Adults and adolescence
Dean was having a talk with his Dad about his difficulties with work experience. It began to get out of hand. His Dad had worked in the same place for twenty years and pointed out that boring routine was just part of life. Eventually Dean exploded “you don’t have twenty years of work experience anyway- you've had one year of work experience twenty times- I want to do better than that!” After that sentence Dean and his Dad said more hurtful things to each other and then went in different directions to lick their wounds. At times in their conversation it would have been difficult to tell the difference between the adolescent and the adult.
The road through adolescence is often potholed with such destructive exchanges. It is made more difficult because an adult may well be feeling much of the same anger and confusion as the adolescent. In fact, adolescents and their parents may be struggling on the same road but heading in the opposite direction: Whereas adolescents are heading excitedly into the freedom of early adulthood, their parents are leaving it behind with varying levels of reluctance and success. The emotional turbulence of adolescence is closely mirrored in the adult middle years. Whilst the adolescent looks forward to life with increasing zest the parents are often looking backwards and wondering how to use their dwindling energies better. Parents and adolescents are in the same confusing place on the road, but travelling in different directions. One is heading towards young adult life, the other is slipping inevitably, and perhaps angrily, away from it. When psychologists look at adolescence they suggest at least three areas of change that signal the move from childhood to adolescence. Older adults are not immune from any of them
The first area is change in the body itself, an adolescent becomes overwhelmed and absorbed by the way their body is developing and how it looks to others. Fashion, make up, hairstyles and appropriate muscle development can seem vital to an adolescent in claiming their own identity and sexuality. But just as the adolescent gazes into the bathroom mirror for hours, their mother or father may well be surveying a less welcome set of bodily changes in their own wardrobe mirror. The fight to stay fit may still be won- but at a greater cost. The lines around the eyes and mouth need a more cunning camouflage and it is increasingly difficult to hide the image of their own ageing parents emerging from the wardrobe mirror. The body of an adolescent and the body of a parent are saying different things but the effect is the similar- confusion and change. For the adult, the adolescent focus on the body can only tend to emphasise their own loss of youth, providing much emotional fuel for a holy war.
A second area of change is in relationships. Adolescent development depends to some extent upon identifying with a group and distancing themselves from dependence on their parents. Letting go of dependence may be gentle or turbulent but engaging in new relationships will be both frightening and exciting. Friendships, gossip, betrayals, first love and group loyalty energise and exhaust the adolescent at the same time. But the adult’s relationships are not stable either. Perhaps a parent has broken up with their partner or their best friend has divorced in a way that questions their own key relationships. If all else is well an adult in their forties will be increasingly aware of changing relationship with their own parents: their health, dependency, talk of wills and the need for care. Just when they are being challenged to let go of responsibility for their children, the adult is also asked to sensitively absorb more responsibility for their own parents as they move to the end of their lives. Such reflection may leave even the mature parent in an emotional storm not too different from that of their adolescent child. The difference between the emotional storms is that the adolescent’s is focussed on the optimistic buoyancy of new beginnings whilst the adult storm will focus on re-negotiating established relationships and letting go as they move into older adulthood themselves.
The third area of focus for adolescence is the future. So much teenage time is spent dreaming and planning that they might seem to have left the present moment, and the planet, entirely. For the parent of an adolescent the future looks a little more down to earth. The time they thought they had seems to have evaporated. It is half time in their working life. For the adult it becomes important to re-value the time they have and they may resent the abandon with which their children treat time. Adult choices may well need to change in order to achieve some of the dreams they abandoned before the family arrived. Parents may feel the need to change their life style just at the time when their adolescent children need them to be most consistent. In fact, as the adolescent breaks away from parents, the parents too may quietly need to detach themselves from the adolescents in order to move forward on their own journey.
Don Bosco[i] was aware that working with adolescents would often be very confusing. The challenge of walking with adolescents was for him a path to maturity and holiness for adults on their own spiritual journey. Parents, teachers, youth-workers and catechists all face the challenge on a regular basis. The Salesian charism offers each of them a style of working based on the good shepherd who guides and protects and seeks out what is lost. But Don Bosco also offers in the preventive system a way for the adult to grow spiritually. Through the experience of working with the adolescents their relationship with the good shepherd is tested and deepened. Working with adolescents invites confusion and Challenge. It opens up the valley of shadow of death hidden in each person where the Lord alone is the shepherd, guiding the concerned parent, teacher or youth worker to deeper awareness and greener pastures.
As the adult parent or teacher or youth worker begins to see the traces of age mark their own body they can become vulnerable and uncertain about themselves. In order to deal with the ingratitude and inconsistency of adolescents they need the deeper reassurance of a good shepherd from within themselves. The affirmation the teacher and parent need must come from a more intimate sense that they are known by name and accepted as they are by an inner wisdom. By giving time to this gentle acceptance the parent and educator can move deeper into relationship with an inner good shepherd and find the calm sense of an inner presence that lies at the heart of the preventive system. The adolescent of course, can easily shatter this new intimacy and calmness but that too, is part of the journey. Those moments of conflict may even lead the adult toward jealousy of their own children, resentment of the teenager’s open future or just sadness about the adult’s own lost youth. Or maybe, recognising the presence of the good shepherd in those darker feelings about work with adolescents, the parent or educator may find a gentler acceptance that their own journey has moved on. The good shepherd can then transform the tensions of the adolescent-adult relationship into a rich source of growth and a tailor made challenge to maturity and faith.
One of the greatest spiritual gifts adolescents offer to older people is their ability to rub salt into adult compromises with life. Their young and sometimes innocent questions remind us older people of how much is wrong with the world we are handing on to them. They ruthlessly remind us that it is already later in life than we think and how we play out the second half of life will be different from the first. Adolescents remind us that there is no standing still on the journey, no resting on adult laurels but rather a change in pace and depth of life. The adolescent awakens an urgent call in the adult to a deeper spiritual journey. Disturbing, confusing and idealistic the adolescents stands, like John the Baptist, inviting us to prepare a new way in what may appear to be the wilderness of our middle years. With the presence of the good shepherd and the wisdom of Don Bosco both adolescent and adult find richness in sharing that journey, even if they are travelling in different directions.