Kathleen S. G. Skott-Myhre
In 1996, aliens descended from outer space, kidnapped my only son, and replaced him with an almost perfect replica. It was an almost perfect reproduction, except for one thing. They took out his sweet, amiable personality and replaced it with one that was unpredictable and chaotic. It was the only logical explanation I could come up with when my son turned thirteen. It was also during that time that I vowed I would not work with other children who were experiencing this thing called “adolescence.” Well, the powers that be had a different plan and my first year practicum as a counselor found me working with, not just adolescents, but “defiant and rebellious” adolescents. Through this experience, I discovered that these defiant and rebellious adolescents were really perceptive and dedicated young women and men.
On the first day of my practicum I arrived with my proverbial bags packed with all of the psychological literature about adolescent development and family systems theory. I approached my first day “on the floor” with my flimsy liberal beliefs that everyone is and should be treated the same, except for the youth who need adult help and guidance to help them navigate the stormy seas of adolescence. One of the first young persons I met was a seventeen-year-old African American youth that encapsulated the image of the stereotypical gang member. He was tall and tough. I realized that had I encountered him on the street, I may very well have crossed the street to avoid getting any where near him. As a matter of fact, when we broke into small groups, I avoided the group he was in. When we got together as a whole group again, this young man blew my preconceived ideas sky high. He turned out to be a very sweet young man who, unfortunately, was struggling with some very difficult social and familial situations. His methods of negotiating his life and his situation created unexpected and often hidden assets and strengths.
What hid his assets and strengths from me was the way in which I and other adult caregivers have been inducted into the understanding of young people through the lenses of theories of adolescent development. Most adolescent development theory is based in the idea that adolescence is a period that G. Stanley Hall called “storm and stress” (1904) and that most young people experience a time of chaos and rebellion. Had I used this particular framework with which to relate to this young man, I would have surmised that he was rebelling against authority and needed help to understand how to comply and follow the rules for his own personal well being. According to Levey-Warren (1996), his age would have placed him in middle adolescence. In following this theory I would have focused on the negative and seen him as narcissistic and pleasure seeking with no regard for his family or future consequences. I might well have missed hearing his concern for his family, his dedication to his family traditions, and his apprehension and aspirations about his future.
Using adolescent theory as a framework for working with young people is a way of marginalizing yet another group within the population. By positioning young people within the of confines of so called “adolescence” we treat persons within this age group (which is growing ever wider) in a particular way that may have a huge impact on how they see themselves and how that view of themselves is acted out in our culture (Males, 1996). Youth spend most of their day in developmentally isolated confines separated from the rest of our society, ostensibly so that they can be educated. Yet, as Foucault (1975) has pointed out, a good deal of what we call education in our society is actually designed to shape and control young people. This is, of course, a certain kind of education, but it is a kind of pedagogy that has powerful effects. Some of these effects include a degree of alienation, as young people find themselves not only isolated from the rest of the community but under constant surveillance from metal detectors, police in the hallways, barbed wire on school yard fences and security cameras on school buses and in hallways.
In addition, when they leave the school confines,
they continue to be under surveillance in stores and malls. In fact,
some stores even have signs limiting the number of youth who can
congregate within the store at any time. The media contributes to this
sense of isolation and alienation through constant horror stories about
youth and the use of drugs, alcohol and uncontrolled sexuality (Males,
1996). These stories utilize the developmental discourse of adolescence
to explain and amplify the perception that youth are biologically
incapable of reasonable decision-making.
Statistically, however, it is not youth who have the highest rates of depression, suicide, drug addiction, drug overdose, mass shootings or other types of violent behavior (Powers, 2002). It is, in fact adults. In his article “Disowning the Future,” Mike Males points out that the developmental adjectives we use to describe youth are the very same adjectives we have used to describe other disenfranchised and marginalized groups that we have historically categorized as developmentally inferior by race, gender or class.
To illustrate my point, I will use another marginalized group within our culture. Women in our culture are seen as emotionally incompetent, volatile, and hyper-sexualized. They are overly dependent on their peers and stress a particular importance on maintaining their relationships with their “best friends.” According to certain psychological theory (Kohlberg, 1987) they lag behind men in their ability to reason logically as well as their capacity for moral reasoning. According to this archaic, yet ever present, description, women are stuck in the middle stages of adolescence. The end result of this particular stage of development is to successfully pass through the process of individuation and separation with the ultimate goal of reaching autonomy. Many cultures would refute autonomy as being the objective. The Western/capitalist notion of youth and many of the theories of adolescent development are not easily generalized and, I would argue, they are culturally bound.
In my own experience within my role as both mother and daughter the western/capitalist developmental framework does not fit well. My culture as an Irish-American is one of group cohesion and close family ties. No one really grows up in the capitalist sense of autonomous, rational, reasonable productive subjectivity. Instead we are all melded into one another, co-dependent, irrational, mystical, rowdy, physical and loud. We are a family in which grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters go together to get group tattoos; a tribe in which the beer and bullshit flow freely at large gatherings. We gather friends and adopt family members like stones gather moss. In short we are very adolescent. In that sense, I got my son back from the aliens when I realized that he and I are really not so different.
Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and Punish:
The birth of the prison (A. M. Sheridan Smith trans.). New York:
Hall, G.S. (1904). Adolescence. New York: Appleton.
Kohlberg, L. (1987). Child psychology and childhood education: A cognitive-developmental view. New York: Longman.
Levey-Warren, M. H. (1996). The adolescent journey: Development, identity formation, and psychotherapy. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.
Males, M. (1996). Disowning the future. New Designs for Youth Development, 12 (4).
Powers, R. (2002). The apocalypse of adolescence. The Atlantic Monthly, March. pp. 58-75.