Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Variation on "Being 18"*

Over the years I have worked with many later-adolescents, those from 17 to 21 or so.  My memory, though generalized, is strong, and would be reinforced with concrete were I to scan old and new client lists.  I know that crouched quietly or disquietly off to the side of at least ninety-five percent of these youngsters’ presenting problems was this shadow: They had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives, as job or career.  One could also say they did not know who they were.

“Identity diffusion” or crisis is thought of – by our culture’s “collective unconscious” – as a rite of passage for teens.  I suspect this is a tremendous and fallacious cop-out.  At the very least, there is a qualitative difference between the transitional growing and crystallizing of “normal” teenagers and the identity vacuum of the young men and women, or old children, who present to counseling with psychological problems.

I am saying that this is the doing of parents.  Identity begins in self-esteem, and self-esteem forms in a Self that is created by parents’ radiating upon the hopeful form of their child respectful love, mirroring, appreciative joy – these good energies.  I know my teenagers’ parents.  And though I don’t know them as they were seventeen to twenty-one years earlier, I can see the same faces that I see in all my adult clients – troubled, incomplete people – as they sit in the lobby or return to pick up the teen ten minutes after the session.  These faces, and postures, contain a relationship of burden and detachment, lostness modeled, anger that deliquesces in the boy or girl as anguish, giving up.

In these relationships, the youngster is carried, in effect, in a half-empty cargo vessel to a strange port where he disembarks and walks on, holding only his greater age and some attitudes that may help him survive.  The long journey should have been made on solid land, with lots of supplies and stopping points, not at sea with no destination in sight until the end of it.  His legs are uncertain; his eyes are used to the past.

I haven’t read such a case history, but it regularly happens that in one segment of a session I help a bleeding and wounded person express his grief and drain his pain, and in the other I encourage him, by empathy and the force of necessity, to be the strong, wise and patient parent to his child.  This is the psychological definition of absurdity, probably a combustible paradox, probably in part injurious to him.  But it is good injury: None of us wants to die never having been an adult.

Parents may feel they are already living deep, just carrying their populated life and their buried pain in the present, and into the future.  Is it too much to ask them to carry the extra depth of their child’s thoughts and worries, and to give her a comfortable, confident ride for a while?  She’ll grow in security and will be world-focused not inner-dwelling, will collect things in her heart and will want to enjoy and develop them later in life.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.