Seeing your body transform, gradually leaving childhood to reach adulthood… Puberty is one of the major upheavals of life. No wonder then, that our teenagers sometimes look so bad in their skin.
Puberty is a loss of bearings, both corporal and familial.
The body’s landmarks
Seeing your breasts grow, blood flowing each month at the time of your period, or, for boys, seeing hair grow, experiencing your first ejaculation, not recognizing the sound of your voice are all disturbing experiences.
The “familiar”, his body, transforms in a relatively short period of time, to become foreign, if not strange.
On this ground, physical complexes can germinate: such a young girl will want to hide her nascent breasts under large, shapeless sweaters, such a boy will let his hair grow, in order to erase sexual differences, such a teenager will suddenly stop playing sports because, ashamed of a body considered too thin or too fat, he will refuse the ordeal of showering in front of others?
On the other hand, suddenly or almost suddenly here is the boy becoming as tall as his father and the girl able to put on her mother’s high heels!
These physiological and physical changes modify other landmarks. Thus, all the “when I grow up I will be able to…” leave the realm of fantasy to enter that of the possible.
With puberty, the status of parents changes. The identifications that made it possible to construct oneself are re-examined. It becomes possible to really do like the father and thus to take his place. The oedipal desires are consequently re-actualized, with a new force which requires new defenses to repress them: rejection, aggressiveness, submission, inhibition…
In this reshaping of identity, the challenge is to first of all get rid of identifications with parental figures, in order to be able to build one’s own personality, but by reintegrating them in a second stage, after having assessed their legitimacy.
This necessary wrenching out can also be extremely difficult, because it requires mourning for childhood and can revive very old separation anxieties experienced by the baby.
The role of the group
To face all these transformations, parents are no longer necessarily the best accompaniers, even if their role as guardian in the sense of support is fundamental at this time.
The phenomenon of groups or gangs, even gangs, is particularly important at an age when we no longer know very well who we are or who we want to become. Peers become references. Doing like others of your own age means trying to find new identifications when you have just lost your old ones, but it also means being able to compare yourself to others who are going through the same thing as you are. It also means making sure that what we live, feel, think, fear is “normal”.
At puberty, loneliness, the absence of friends, is the mark and the cause of a real difficulty and must question the entourage.
The role of the parents
To build oneself up in adolescence is necessarily to deconstruct and rebuild oneself “against”, and in particular against parents.
However, nothing is more destabilizing for a child in the midst of change than to see his or her parents collapse under his or her anger and attacks. Certainly, one part of the child, the most impulsive, expresses aggressiveness, revolt, even hatred (the famous “I hate you all” that we often hear), but another part, at the same time, fears the annihilation of the father or mother by this hatred that would send the young person back to an extremely anguishing lack of limits. Indeed, in front of his own transformations, he needs a permanent reference point. However, these are brought by the stability of the entourage which holds firm on its positions.
On the other hand, he needs to feel that he is loved if not understood, that he can count on his parents, even if, and this is all the ambivalence of adolescence, he needs, at the same time, to reject them.
Françoise Dolto described adolescence as the period of the “lobster complex”: the child sheds its suddenly narrow shell to acquire another one. In between, they are vulnerable, aggressive or withdrawn.
It’s up to the parents to stay far enough apart to let their youngster build a new shell, his own, but also close enough so that he doesn’t hurt himself too much until it’s formed.