolescent learns that she can adapt to circumstances and embrace life with the confidence that comes from not being alone.
To develop depth and perspective, adolescents must absorb and integrate the many conflicting signals they are bombarded with. Children experience one emotion at a time, mature people can handle multiple. Adolescence is the time that this transition should occur. As with developing the body’s muscle tone, intellectual and emotional development requires contrast and conflict, push and pull; the brain learns problem-solving by considering different solutions. To develop the muscles required for independence, adaptability and integration, the adolescent needs some help…
New Role, Same Power
When an adolescent sees that the changes they are manifesting do not threaten her adult attachment, she makes an executive decision: changing the adult role from Parent to Advisor. This new role sees the adult become the adolescent’s mentor and confidant, a guru who can deftly enable the adolescent to fill the internal void that appears so dramatically in adolescence. In Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s stellar online course, Making Sense of Adolescence, the developmental psychologist repeatedly states the importance of providing adolescents with writing material. This facilitates and encourages the necessary phase of narcissism. By writing, they explore and express what is emerging; in a space just for them. Into this space, they gradually emerge as vibrant individuals.
The Advisor’s job description also includes enabling the adolescent to rest; to allow space for their tender emotions to emerge; to skilfully tease out of the adolescent what is bubbling up inside. Rather than pushing back when the adolescent begins to exert themselves (often crudely and rudely) the adult shows strength, the self-assuredness of an individual able to hold and govern space for someone they love.
The most basic human need is for attachment. If the adult does not proactively make themselves available, the adolescent finds attachment elsewhere. They attach to peers or online communities where none of the nurturing actions mentioned above are available. An adolescent abandoned to the peer group or the internet will not fulfil nature’s plan for adolescence: maturity.
What is unhealthy – peer attachment – can appear to be healthy. The peer-attached adolescent can present as confident and strong; you do not see them struggle with overwhelming emotions because they have been suppressed. In contrast, the adult-attached adolescent is often a mess. Less preoccupied with maintaining their cool, their emotions are on display, along with their awkwardness and angst. Awkward teens can become successful adults, but many parents intervene and sabotage this route to maturity, believing their children are happier and more independent with their friends or online.
This entirely modern phenomenon of peer-orientation is encouraged in a culture that pushes children and adults apart. Adults often work long hours in high stress or precarious jobs; meanwhile, adolescents have an instant connection to each other using technology. The culture has been largely stripped of its traditional reverence for the wisdom of elders, and adults in popular culture are generally figures of mockery. Developmentally, this all contributes to the disaster of people remaining trapped in adolescence, unable to emerge fully as individuals.
The alternative to peer orientation and arrested development is attachment parenting. Secure attachments to safe adults help in obvious and subtle ways, from decreasing the chances of bullying (perpetration or victimhood) and sexual promiscuity to providing a basis for a young adult to emerge and fulfill their potential in a turbulent world.
The power needed for successful adolescence lies with us, we just need to grasp it.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
This article was first published by Attachment Parenting UK