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Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?
1 What Is Adolescence?
"Clarissa was so sweet. She always used to give me these cute little cards with hearts or smiley faces on them. They would say 'I love you, Mommy.' She was a treasure. She really was. I used to call her 'Mommy's little treasure.' And helpful around the house? She would always ask if there was anything she could do. I just don't understand what happened. She changed. And now she abuses me. She's a monster."
"Reuben and I always had a special relationship. We were very close. When he got home from school, he couldn't wait to tell me about his day, and he always wanted to show me his school papers. He was so proud of them. Sometimes he would sit in my lap, he wasn't embarrassed about it, and we would just talk. It was really very wonderful. But then he changed. Now he hates me. He can't stand to be around me. I can't touch him. I've lost him. I feel so awful, so rejected."
Adolescence is unlike any other period in life. Above all, it is a time of transformation. It is not a single event, but a number of major changes coming within a relatively short period. These changes turn nice little children into intimidating adolescents.
There are distinct differences between how boys and girls go through this traumatic period of their lives. Not all adolescent boys and girls behave in the ways described throughout this book, but there is no question that certain patterns of behavior are characteristic of each sex. And there are very real reasons why these patterns exist.
When does the process start? There is no clear beginning. Girls generally mature earlier than boys, both physically and emotionally; often they have most of the characteristics of adolescence by age twelve. Boys, on average, mature about a year later. But whenever the change begins, it will often seem rather sudden: one day a child, the next, something quite different.
With boys, the change may begin that first day when he combs his hair before going to school. With girls, it seems to happen on an otherwise uneventful daya day that occurs with inexplicable frequency during February of the seventh grade. That's the day when Clarissa comes home from school and is asked to do something that in the past she has done quite willingly, even enthusiastically. But on this daythe first day of her adolescenceshe turns to her parents and snaps, "Why are you always asking me to do it? You've got hands, too, you know."
What are the changes of adolescence? The most obvious ones are physical. The kids get a lot biggernot gradually, as they have been doing all along, but suddenly. The girls mature before boys, of course, so that an eighth-grade class offers the humorous spectacle of huge women walking side by side with little kids.
The bodies don't simply grow. They change. Girls, for whom the changes are probably more significant, take on a whole new shape. Their hips widen and their breasts develop. Boys develop more muscle, grow hair in new places, and confront a very different-looking set of genitals. When this physical maturation is finished, every child looks at him- or herself and does not see the same person who was there not long before.
Adolescence is the start of true sexuality. Girls menstruate. Boys produce sperm. Most important of all, both sexes begin to have sexual feelings. Prior to adolescence, during the period referred to as "latency," they had such feelings, but for the most part these were underground. Preteens do have some interest in sex and can engage in sexual activity, but it really is a low priority:
"Hey, wanna see the new series of 'Gross-out Cards'? They have a lady with worms coming out of her eye sockets."
"Yeah. Lemme see."
"Hey, kid, wanna see a picture of a naked lady?"
"Yeah, sure. Is it okay if I look at her later?"
With the dawning of adolescence, the naked lady pictures knock the Gross-out Cards into oblivion. The sexual feelings brought on by the biological changes of adolescence are unavoidable. Like it or not, here we are! And these feelings change everything. Suddenly the world has a whole new coloring. Previously a neutral canvas, it is now imbued with sexuality. And the way in which the new adolescent experiences it is changed forever.
"Mom, Aunt Edith and Uncle Ralph are probably going to get a divorce, aren't they?"
"Where'd you hear that?"
"I didn't. I can just tell by the way you and Dad talk about them."
"Dad, Mrs. Williams is very insecure, isn't she?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know, the way she acts so phony all the time."
In addition to changes in sexuality, a less obvious but nonetheless very important change of adolescence is that thinking processes jump to a whole new level. Teenagers understand concepts and abstractions in a way they were not capable of before. They can participate in adult conversations (although they probably won't choose to). They can see the world through adult eyes (although they often refuse to). In short, the world of the adolescent is infinitely more complex than what he or she had known before.
The Major Change: Turning Away from Childhood
All kinds of changes, physical and intellectual, mark adolescence. But the hallmark of adolescencethe transformation that defines this period of lifeis a psychological change. It is the adolescent mandate. A new and powerful voice rises inside of children. They must obey this voice and, in doing so, their lives change forever.
Simply put, the mandate tells the adolescent to turn away from childhood and childish feelings. Since childhood ismarked by the domination by parents, it follows that adolescents must turn away from their parents.
Before adolescence children were ... children, and they were free to act and feel as children. They could love their parents openly and depend on them. But with adolescence, a new force within dictates that teenagers must now experience themselves as independent, and able to exist on their own. No more can they feel close to or dependent upon their parents.
This mandate eliminates the wonderful security of childhood. Day-to-day living takes on a quality of desperation. The independent self of childhood, which had been content to develop a basic competence in such matters as tying shoes and riding a bicycle, and always with Mommy and Daddy as a safety net beneath it, now begins to assume for itself the full responsibility for survival. Life is no longer a game. It is for real. Yes, the world has become an exciting place, but in this new world adolescents feel much more exposed and therefore more vulnerable than ever before. Things can get scary, even terrifying, and perhaps overwhelming.
This turn toward independence, toward a world separate from family and home, has always been at the core of adolescence, today and a thousand years ago. It is an inevitable process. More than anything else, it is responsible for most of the behavior that constitutes adolescence.
The Wish Not to Grow Up
The course of preadolescent childhood is played out in the continuing struggle between the mandate to grow up and the wish not to. On the one hand is the "baby self" which desires only the nurturing it has enjoyed for years. All pleasure. No fuss.
"After a hard day at school let me unwind and fill up with good stuff. Let me watch television and eat Doritos. I definitely do not want to hang up my coat."
Parents see their children act immature, irresponsible, lazy, and demanding, because the home is the natural realm for expressing the dependent, babyish mode of functioning.
But there is the other self beginning to develop slowlythe independent, mature self. This self reaches out and seeks gratification from meaningful interaction with the world. It sets forth to accomplish something, to develop competence. It is willing to deal with stress, to take on responsibility. It is even willing to hang up coatsbut only at school, or at Grandmother's house. It is usually on view only away from the home, unseen by parents.
Normal development pushes toward an ever-decreasing role for the baby self. Adolescence is no more than the first, most traumatic stage in this ongoing struggle, exacerbated by the new awareness of sexuality and the mandate to separate from parents, to avoid unacceptable feelings of dependence. Once people reach adolescence and, ultimately, adulthood, most have resolved this conflict by choosing a life of growth and separation. This "decision" is what we label maturity. This is what's supposed to happen. Ultimately, they can even act nice toward their parents. But not during adolescence! Then, they very much remain children when they are home. And often, rather nasty children. This is a crucial point: operating in the baby-self mode is a way not to separate from the parents.
Some children seem able to move off to function independently more easily than others. Their trials of adolescence will be relatively smooth for all concerned. Other children, although unaware of their choice, remain far more eager to seek the bliss of unseparated babyhood and avoid the hassles of dealing effectively with the world around them. Some childrenneed to cling, often provoking endless and senseless battles. Children who are not so good at functioning on their own will probably have a tougher adolescence than their peers.
Margaret and the Stairs
During childhood the two selves exist side by side, switching back and forth. When my daughter Margaret was not yet two years old, she would sit at the bottom of the stairs in our house and cry for twenty or thirty minutes. This happened almost every day for at least two months. That is a lot of crying.
Margaret's room was on the second floor, and she had already learned to go up and down the stairs by herself. The crying was her way of telling us she wanted to be carried up to her room. Sometimeswhen she felt like itshe would go up the stairs by herself. At those times she actually liked the climb. But, for whatever reason, Margaret chose this issue on which to take a stand. And she devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to trying to make her mother and me carry her up the stairs.
Why? What was so important that day after day Margaret would make such a scene, and stay with it for so long?
Margaret was confronting a big issue. During the first part of her life, once she began to interact with her world, she had been Queen of the Universe. What she wanted us, her parents, to do, we did. Her will was our will. There was no separation. But then, to her delight but also to her horror, Margaret discovered that this did not have to be the case.
She had already tried the "no" experiment and discovered its results. A parent says, "Come here," and a child says, "No." The child then watches her own body to see whom it will obey. To her delight it always obeys her. But up until a child's first open defiance of her parents, she has no way of knowing who is in charge of her body.
The experiment has a second part. That is what Margaret was fighting for on the stairs.
"It's okay, sort of, that I'm in charge of me. But I certainly don't want to give up being in charge of you, Mommy and Daddy. If it is true that we are totally separate and have separate wills, then it means that I am actually on my own and that is not so good. For then I am alone and very little. I will have to do everything for myself. I will have to learn how to survive. And I do not like any of that. I prefer the old way."
Margaret was fighting to remain the absolute ruler of the universewithout any obligations or responsibilities. Who wouldn't?
The Bliss of the Baby Self
The baby self does not die easily. In fact, it lives on somewhere in all of us. It desires not just to rule the world but also to move back in time to the absolute bliss of babyhood, wrapped in Mother's arms, forever.
It is the baby self which, above all, is responsible for most of the day-to-day problems that parents have with their children and teenagers. Although adolescents reject the child in themselves, it remains. And though teenagers refuse to accept that they are in any way childish, they all act in a childish manner. The mandate of adolescence cannot dismiss the child. It only decrees that the baby self is no longer welcome. With their parents, adolescents have made their earliest and most powerful attachment. We touch within them a place that no one else can, a place of deepest love. Since our connection with them is the strongest, it is the most difficult to break.
The alternation between these two distinctly differentselves, one mature, one babylike, is not only bewildering to parents. It can also drive us crazy. It's normal and healthy but it's not much fun.
A teenage version of "Margaret and the Stairs" would be this scene between Vanessa and her mother:
"Mom, can I go with Beth Anne and Kimberly to the mall after supper?"
"No, dear, you know you're not allowed out on school nights."
"But, Mom, please. I'll be home by nine-thirty. You know that's when the mall closes."
"No, Vanessa. We don't want you out on school nights."
"Mom, you're not being fair. You let Stephen do all kinds of stuff. Just because he's a boy."
"Stephen is older and, besides, that has nothing to do with it. I said no and that's final."
"I hate you. You never let me do anything. Why? Why can't I go?"
"Vanessa, you are starting to make me angry."
"You're getting angry? I'm the one who's not allowed to go to the mall. Why, Mom? You just like ruining my life."
The confrontation continues. Vanessa ends up in tears and storms off to her room, where she sulks for the rest of the evening. Her mother also remains in a bad mood.
This is not the first time that there has been such a scene, nor will it be the last. From previous experience, Vanessa knew full well what her mother's response to her request would be. Not only that, she knew the scene would end exactly as it did. Parents who have endured such scenes remember distinctly feeling that their child was after something, something more than just getting them to change their mind.From Vanessa's mother's standpoint, Vanessa seemed to be after a smack in the face. If not that, what did she want?
Why couldn't Vanessa accept "No," especially after a couple of attempts to change her mother's mind hadn't worked?
Vanessa was being asked to accept a loss. And this meant shifting over, however briefly, to her more adult, independent mode of functioning. She might have decided:
"Well, it's really no big deal. I would like to have gone out. I would have had fun. But I see them every day at school. It's no big loss. Anyway I can call Rachel and talk with her."
But picking up and moving on was not for Vanessa. On another day she might have accepted defeat. This time, especially because it was her motherthe object of her strongest, most babyish attachmentthe baby inside of her dictated the scene. Separation, which would have ended the contact, was absolutely not what Vanessa wanted. Had she accepted the "No," her involvement with her mother would have been brief, but she kept after her mother and a lengthy scene ensued. Instead of separation, Vanessa achieved just the opposite, just what she wanted. She got passionate involvement over an extended period of time, even if it was in the form of yelling, crying, and sulking.
Not only can the baby inside of teenagers control their behavior. It can achieve this without their knowledge. Teenagers have an infinite capacity for self-deception.
"Me? No. My mom's the baby. She's the one who isn't mature enough to change her mind. I'm just trying to get to be a little more independent. She's the one who needs to grow up."
This is actually how they think. Acting like a baby? Even when they are yelling at parents who have locked themselves in a bathroom to escape the harangue, they are certainly not behaving childishly. No way.
A Self Without Conscience
This is a characteristic of the baby self: It does not look at itself. It does not judge itself. It is not bad. It is not good. It is not anything. It has no conscience.
"I'm not good-looking. I'm not ugly. I'm not a good person. I'm not a bad person. I'm not anything. When I'm home, I'm just me."
That's why adolescents can be so infuriatingly oblivious to their own behavior.
"How can you act this way?!"
They are not being intentionally difficult. In a way that makes no sense, but reflects their thinking process, what they do at home exists in a sphere of its own. It has nothing to do with the adolescent's sense of self, with the kind of person he or she really is. They simply do not look at themselves. This is not something that the baby self does.
"Are you honest?"
"But you just lied to your parents."
"Yes, I know. I know I lied, and I know it doesn't make sense, but I am honest. Lying to my parents or my brother or sister is just not the same thing as lying to somebody outside the family."
"You mean lying to your parents is not dishonest?"
"Well, yes, it is, but I am not a dishonest person. I'm really not. I can't explain it. It just is that way."
"But you shouldn't lie to your parents, should you?"
"No, I guess not."
"You guess not?"
"I mean if it's bad, it's not very bad. It's just not the same as it is with other people."
Which Is the Real Self?
Which is the real self, the self who gives her parents nothing but grief and would seem to prefer death to helping around the house, or the self who assists her grandmother with household chores? The self who will not take out the trash at homea routine chore for the previous three yearseven when he trips over it, or the self who receives an award from his school booster club for his extraordinary efforts on "Clean Up the Town Day"? The self who looks like a slob when home, or the self who preens for over an hour to get ready for school?
Both selves are normal and necessary. Yet if parents want to know what their children are really like, if they want to get a sense of who their children will become as adults, the more accurate gauge is behavior away from home. The self that adolescents bring out to deal with the world is, in fact, a truer reflection of the real level of maturity they have achieved. What happens, what seems like a miracle, is that by the end of adolescenceas part of normal psychological developmentthe vast majority of them become niceto you. They go out and become good citizens. And the sometimes truly horrible behavior at home becomes just a bad memory. It really does work that way.
The Passion of Adolescence
Adolescence is unlike any other period in life. With it comes a special feeling, one that we never quite forget. During thistime, attention and concern turn to the world outside, and away from family and home. Sexual feelings, newly emergent, increase the nature and intensity of that focus. The result is that the world becomes infused with incredible power and poignancy. The world is newbut this newness has a price. As adolescents cut off dependence on home and parents, they feel much more on their own. And although not yet established in the big outside world, they can no longer use home as a fallback. Successes and failures in school and with friends seem absolutely crucial to continuing survival. Everything takes on a much more desperate quality. Because adolescents do not have much experience in life, they see only their day-to-day existence. They have no long-term perspective. None.
The world has become an exciting place, but in it they feel much more exposed, much more vulnerable than ever before. Moreover, their feelings have an undeniable powera power that makes adolescence, however troubling, very, very special.
Where It's At
I can remember how, as a teenager, I would drive around in the car listening to a song on the radio that I liked and also feel pressure to turn to another station just in case it was playing another song I liked better. No matter how good the song I was hearing at the time, I feared missing out on something even more special.
Teenagers ride up and down the same stretch of road always on the lookout. They hang out in the parking lot of a restaurant talking in small groups or just waiting for something to happen. There is an expectancy in the air so real they can almost reach out and touch it.
"Hey, Jim, anything happening?"
"Naah. I just talked to Glenn and Kratzner and they saidmaybe there was going to be a party at some girl's house that I never heard of. I don't know. We'll probably hang around here, see if anything turns up. How about you?"
"I don't know. It's been pretty dead around here, except there's this kid Ricky who's supposed to be looking for Larry Bronson 'cause he's pissed at him for something. But I don't know. We'll probably stay around here a little while and then maybe go over to Smiley's."
"Yeah, maybe we will too."
Life is very powerful stuff for a teenager. It holds them continually in thrall. They cannot put the feeling into words, but they have a sense that something could happen out there that really would be what they're waiting for. It is both tantalizing and frustrating.
"What time is it?"
"I don't know. I think it's about twelve-thirty."
"I don't think anything's going to happen."
"Yeah. I'm probably just going to go home. I'll call you tomorrow."
"Yeah. See ya."
But adolescents would not want to go home until they were fairly sure that it was late enough. Late enough so that nothing would happen without them. They would not want to chance missing it.
What is the something that infuses the very air with unspoken potential? It is sexuality, certainly, but it is more. Prior to adolescence, children have loved their parents, perhaps a favorite pet, or some other attachment that is part of home. But with adolescence this capacity for passionate involvement and love, though it does not totally leave home, turns outward.However, it has little to attach to, especially in early adolescence. It lacks focus.
Only from adolescence onward can humans fall in love. In early adolescence such love is usually limited to powerful but transient crushes. Only later are deeper, more lasting love relationships formed. Mostly an adolescent's love is unfocused, diffuse. It lights up the whole world and produces the sense of inchoate longing that so characterizes early adolescence. Teenagers are, in effect, in love with the world, but their love is unrequited. They have great longing, but are never quite fulfilled.
Memories of Adolescence
A song from our past, a particular place, even just a smell can suddenly evoke in all of us the sense of another time and place. With this casting back in time comes a surge of feeling, poignant but fleeting, gone before we can catch hold of it. We picture clearly a piece of our adolescence, and we experience a deep longing. Yet the scenes that cause these feelings are often oddly unremarkable:
"I can picture a summer evening and me sitting with some friends at a picnic table outside a drive-in food place where we used to go. It wasn't like I always had such a good time. But I remember it as if it were something incredibly wonderful. I'm pretty sure it wasn't."
What we conjure in these moments, however fleetingly, is that special adolescent feeling of being in love with the world. It is a memory of the unique, unfocused passion of adolescence.
Copyright © 1991, 2002 by Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D.