Approximately 10 percent of children and young people aged 5-16 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder; around 1in 13 deliberately self-harm. Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression. The number of 15-16 year olds with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s. (Source: Statistics: Young Minds website).

This bleak picture will be familiar to therapists working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), in Further Education colleges and schools, also to those working with young persons in private practice, we have a problem on our hands. A number of conversion courses have come into being in recent years, enabling psychotherapists qualified to work with adults to gain the relevant knowledge and skills needed to work competently and safely with a younger clientele.

How did adolescence as a Western phenomenon come about? One theory links this to changes resulting from the ending of 19th century child labour practices in UK and US. There was a consequent rise in number of years spent in school. During this time the growing influence of newer forms of transport- the bicycle automobile, and motorbike contributed to changes in courtship behaviour from the 1920s. As independent transport became increasingly affordable this broadened scope for dating without chaperone, beyond the watchful eye of parents. In the late 1950’s on both sides of the Atlantic mass manufacture of wireless ‘transistor ‘radios coincided with the new rock and roll era. Coffee houses and milk bars with jukeboxes became popular places for UK youth to frequent together with the Wimpy bar- forerunner of burger joints to come. Around this time in the US ‘drive in’ movies were growing in popularity offering the possibility of sexual experimenting in the back seat. All the while teenagers, like young colts, appeared to oscillate between extending themselves towards maturity and retreating to younger ways of being; growth is often far from linear.

During this period paediatrician and analyst Donald Winnicott was reflecting in the UK on ways of supporting adolescent mental health, channelling aggression and discouraging delinquency. Sixty years on author and psychiatrist Dan Siegel has spoken in similar vein of the need for young persons to be Seen, Soothed, Safe and Secure, thereby developing resilience and secure attachment.

A number of therapists from the Gestalt canon have contributed to our understanding of adolescence, including Marlene Blumenthal, Duey Freeman, Ruth Lampert, Robert Lee, Mark McConville, Violet Oaklander, Peter Mortola, Bruce Robertson, Alan Singer and Gordon Wheeler. Closer to home I have written about adolescent anger, Bronagh Starrs has written about adolescence in Ireland, Neil Harris has written on Attachment and Claire Asherson Bartram has written about Stepfamilies.

McConville’ seminal (1995) book Adolescence: Psychotherapy and the Emergent Self is helpful in understanding adolescent behaviour. In it he describes the unfolding process of adolescence and introduces us to his particular developmental model. He distinguishes between types of ‘polarity dynamics’ that govern the ways that many teenagers deal with emergent tensions, for example in their relations with power and authority.

McConville describes three phases in the process of separating from the family of origin: disembedding, interiority and integration. The first phase is concerned with reworking the family field or relational context. Typically, during this period adolescents spend less time with their families and seek to distance themselves from parents.

During this disembedding phase the adolescent’s peer group assumes great importance, displacing that of the family of origin. By focusing more on her peer relationships Anghara creates a new boundary between herself and her parents. This increases her personal autonomy and deepens her evolving experience. Anghara’s new life becomes something of an emotional rollercoaster- fascinating, frightening, exhilarating confusing, and painful by turns as she revises her existing social structures. The turbulence that Anghara and those around her experience during this period is by no means unique: when adolescents challenge the system this shakes up and reorders the herd. It is a necessary survival element in many animal species –not just humans.

McConville refers to disembedding not just as a phase but also as a way of describing the overarching process of maturing and separating. Not all cultures experience this process in the same way however. In Denmark for example many young adults leave home early, around age 21, whereas in Croatia and Poland the transition often takes place nearer to age 30. In the Caucasian region of Georgia this kind of separation happens less frequently: it is not uncommon for four generations to live under one roof.

That said, the biological imperative is to experiment with living our lives differently from that of our parents. This enables us to venture into new territory and meet new people –extending what psychologist Kurt Lewin referred to as the individual’s ‘Lifespace’ whilst also broadening and strengthening the gene pool. Teen fashions in music, hairstyles, clothing, piercing and tattooing, use of slang and social media accentuate the demarcation between generations. This helps the young person develop her awareness of being a separate and potentially autonomous being. In contrast to her former unreflective life as a child the young adolescent analyses and questions everything, developing new ways of viewing and interpreting the world.

At this early stage reality often becomes conveniently distorted to serve the fragile, emergent self. By projecting internal conflicts onto the field – friends, family- anyone other than me- projection helps protect the self and maintain self-esteem. This keeps troublesome intrapsychic polarities including feelings of guilt or shame (which cannot yet be owned) safely at a distance. Rock band The Who tapped into this when they sang ‘People try to put us down’ – (My Generation) saying accusatively to an established older generation: ‘ its you/ your fault- doing ‘this’ to me! ’

Accordingly when Maria feels vulnerable, she goes on the offensive, provoking a fight with her parents. This helps her feel solid and stable rather than risk the shame of losing ‘face’. It reinforces, if only temporarily, her sense of being right and internally coherent. When Maria orchestrates such battles in front of her peers she signifies to them – ‘I’m OK, I can handle this conflict and survive’. Nonetheless in separating her self from the family field she may also feel alienated and lonely.

As Maria enters the mid phase of adolescence, which McConville refers to as interiority, her ability to distinguish between subjective and objective reality assumes greater importance. This prompts questions such as:

  • What do people do with their lives?
  • Is Jamahl real or phony?
  • What does Nina think about me?
  • Does anyone know the real me?

Abstract searches or quests take on fresh significance at this time as Maria strives to work out her relationship with issues of identity, autonomy, morality and intimacy. And so the journey to selfhood continues….”

A version of this article featured in UKAGP’s 2016 in-house newsletter.

Jon Blend MA Dip Psych, Dip Child (UKCP & ECP reg.) CQSW
(Guest tutor: Violet Oaklander Foundation; Co-founder: UK branch of European Interdisciplinary Association for Therapeutic Services for Children & Young People.)


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