It seems that children become teenagers at age 11 nowadays, or even earlier. We can blame the media for over exposing them to grown-up things, we can blame our lifestyles or we can say that as we grow and develop as a race so our rate of development as individuals changes. Whatever the reasons, when do we first get that inkling of the teenager to come? I think it is when the child first realises that he or she will someday become an adult and leave home. This is something of a psychic shock, even though it may be expressed as a casual thought. Separation from one’s primary caregiver is no small feat and can be a daunting prospect for children.
What are the signs that this will happen? Bodily changes are often the first signs. Hair, lower voices for boys, periods for girls, then accompanying rushes of emotion, all are signs that the child’s body is no longer – that phase of life has gone and will never return. Social expectations soon follow. Public examinations loom larger, and there seems to be an ever-increasing pressure on our children and teenagers to perform. Anxieties abound in the form of work, social lives and the opposite sex.
Children in this phase of life will, as they grow and develop, appear at times to be immensely mature and will inevitably want to experiment with ‘adult’ things. At other times they can be seen to be behaving like much younger children again, as if desperately clinging on to their last childhood excitements and delights. They really are in between two stages of life – childhood and adulthood. When the word ‘teenagers’ was coined it was from an attempt to recognise this stage of life with its pull in both directions.
The evolutionary pattern is that we leave our primary caregivers, find another mate and set up our own home. If only it were that simple for humans. Teenagers are full of self-doubt about their bodies and personalities and often pass through phases of low self-esteem and loneliness. No wonder they cling anxiously to the group, desperate to form a like-minded set of people. Quite early on in the process parents will complain of having lost their loving child to a sullen, sarcastic teenager. With their preoccupations and the sure knowledge that they have one day to leave the parents who have sustained and loved them, been their advocates and their life-lines, teenagers have no choice but to attempt to be the ones who do the pushing away. It is much easier to be the one who says goodbye than to be the one who is said goodbye to. The latter is left with a sense of abandonment but the former can move on in the world.
So, it is finally the parents, a little older, careworn and wiser, who wave goodbye to their offspring as they venture out into the world on their journeys, whatever they may entail. The parents are left behind by their children, and that is how it should be. The bonus is that once they have left, they return with renewed respect and understanding. You have not lost a child so much as gained a new young person who you love.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists