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Late Adolescence And The Culturalclimate

Related To Maturation

Prestige is of tremendous importance to the normal adolescent. This derives from the fact that independent achievement, physical attractiveness or prowess, and development of esthetic interests generate strong reinforcements from significant representatives of the home, the school, the church, and the peer environment. It is interesting to note that virtuoso exploitations of sexual outlets do not appear to be "culturally elevating." As the Kinsey report on male sexual behavior emphasizes, adolescents who rise from a lower to higher social status have, generally, more sexually restrictive patterns than those who do not. In the average normal adolescent, the transient resentments which appear in revolt against parents stand out sharply against the background of greater affection and more human understanding for them. The peer cliques of late adolescence dissociate themselves from adult standards by channeling energy discharge in directions which challenge or frankly defy adult prudence. One of the purposes of the early adolescent clique is to sequester the individual in the relative anonymity of the group, the group serving as an impersonal bulwark against the often premature and unrealistic personal demands of the social environment. Conflicts in relationships with parents, Oedipus complex and others, may often be reactivated, and adolescent testing behavior may generate obviously distorted responses from the parents, thus perpetuating the conflict. Children of foreign born, first generation Americans have disproportionately higher frequencies of adolescent personality problems.

Much of the turmoil during the adolescent period is reflected in what Erikson calls role diffusion. Its description from a perplexed adolescent might be paraphrased as follows: "I just can't seem to take hold. I don't belong. I don't know what I should be, or even who I am. I think I'd like to get into the service, but I don't know why." For adolescent boys, role diffusion can be the source of so much anxiety that daily pursuits lose all interest, the only focus being toward such goals as inevitable military service where the individual can be comfortably lost in a sea of regimentation. For the adolescent girl, the escape may be into early or precipitate marriage for which she is not only economically but also socially, culturally, and psychologically unprepared. Under extreme circumstances, the adolescent conforms to the expectations of a suspicious, hostile, and overdemanding family environment by generating the anticipated dangerous, threatening, or retaliatory behaviors inadvertently shaped by his immediate environment. Such an adolescent tends to flee school, with its mature responsible goals, and to abandon the available models of identification who have variably failed him in the past.

In this period, the cruelties of the in-group and out-group are intensified. These create either a false sense of security and solidarity for the "ins," or a sense of isolation for the "outs." In some unhappy outs, this experience of alienation and isolation may precipitate dissociative responses. It is to be noted, on the other hand, that highly therapeutic functions can be served by group identifications and performances. These may serve to reduce the threat of traditional demands of our independent, self-made Americanism, which might otherwise occasion grave anxiety in those with mediocre endowment, limited motivation, or modest past performance.

THE INTERACTIONS BETWEEN THE TEENAGERAND HIS PARENTS: A SOCIAL FORMULATION The usual healthy teenager in our culture is, in many ways, a somewhat glazed mirror in which his parents may look at themselves. He tends to reactivate conflicts which were incompletely resolved by them during the same period in their lives. It is, in fact, these parental problems and, specifically, the defects in their maturation which occasion the most compelling social problems for the typical teen-ager. While there are many important teenage experiences for which no analogues exist in the life of his parents, it is with those particular adolescent performances which reactivate parental conflicts that this section is concerned. Every epoch in development leaves its residues of undigested and unresolved conflicts as a part of the functioning apparatus of the maturing organism. Every adult is, in part, also an infant, a child, a preadolescent, and an adolescent. It could not be otherwise. Personal maturity is not an all-or-none proposition. It is a partial, irregular, and episodic achievement of adult life which is readily compromised by passing injury or stress. Four fundamental problems of the teen-ager occasion social responses and behaviors in the parents which make life for the teen-ager, as well as the parents, a tumultuous and often chaotic experience.

THE PROBLEM OF ACCEPTING THE REALITY OF STRUCTURAL-ANATOMIC AND PHYSIOLOGIC MATURATION The biologic changes in male and female children during the teens already have been reviewed. These changes have certain direct effects on the adolescent. For one thing, they force self-conscious acceptance of "documented" sexual differentiation. The teen-ager can no longer ignore the fact that males and females really do exist in the world and that he is more one than the other. Secondly, the changes bring into sharp focus the fact that the teen-ager is becoming more like an adult with all the knowns as well as unknowns which are involved in this experience. The unmistakable biologic changes which command private recognition and variable acceptance by him are mirrored by categorically similar physical changes of reversed sign in his parents. Just as it is difficult for the adolescent to accept the intrusive evidence of his physical maturation, so it is equally difficult for his parents to accept simultaneously the unwelcome indications of their own waning youth. The lusty vigor of the adolescent can pose a positive and unwelcome threat to his parents. While he blossoms into maturity, his father must come to recognize and accept the first clear-cut harbingers of aging. Among these are breathlessness after a block's walk against a brisk wind, the longer pause at the first landing, the too ready conversion of food as well as drink to fat rather than muscle, and, finally, the occasional lapses in sexual potency which occur to every aspiring Don Juan in the plumpish forties. The same is true of the regressive biologic changes to which the fortyish mother is adapting while her teenaged daughter blooms. Many harsh realities intrude on the female parent. One could mention the flushes, the hot flashes, the disturbing changes in body contour which create migrations in unwelcome directions, the decrease in skin elasticity, the perceptible sagging of skin around eyes and mouth with accompanying lackluster of skin surface, the termination of childbearing capacity, the increasing fatty-food idiosyncrasies, the afternoon or evening exhaustion, and the gray streaks in the hair.

It is difficult for the adolescent to accept and assimilate the evidences of his maturity, but it is equally difficult for his parents to reconcile themselves to the simultaneous indicators of post-maturity. Accentuated problems for the adolescent in this area arise in parental regrets or denial of change. The adolescent who can recognize the reality of his physical metamorphosis, accept it, and face the implications for his own social development has less self-consciousness, fewer regrets at leaving the protective climate of childhood, and he stands a far greater chance of becoming a mature adult. The parental figures with whom he is living through this experience can help or hinder him in it. If they cannot accept the responsibilities inherent in maturity and, more importantly, if they regret or mourn the loss or gradual disappearance of youthful powers and attributes, then it is likely that there will be trouble for the parents as well as for the adolescent. Parents who yearn for the vigor of the late teens, the stamina and energy of the sixteenth year when, in fact, they are chronologically and biologically forty or more years of age, may demean or compete with their adolescents. Sometimes they may even exploit them in ways which tend to compensate for the frustrating experiences or failures of their younger years. The attitude of such a parent might be paraphrased as follows: "I'm not going to permit him to go through the things I went through." This remark appears to be perfectly innocuous and perhaps even praiseworthy on the surface, but it may be otherwise. The fortyish mother with failing beauty may, because of a hostile rivalry with her more attractive sixteen-year-old daughter, curtail the child's normal social activities to such a degree that she becomes bitter and recalcitrant or, on the other hand, submissive yet filled with impotent rage. It is also possible that the same woman who is reliving a disappointing adolescence may take quite an opposite stance. She may force her adolescent daughter to extremes of social activity which threaten health or, often enough, far exceed the poorly developed social controls of the girl, saying: "She's not going to go through what I went through with my mother or father." This mother is vicariously reliving her adolescent conflicts in her own child and can precipitate both anguish and panic in her.

A father with analogous problems may tend to exploit his son. Where his adolescent physical powers may have been severely limited, he may drive his own son on the athletic field and live a new kind of physically exhibitionistic life through that son. Needless to say, a healthy parental pride in the athletic skill of an adolescent is a perfectly respectable attitude. By the same token, the genuine pride of a mother in the social grace, beauty, and poise of her adolescent daughter is admirable, but the deviant extremes are never pretty, and these usually come out either as hostile competition or vicarious exploitation.

Teen-agers are especially sensitive people. Competitive struggles waged by parents may force the adolescent to the assumption that he is inadequate and incompetent. The daughter, on one hand, may be led to the conclusion that she is a "dull drab" and no match for her spectacular mother or, on the other hand, that she is every inch as good, or even better, than her competitive mother. With promiscuous abandon she may set out to prove her desirability and value. A father who is a frustrated athlete and trumpets "the boy's exploits" on the football field or basketball court can provide a hopelessly alien environment for the reinforcement of functional maturational behaviors in his son. If the boy is not an outstanding athlete, his failures may stimulate hostile judgments or snide criticisms from such a father who not uncommonly takes a certain sadistic joy in referring to the "sickly shrimps who are called athletes now as compared to the old days."

The Assumption And Acceptance Of The Adult Sex-Linked Role In Contrast To Role Diffusion

The parent who is generally unhappy or who has failed to realize his own aspirations in life poses a special problem for his adolescent child. In the mother, this often involves rejection of the now tedious and often overburdening job of being wife, homemaker, and woman. Again, the mother who continues to reject these roles as menial and unpleasant creates a strained and relatively nonreinforcing environment for her teen-aged daughter with respect to the assumption of that daughter's acceptance of the adult female role. The acceptance, at this phase of development, is more exclusively social, while the failures of maturation in earlier childhood are more closely allied to biologic functions. It is not surprising that such a daughter might be inclined to reject female functions. That behavior is generally reinforced by her mother, and often, by her father. In the process, she may develop difficulties with menstruation, dating, adolescent social interactions, and other sex-linked role activities. The father who rejects his work, who tends to ruminate over the mistakes he made in his own schooling, who has failed in his ambition to be an engineer, dentist, lawyer, business executive, or professional football player does not provide a reinforcing environment for his adolescent son's role identification and assumption. He is often the father who is determined that "My boy is going to do it differently than I did." He then proceeds to spell the difference out in often inappropriate specifications, such as that he is going to college, whether prepared or not, that he must be a doctor, more usually, a brain surgeon in the common popular vernacular, an engineer, or other professional. Such a father tends to violate the spontaneous social, psychologic, and intellectual potentials of his son and often fails to reinforce those repertoires which could most effectively contribute to the assumption of a successful sex-linked, mature role.

The favorable climate for integrating social relationships with those of the same and opposite sex is one in which there is a wholesome anticipation of reward in human relationships. Intimately involved is the solid capacity for investing in (loving) others in the context of decreasingly tortuous self-consciousness and self-concern. The parents of these adolescents are living through similar conflict situations which involve the renunciation of selfish preoccupation, balancing the investment in immediately self-gratifying ends against the needs of the marital partner and growing children, and, finally, discovering mutual gratifications and satisfactions at the adult level rather than at a less mature level. The parent who utilizes his adolescent son or daughter for immediate social and psychologic gratification which should be obtained from his marital partner, who demands and exacts inordinate companionship from him, who lives in and through the social life of his adolescent daughter or son is in serious danger of creating arrest in this phase of his adolescent's development. Because these same parents are suffering certain insults to their own vanity and sense of biologic integrity, they may be more than usually inclined to retaliate against their adolescent children and create social situations which are entirely incompatible with the needs or interests of their children.

The adolescent faces the crucial problem of developing and consolidating indwelling self-control independently of such social factors as the way things look or who might be watching. The explosive and tumultuous activities of the adolescent often tend to catalyze the problems parents have with their own self-control. They also rekindle the memories of poorly resolved or secretly enjoyed forbidden activities in their own adolescence. Out of this simmering kettle of past experience comes the monstrous parental brew of mistrust or chronic suspicion concerning the adolescent and his behavior. Such suspicions acquire their intensity and power not, primarily, from the unacceptable behaviors of the adolescent but from the prior activities of the parents themselves. They reflect the parents' own lack of trust in themselves and their own controls confirmed by recollection of poorly resolved adolescent conflict in their own lives. Where such attitudes are well developed, there is little the adolescent can do to allay such suspicions. Because the suspicion frequently is unrelated to current behaviors and is maintained in the context of the parents' own past experiences, it is completely unaffected by protestations of innocence on the part of the child. The constant reiteration of suspicions also creates the favorable environment for final rejection of indwelling self-control, however well established in earlier life. The stage is then set for the generation and maintenance of impulsive and often destructive adolescent activities carried on in sheer desperation.


Additional topics

Human Behavior