As earlier encountered, adolescence is a critical stage in the journey of life, as it is the phase at which we are expected to leap from childhood to adulthood.
The principle of evolving capacities provides that at this stage, parents, guardians, and society raising children should wisely engage with adolescents, recognising their growing understanding of themselves, acknowledging not only their rights but also introducing the responsibilities that come with these rights.
It is a stage at which it is critical that there is recognition and identification of an adolescent, as their own being. Of course, an adolescent cannot be given free rein of their lives, to conduct themselves in any which way, as this will always lead to consequences that may, in some cases, be dire.
It is essential though that it be understood that the stage of adolescence is a critical life transition stage, not just in terms of the law, or human rights, which may sometimes seem intangible concepts; but also in engaging with other disciplines.
This piece takes a psychoanalytic approach in advancing the reality of the importance of adolescence as a stage of growth. In doing so, we will explore the thoughts of Batetshi Matenge, a psychoanalytic Clinical Psychologist with a particular interest in working with adolescents and parents.
According to psychoanalysis, the first four years of life are mirrored during the adolescence phase in terms of rapid brain development and its capacity to modify its connections or re-wire itself.
It is for this reason that psychoanalytic practitioners say that years of adolescence are an opportunity to re-work psychological issues which from the first 1,000 days of life (infancy) and early childhood. We will revisit this later on in the piece. First, we will look at how adolescence may mirror early childhood development.
From birth, having spent usually nine months in its mother’s body, the infant understands itself to be part of the mother, and the mother to be part of the child. The mother’s role at this point is to introduce the child to the external world and help them negotiate contact with reality. Children are born without verbal capacities, which means that in these first four years, children are generally unable to use speech to communicate what they want adequately.
For example, during infancy, children communicate through their cries, and this could be for several reasons, ranging from discomfort, hunger, noise, strange smells, dirty diapers, to name a few.
The mother’s role in these instances is to check in with the baby and be led by the baby to try to understand what they are communicating to the mother. The mother, therefore, acts as a safe and trusted mediator between the child and the external world.
Batetshi explains that at this stage, children are a bundle of primitive feelings, yet to be named and processed through experience and interactions with adults in their environment. They are learning to exist outside of their mother, and
The child, who would have come into the world with an internal blank slate at birth, uses their interactions with their mother and other primary caregivers to form a blueprint of who the child will be as an adult.
It is essential to establish safe and healthy boundaries that allow the children to become themselves as their brains proliferate to absorb everything around them and accommodate their new existence.
Similar from pregnancy to birth, Batetshi points out that at adolescence, the growing child is shoved out of the nurtured stage of childhood, and they transition into another phase which they are themselves are uncertain and terrified of, and feel they do not have the skills or internal resources to navigate this newness.
They are confronted by many things, not the least of which is the new potency of their sexual body. With this surge of energy, they are thrust into an unpredictable world and begin to experience themselves as powerful agents in the world. While part of adolescence is about pushing or testing boundaries, e.g. rule breaking, children -- in fact -- feel contained and safe when there are boundaries established by the adults. Adolescence not only brings turmoil and anxiety for adolescents, but the same applies to some parents and guardians.
The flurry of intense emotions may overwhelm parents during this stage, who may be tempted to react with a strict list of “dos and don’ts” as opposed to responding thoughtfully and help in guiding and shaping the adolescent.
Adolescence is best navigated with the guidance of parents, or guardians. It is a stage where, again, a child moves away from what they learnt as safe. The parents or guardians, in this regard, act as mediators, again, negotiating between the world and the growing child.
They have to manage the stage in such a way that it balances the significant empowerment of the child, with not encouraging the child to be thrust into adulthood too early.
The reason this is vital is that at this point, adolescents try to manage the uncertainties that come with phase by viewing the world only in black and white, with no grey scale. It is, at this point, still challenging for adolescents to perceive and fully have an appreciation of consequences.
It is important to note that in guiding adolescents, the guardian or parent should not violate their rights, by not considering their own opinion about what is right for them.
It is a developmental task for the adolescent to begin defining this for themselves. Psychoanalysis offers an in-depth confrontation of this negotiation, and we will continue with this approach in the next piece.