Adult Presence and Absence for Adolescents

I had the occasion to lecture recently on adolescents in Corona Times. I thought people at the Institute might find a summary interesting.

The common twentieth century fantasy that adolescents need as little contact with adults as possible is undermined by late twentieth century understandings in five areas. In sum, the adult world should best be seen as the platform, the ground on which adolescent development is possible. Sometimes to support movement, sometimes feeling walked over, sometimes thrashed, but throughout a necessary presence.

The first area is the understanding of adolescence that was reached through clinical experience at the Brent Clinic in London by Morris and E. Egle Laufer, followers of Anna Freud. The Laufers proposed that the goal of adolescence is to achieve adulthood in the sense of a basic equality with the adult world in responsibility and understanding. This entails the loss of the possibility of believing that someone knows better than you, and that you can rely on him. Adolescents need the presence  of adults in their lives to make this goal tangible. They need to be continuously measuring themselves over against adult models to imagine what adulthood entails.

The second area in one that entails relations between fathers and sons, as described by Peter Blos. There is substantial literature in the USA suggesting that adolescent boys crave a relationship and conversation with fathers. As Blos puts it, fathers often first provide a “NO” voice in the triad with mother in the early childhood drama known by the name of the Greek myth of Oedipus. Blos suggested that in adolescence boys and fathers create a new, dyadic, “YES” voice that boys need in order to complete what we call the “ego ideal” – what I strive to be. Present fathers blow real concrete wind into the sails of their teenage sons.

The third area involves mothers and daughters. Carol Gilligan and her colleagues created an important literature in the 1990’s that showed how girls needed a present relationship with mothers in order not to lose their “personal voice” to the voice of what “all the girls think.” A real mother with a voice of her own enables a girl to speak her own mind.

The fourth area involves an understanding of the place of “practice mourning” in adolescent development. Anna Freud had noted early on that adolescent moodiness has some of the characteristics of mourning. Later, Martha Wolfenstein and others suggested that mourning in adulthood is made possible by a kind of practicing that takes place in adolescents. In order to become more active participants in their own development, adolescents need to “break apart” the whole and perfect adults of childhood which they imagined because they needed them. Now in the teens, boys and girls relinquish such childhood figures and become more acutely aware of parents’ inevitable failings. Adolescents mourn the loss of the perfect parent, and this mourning is the template for mourning at the time of ultimate loss. This practicing is not overwhelming because you can mourn your imperfect parents at night and still have breakfast with them the next morning. Of course, this literature is crucial to understanding the psychological challenges facing children who lose parents before they have “made mourning possible.” Here I am stressing that the presence of reliable, vital parents is a necessary basis for this experience.

Finally, the fifth area is the one some of you have learned – and others will learn shortly- of the partnership in cognitive growth between adults and teens. Teens are always brought forward developmentally to the stage they are about to reach by conversations with adults who are already there. Teens can participate in a conversation at a level that they cannot yet maintain on their own. This was called the “zone of proximal growth” by the great Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky. Without adult presence, adolescent thinking does not go forward.

Facing Corona times, the adult presence becomes shaky for adolescents. First, there is the real threat of loss, and often the real loss of grandparents and other older adults. The luxury of “practice mourning” is weakened when real death lurks nearby. Second, the “adult” world has never seemed less reliable or attractive than during this pandemic. No youth can remain unaware of the uncertainty, lack of potency and lack of unanimity that characterized the adult “response” to this health challenge. When the ship seems to lack a captain, the sailors lose direction. This weakens the “cognitive partnership” with adults. Especially the media dumbs down the discourse by throwing empty slogans at each other and inhibiting complex discussion because complexity and ratings run in inverse proportions. And parents are hard pressed to be able to present cogent cognitive processes when the bare  facts seem hard to come by. And finally, mothers and fathers stressed by the uncertainties of health and economy tend to shrink into “regulation” mode of “holding the fort,” surviving, without the emotional wherewithal to foster development.

I suggested that adults take upon themselves the responsibility to create “presence space” not by running after teens but rather by establishing “spaces” where teens can come into  contact with adults. Of course, keeping schools open is an important aspect of this, but not enough. If we assume that teens need our real presence, we will make ourselves available and count on them to let the word out and to show up.