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Living with teenagers

John Heron

Three chapters, with the start of a fourth, from a manuscript commissioned by a UK publisher after the screening in 1994 of a BBC1 TV programme in which I facilitated a group of parents and teenagers exploring the challenges of living together. The publisher found the chapters too radical. This is the first publication of the original text.

Chapter 1: Parent troubleYour teenager as citizen of the future

Who is this young human being who is living with you? Certainly he or she is your teenage son or daughter. But who are these persons we call teenagers?

They are people reaching full physical and sexual development; they are opening and deepening emotionally; they are flexible and adaptable in their attitudes; their intellectual grasp is rapidly extending; their capacity for curiosity, experimentation, adventure and enjoyment reaches out toward the whole world; their idealism and spirituality is born on waves of commitment and enthusiasm. All this can be included in the thrust of a single statement: they are emerging adult decision-makers. They are learning to shape themselves and their world by the choices they make. They are citizens of the future.

• When they are eighteen years old in our society, they have the right to vote. We believe they are mature and responsible enough to participate in the democratic process, to have their say in political decision-making by choosing their preferred representative.

• When they are eighteen, and male, we also believe that they have a duty, in times of military threat to the nation, to fight for their country; and that they are sufficiently strong and competent to handle the life and death decisions that have to be made in the midst of battle.

Yet all the evidence is that we, as parents, do not treat our sons and daughters in the three years before they become eighteen in a way that truly empowers them to make these – and many other – kinds of challenging decision. It is remarkable that, launched into the adult world by the simple accident of turning eighteen, they strive and survive and so often succeed – just as we did when we made the dramatic jump.

This says a lot for the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit. But what would the entrance to adulthood be like and what would adults be like if, throughout their teenage years, people were truly affirmed and empowered as emerging adult decision-makers? Such affirmation tends to be the exception to what usually happens.

You as embattled parent

Many parents of teenagers use four different rather frantic ways of behaving. Some parents specialize in just one or two, others may move around among all four. The one that all parents start with and most parents keep on trying to use is the first one below, taking control; when this doesn’t work, then they resort to one or more of the other three. But none of these behaviours really work, because none of them are really empowering. Yet the parent keeps applying them, frequently with a mounting sense of desperation and fruitless effort, feeling embattled and trapped in endless variations on failure. Here are the four frantic ways.

• Taking control You give them strict orders, firm and clear guidance, direct supervision, moralistic ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’; you discipline them with punishments, or control them with rewards. Underneath all this, you are impatient and intolerant, blaming and disapproving.

Jane is 16 and her father is a police officer. He gives her strict orders as to what time she is to be back at home after a night out. If she is late, he uses the police car to go the disco to take her home.

• Being submissive You allow them to ride roughshod over you, to do what they want at your expense; you let them get away with it; you put up with all manner of inconvenience. And below this, you feel impotent and helpless, humiliated, hurt and unloved.

Valerie is a single mother living with her son Tommy who is 15. He leaves every room he uses in a mess – bathroom, kitchen, living room, bedroom. She slaves around cleaning up after him, feeling hassled, distraught and powerless.

• Going to the rescue You express your care, concern and love; you insist on taking your full share of the blame for all that is going wrong for them; you ask them to tell you all about it and talk it all over; you offer to do whatever you can to help; you arrange for them to have outside professional help, or informal help from friends and relatives. Behind all this, you are guilty and ashamed, harbouring feelings of failure.

Quentin is 14 and he is steadily on cannabis. His parents have long loving conferences with him based on the theme ‘It’s all our fault, what can we now do to help’.

• Turning away You neglect them, ignore them and pay them no respect; you dissociate from their behaviour and attitudes and disown them emotionally; at the extreme of this kind of behaviour, you reject them, throw them out of the house, send them to the other parent, withdraw all financial support. Within all this, you are full of suppressed anger, with outbursts of hostility.

Sarah is 16, assertive and wilful. Her mother has insisted that she lives away from home so as not to disturb the household as her mother’s new live-in lover settles down.

As I said above, each of the last three of these ways of behaving may follow on from attempts at control. When you try over and again to control the behaviour of your teenager, and it doesn’t work, then you may simply give up for a period and relapse into submission; or you may feel guilty and concerned and try to help; or you may get fed up and angry and push your child away.

Whatever sort of pattern they fall into, these four kinds of behaviour are compulsive, that is to say you are locked into them, they drive you, they are rigid and maladaptive – they don’t fit the situation and above all they don ‘t work.

Control, to which most parents are heavily addicted, is useless: a teenager cannot learn how to live by being told how to live, but only by the practice of making their own choices, being responsible for their own lives. Submission in a parent is not a good model for a teenager, who needs examples of adults who clearly define their boundaries, state justly and fairly their proper rights, needs and interests, and negotiate strongly to get them respected. Guilty rescuing treats the teenager as a bad psychological case, and he or she may then act into what is thus being implied. It is the opposite of the affirmation the teenager needs. Rejection is a destructive way of throwing the teenager into an alienated and unhappy lifestyle, not a truly autonomous one.

Why, then, do parents behave in these ways so often, sometimes shifting around inconsistently between them?

How your teenager reacts

Before considering why parents behave like this, let’s look at typical sorts of disquieting ways in which teenagers behave, often in response to the parental compulsions.

• Being rebellious They do what they know you have ordered them not to do; they deliberately flout your guidance; they subvert your direct supervision, do the opposite of your ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’, bypass your punishments and ignore your offered rewards.

Having repeatedly been told not to stay on the telephone for more than five minutes, George, who is 15, regularly makes calls that last twenty minutes.

• Exploiting you They take you for granted, abuse their privileges, trample on your rights and boundaries, take more than they are due to receive and offer no gratitude.

Joy is 16 and has friends in when her parents are out. She gives the teenagers all the special foods her mother has bought for the family weekend, and leaves the house without clearing up after the raid.

• Being childish They avoid the challenge of emerging adulthood, indulge themselves with food, drink or drugs, revert to a childish or infantile absence of responsibility, retreat into phantasy, childhood games and play, expect to be provided for and looked after.

James is 18, lives on social security, avoids work and further training, and spends hours playing video games, in which he is an acknowledged expert.

• Pretending to conform They apparently conform to your expectations and wishes, without real commitment, to rescue themselves from excessive tension, so that they can pursue their secret life, protect their interests and keep you sweet for further use.

Geraldine is 16. She apparently conforms to all her parents’ ideal and unreal expectations. Behind this screen, she smokes, drinks, has regular but unsatisfactory sex and bouts of shoplifting.

These behaviours too are driven, rigid and maladaptive. They are distressed reactions to various sources of tension, a main one being the compulsive way parents so often behave. Teenagers deeply, intuitively feel that the parent is not acknowledging who they really are and what they really need. They lapse into frustrated reaction and get distracted from the real business of being an emergent decision-maker. For teenagers, the challenge of moving towards the adult world has added to it an upsetting complication: their principal guides and initiators – their parents – are themselves too distracted to be helpful. Hence the tendency to run amok in despair.

You can see how the two sets of behaviours interlock and run each other, the main source being the parental set. Intolerant, disapproving control breeds wild rebellion; impotent, humiliated submission invites punitive exploitation; guilty rescuing suggests evasive regression; the fear of rejection procures prudent compliance. Of course, in reality the interlocking is not a simple one-to-one correspondence of this sort. All the parental compulsions will interact in varying ways with all the teenage ones. Once the two systems get well enmeshed, their respective components continually trigger each other off, and you have a relationship between parent and teenager that is mutually negative.

There are certainly other significant sources of distressed teenage behaviour, and we will look at these in the next chapter. But the parental sources are critical, and are a central theme of this book.

If you as a parent are controlling and rejecting, you may take no responsibility for the fact that your approach is not working, and put all the blame on your teenager. He or she, you will say, is the source of all the trouble, is being unreasonable, having difficulty with growing up, rejecting the claims of responsible and considerate living, and so on and so forth. If you as a parent are submitting and rescuing, you may take all the responsibility upon yourself and relapse into guilt: you are the cause of all the problems, have been a bad parent, have failed miserably, and your teenager is headed for disaster in life. If you move around between all four frantic behaviours, you may oscillate between blame and guilt.

Both blame and guilt are irrelevant and useless. What is needed, first and foremost, is an understanding of the parental trap, and how to get out of it. This is the trap that keeps parents locked into their fruitless round of compulsive behaviours.

The parental trap

The trap is not difficult to understand. It is not an inherently difficult concept to grasp; but more to the point so many parents know it well from within, through experience. Simply to describe it to them is to ignite strong sparks of recognition. Nor is the trap difficult to spring, once you grasp the knack and have the nerve to try it. There are four parts of it.

• The influence of your own past Somewhere inside you as teenage-embattled parent is a buried script, unnoticed and unacknowledged, perhaps strongly denied. It contains the story line of your own teenage years. And it includes the recorded behaviour of your own troubled parents all those years ago. This script is a story of still unfinished business: of needs and rights unnoticed, of longings frustrated, of inept and inappropriate parental attitudes. None of this is resolved, none of it healed, none of it brought to the surface for the release of tension, the generation of insight. As embattled parent, you carry round a buried script that is still active with a need to be noticed, rewritten and have its beleaguered business finished. The script is buried, disowned, because it is upsetting to stay too close to it, and also because as an older teenager you had to deny your need for liberation in order to cope with the increasing pressure of events. You had to come rapidly to terms with the limiting conditions of the adult world, to acquire some acceptable social identity that would enable you to claim a place in that world.

• The effect of bonding The bond between you and your child is very deep. Its depth and existence is quite independent of whether it is acknowledged and expressed, or denied and rejected. It strongly claims your energy, positively or negatively, consciously or subliminally. What this means is that, whatever your attitude, you identify with your teenager, that is, feel his or her identity as your own. And this is the basis for projecting the buried script.

• Putting your past outside you Because of the close identification, as embattled parent you are continuously and unawarely putting on to your teenager your own unfinished teenage business as recorded in the buried script. What is not acknowledged within is displaced without, as if it belongs to someone else. What we disown in ourselves we see in others, especially our own children. Once the story-line of the script is projected in this way, the scene is set for re-enactment.

• Unawarely re-enacting old trouble Human beings continuously re-enact in the present the hidden, unhealed troubled events of the past, particularly those that have scarred their personal identity, their sense of who they are. The re-enactment does several things, none of them, bar one, being fruitful.

• It keeps the re-enacted script buried by disguising it as current reality.

• It seems to explain why there is a haunting sense of pain and trouble: since the real cause of the pain is buried, I re-create a similar kind of situation to try to feel justified in having the pain.

• It displaces that haunting sense, seemingly gives it somewhere to go, something to busy itself with. Displacement, however, is always ineffective and counter-productive: it never procures healing, and it breeds further upset.

• It is a misbegotten attempt to try to resolve the old trouble: like someone repeatedly rattling the wrong key in a lock to open it.

• It is an unconscious call to someone, anyone, to get the re-enactor out of the four-part trap: and this is the only potentially fruitful effect. Unfortunately the appropriate kind of help is rarely forthcoming.

There is a central feature of re-enactment that is critical: it is to do with multiple roles. The buried script carries within it a complex of interrelated attitudes and behaviours: your parents’, those of other contemporary authority figures, yours as a teenager, those of your brothers and sisters and other peers. It is a dynamic drama, a tense, interacting whole. And you can re-enact any of the roles within it.

When your teenage self is projected onto your teenager son or daughter, you can slip into your parents’ roles in the buried script. To put it the other way round: if you re-enact you parents’ roles from the script, then you can displace the vulnerable part of your teenage self on to your son or daughter. This keeps it buried and denied within, as you project and oppress it without. Now you can really re-enact the troubled past.

During the war, Michael sent his 12 year old son Richard to stay with a family in another country. Richard was deprived of father-son bonding throughout his teenage life. Years later, Richard sent his 11 year old son Peter over several summers to travel with another family on holidays abroad, thus re-enacting the painful absence of father-son bonding.

Another feature of re-enactment that sometimes occurs is sameness-in-difference. The re-enactment can look very different, even appear to be the opposite, of what is written in the buried script, but the net effect is really the same. So when you try not to repeat the mistakes your parents made, you may an end up making the same fundamental error in a very different form.

Sally and her husband George were both brought up in homes in which nudity was a matter of shame and embarrassment. As teenagers they felt that their emerging sexuality was never honoured. So when they became parents, they were often and unhesitatingly naked in front of their own young teenage daughters, who were actively encouraged to be unashamedly nude. Later in life the daughters reported that they never felt that their emerging sexuality was properly honoured. What was the same, within its quite opposite forms in the two generations, was the oppressive, interfering attitude, advice and behaviour of the parents.

Mistrust, always mistrust

Whatever the external shape of the drama in the buried script, whatever different ways your parent was compulsively controlling, submissive, rescuing or rejecting, the underlying negative message to you as a teenager was the same: ‘I don’t trust you to make the right choices’. Consider the following, and remember, we are considering what is going on now between the hidden image within of your own parent and your buried teenage self.

• The controlling message is: ‘I can’t trust you, so all I can do is try to control you’.

• The submissive message is: ‘I can’t trust you and I can’t control you, so all I can do is suffer you’.

• The rescuing message is: ‘I can’t trust you, so all I can do is try to salvage what I can from the damage that’s been done to you’.

• The rejecting message is: ‘I can’t trust you, so all I can do is withdraw all my support’.

This is why sameness-in-difference can involve a shift in the form of the parental compulsion, for example, from control to submission, but the underlying impact is the same. Your parents may have over controlled you as a teenager, while you over submit to your own teenager, but the core message in the buried script is still being re-enacted: ‘I can’t trust you’. Here is another brief history, in which the core message is translated from rejection to rescue. It is also translated from moralistic control to therapeutic facilitation.

Margery was brought up in a harsh religious household that simply ignored what was really going on in her, in order to impose on her a code of duty and service. After a disturbing divorce from a man who was active in the same religious group, she was worried that the same kind of emotional neglect, together with the impact of the divorce, had affected her teenage daughter, Susan. With loving concern, Margery persuaded Susan, despite Susan’s initial strong protests, to go with her to a counsellor for two years. Both Margery and the counsellor repeatedly and gently urged Susan to express what was really going on in her. Susan in later years reported that these sessions made her feel that what was really going on in her was being totally ignored since she never wanted them in the first place.

Mistrust does damage

To imply to your teenager by the way you relate to him and her every day that you don’t trust them to make the right choices, is the last thing any adolescent needs. The young human being, emerging towards adult decision-making, needs affirmation, support and above all opportunity to learn what is involved in making their own decisions in a wide range of life-areas. To get the opposite of this, in the form of persistent mistrust, is damaging.

• It undermines your teenager’s self-confidence, implants a negative self-image, and leaves a mixed wake of depression and impotent anger.

• It is self-fulfilling: it produces the very consequence it fears. Your teenager may act out his or her anger in all sorts of ‘wrong’ choices. Thus

• It generates in your teenager compulsive rebellion, which is a distorted form of autonomy. Denied real affirmation or real opportunity or both, teenagers seek out forbidden fruit, in order to assert a deviant kind of independence and so revenge themselves on their mistrusting parents.

Sam goes home every day after school to a father who is critical of the relative absence of girls in Sam’s life, of how he relates to the girls he does on occasion bring home, and of the girls themselves. The father wants an assertive, macho son, seen in the right places with attractive young women hanging on his arms. After two years of this, Sam takes up with a local prostitute on a regular financial basis.

• It likewise generates compulsive exploitation, regression and compliance: different ways in which the teenager acts out its emotionally disabling effects. Mistrusted, teenagers help themselves to everything unthinkingly, revert to childish behaviours, or appear to conform to parental requirements as a convenient cover-up.

Mistrust also does damage to you as a parent. By trying to take over responsibility for your child’s life, you are defining yourself as a ‘good parent’ in terms to be measured entirely by how your teenager behaves.

• As a compulsively controlling parent, your identity does not depend on what you do in making something of yourself, but on how your teenager does or does not meet your expectations. You define yourself in terms of the behaviour you want your teenage to produce under your direction. So you have no real identity of your own. Your identity is a hostage to your teenager’s waywardness.

• This means you are setting yourself up for failure and a consequent breakdown in your self-esteem. On the one hand you are convinced that you are no good unless you are a good parent, and that a good parent is a controlling parent. On the other hand it is obvious on a daily basis that control doesn’t work, can never really work and is somehow misplaced. So you end up feeling no good, confused and believing there’s something really wrong with you.

• Having no proper identity of your own through trying to control your teenager’s life, is a way of avoiding the challenge of establishing a real identity by developing yourself in new and enterprising ways. As your teenager faces the first great phase of self-development, you too are called on to face a new mid-life phase of self-development.

• You are unawarely stuck on the time track. You are applying to your teenager the kinds of control that were appropriate when he or she was a young child. In failing to see that they are no longer relevant you keep yourself and your teenager outside your respective paths of true unfoldment.

At this point, as a somewhat aggrieved, embattled parent of a teenager, you may say ‘But surely, I can’t trust my teenager to make the right choices: he doesn’t have the experience or the knowledge; he doesn’t know the way of the world; he can’t appreciate all the issues that need to be taken into account; he is bound to sacrifice long term advantage for short term gain’. But listen to yourself, to the continuing irrationality.

How can he and she acquire the experience and the knowledge, if you never affirm their right and need to do so by their making significant choices? What good are your choices imposed on young human beings resenting and regretting that the opportunity was missed to make their own way. Why so little faith in the reliability of the human psyche as it emerges toward adulthood with a flourish of strong energy of different kinds in teenage years? One of the main ultimate outcomes of this kind of mistrust is that it generates pseudo-adults rather than real adults, as we shall see.

The roots of mistrust

The basic root of mistrust is fear. Here are some of the different kinds of fear that may be at work.

• Fear of your own unlived potential Conditioned by your parents and others to mistrust your own teenage aspirations, you have embalmed them in fear, which unconsciously increases as they appear to become more and more impracticable with age. This fear is then projected on to your own teenager as a mistrust of their capacity to make the right choices.

From his early teenage years, Frank wanted to become either an orchestral conductor or a brain surgeon, having significant potential in both directions. His father was an alcoholic and the family was always short of money. He was persuaded by his mother to leave school at 14 and go out to work as an office boy to help the family finances. After many years he forgot his youthful aspirations, rose to become sales manager and eventually set up a successful company of his own. Meanwhile he had married and fathered two sons. The eldest, in his late teens, wanted to become a creative writer. Frank pooh-poohed the idea and said it would be foolish to throw up the opportunity to join and eventually take over a thriving family business.

• Fear of the upsurge of life in your teenager He and she are undergoing rapid physical, sexual and mental development. Human nature demonstrates its dramatic, emerging power before your eyes. You are afraid that it will all run riot in negative, disruptive, chaotic, self-centred and self-destructive disturbing actions.

There is a very pervasive, still potent tradition in western culture that fears nature, the human body, human sexuality, human potential. They are felt to be dangerous, lurking sources of damnation. Augustine, who dominated Christian doctrine, saw original sin as concupiscence, transmitted biologically through sexual procreation. At the Reformation, Calvin wrote of the ‘hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature’. In the 18th century, children at the dawn of puberty were routinely taken to watch public hangings, then brought home to be gratuitously flogged, so as to put the fear of god into them in order to contain their innate nastiness.

That was long ago, yet not so long ago. Meanwhile, the tradition lingers on in secular form. The Freudian id is a seething unconscious cauldron that seeks to give free rein to primitive impulses, sexual and aggressive. It needs to be contained by the reality principle of the ego and the censorious demands of the superego.

You may be neither Christian nor Freudian in your explicit beliefs. Yet you may still be caught up in the persistent, pervasive echoes of this cultural legacy. For there are as yet no widely prevailing belief systems, available to large numbers of people, that affirm trust in creation, trust in the body, trust in sexuality, and trust in the up thrusting energies of adolescent human beings.

The problem with a fear of, a lack of trust in, these great realities, is that it is self-perpetuating through being self-fulfilling. Once you fear your own human nature, you inhibit it. This distorts it into ugly forms, and then you realize how right you were to fear it. When you fear the human nature of your teenager, you oppress it, it responds in disturbed behaviour, and you then blame yourself for not having exercised enough control: you clearly took the correct approach but with not enough rigour. This mutilating, self-locking treatment is not one from which any teenager can benefit.

At the age of 14, Jane started going out on dates. Her mother, terrified that Jane would be willingly seduced into rampant sexual activity, become pregnant and have a secret abortion, insisted that she be good and return home at a very early hour. Feeling deeply mistrusted, Jane’s hurt and resentment drove her to seduce her boyfriend and she became pregnant. Her mother accused Jane of being bad, insisted she have an abortion and tell no-one about it. She then refused to let Jane go out at all. Within a year, Jane had run away from home.

• Fear of the challenge to your own limited lifestyle You fear that if you truly affirmed the right of your teenagers to make many more significant choices than you allow, in doing so they would throw into relief the unnecessary restrictions of your own life. We keep our children chained, otherwise once liberated they may throw a spotlight into the shadows where our own redundant bondage lurks. To support their fulsome development, we need to set in motion our own renewed development now.

Who really is adult?

If parents of teenagers are caught in the parental trap, are they really adults? If parents snare their teenagers in the same trap, will the teenagers grow up to be real adults?

Young people stumble into adulthood never resolving their induced teenage compulsions to rebel, exploit, regress, and comply – behind which lie all manner of unexplored potentials. The social challenges of the adult world demand an appearance of responsible decision-making. The teenager, not empowered from within to emerge into adulthood, is dragged by the pressure of events to make some working accommodation to its requirements. The result is a pseudo-adult, a partial, incomplete, not fully empowered adult, with a fixated, unliberated teenager within.

Pseudo-adults have had to abandon their own teenage liberation. They sustain their new-found and precarious social identity by denying that this abandonment matters or indeed that any such abandonment ever occurred, or, which is the same thing, that there was ever anything to abandon. Their teenage script is buried.

At 17, Peter had an ambition to roam the world, travel far and wide, work at any job, test himself with the rolling dice of fate, meet the challenge of unknown human encounters, and find a luminous woman on a distant hill. His father became anxious and concerned at this phantasy, and thought it was an irresponsible avoidance of getting a proper qualification. Peter was persuaded by the subtle intimidation of his father to abandon his plan and proceed straight from school to enrol for a medical degree. The pressures of the training, the competitive pursuit of a medical career, induced Peter to forget his teenage ambition and deny that it was ever relevant.

When in due course pseudo-adults become the parents of a teenager, the buried script is triggered into re-enactment through identification and projection. Pseudo-adults become pseudo-parents who cannot empower their teenage sons and daughters. They cannot see what the teenagers need. They just see the projected ghost of their own past self, and deny to their real teenagers what they still deny to this ghost and they do this by re-enacting variations on the internalized compulsions of their own parents.

When pseudo-adults re-enact the interlocking parent-teenage compulsions of their own teenage years, they do so in a form that is somewhat up-dated and improved by the onward march of social change. And from this a new generation of pseudo-adults appear, perhaps a little less pseudo- than their predecessors.

Of course, this a caricature. It emphasises the pathology of the interaction between the generations. But it does what all relevant caricature should: it brings home an important and central element of the truth.

Emotional know-how

A more balanced account of the embattled parent’s relationships with their teenagers is that it is not always embattled. It is a mixture in which the rational, the sensitive and the human are interspersed with strong bouts of the irrational, the insensitive and not so human. What makes parents emotionally incompetent is that they don’t know which is which. They can’t really tell when they have shifted from a rational to an irrational approach .

This also means that the shift is unpredictable. Teenagers live in a domestic undergrowth in which they never know when the helper will turn into the hunter or vice versa. This leads inevitably to reciprocal mistrust and desperation. The desperation is acute and potentially explosive since the parent implies that the teenager is not entitled to have it. The helper who turns into the hunter still claims to be the helper, and while aiming the gun expects gratitude for concern.

The concept of emotional competence – knowing how to handle our emotions – is one of which our society is still widely ignorant. We understand intellectual competence, technical and practical competence, and we could hazard a guess as to what aesthetic and spiritual competencies might mean. But we receive no education and training in how to identify and manage our own emotional processes, as they affect our relationship with ourselves and our interactions with other people.

The culture, through its child-raising and educational practices, only has one message about emotions: learn to control them. But it doesn’t specify how to do this. It strongly implies that excessive display of emotion of any kind is unseemly, and, above all, that distress emotions – of grief, fear and anger – must quickly be brought under control. To be seen as adult is to be seen as someone who, both in social interaction and in private, can reliably control their emotionality.

The problem with a non-specific injunction to control emotions is that it makes no distinction between appropriate, aware control in which the emotion is contained but not assaulted, and inappropriate, uncontrolled control in which the emotion is attacked by suppression, or by the more extreme battering of repression and denial. And where there is repression and denial, there is the return of the repressed in disguised and distorted forms: the individual concerned typically projects the inner victim onto others and sustains the repression within by oppressing the surrogate victims without.

In a society which makes no distinction between aware control and repressive control, all kinds of people in all kinds of situations slip – out of a healthy human way of relating – into acting out in oppressive relations with others their internal repression of certain emotions. And they are relatively unaware of when they make this slip.

Father Murphy, a white-haired priest in his middle 50s, is a kindly, benign and much-loved man, who frequently counsels young people, especially at the request of their parents. Some of the teenagers come away quite agreeably surprised, others leave his counsel dispirited and resentful, yet others depart with an unsettling mixture of both responses. In a training group in which he is a participant, it becomes clear from his interactions with other members what is happening. He simply cannot tell when he has shifted, sometimes in relating to the same person, sometimes in relating to different people, from authentic and sensitive human caring to subtly oppressive moralistic interference.

This kind of emotional incompetence – the unaware shift from the authentic to the compulsive, from affirming the present to re-enacting the past – can happen in subtle and not so subtle forms in all professional practice. Its occurrence is especially bizarre in the various helping professions, where it results in pseudo-helping. And parenthood is the great domain of amateur helping where it can occur a great deal.

There are various criteria of emotional competence. There are two related ones which are quite central, and which are relevant here.

• Being able to spot when unfinished business from the past, a buried script, is about to be triggered off and displaced into current interaction with your teenager.

• Being able to replace it with a sensitive and imaginative response that is empowering for both of you in the present.

We shall look at both these criteria in practical detail, later on, when considering how to get out of the parental trap, and how to relate to teenagers as emerging adult decision-makers, citizens of the future.

Chapter 2: Teenage tensionSources of teenage tension

As well as parents snaring their children in the parental trap, there are other significant sources of teenage tension, and it is important that these are now acknowledged.

• The crisis of choice: there are six aspects of this crisis and they all bear upon the great issue of the teenage years, the formation of personal identity.

• There is a bewildering array of choices to be made, a plethora of options. Personal development is branching out in so many different directions: emotional intensities; romantic phantasies; erotic arousal; exploratory, adventurous impulses; corybantic, untamed energy; intellectual curiosity; the urge to create and to master challenging skills; the ambition for personal achievement; the pursuit of exemplars; spiritual and mystical awakenings; the search for ideals; and more.

• There is the anxiety of choice: I want and need to make my own choices, to become my own person, yet I am frightened to let go of the security of my parents deciding for me.

• There is the dilemma of modelling: I don’t originate my own choices if I do the same kinds of things my parents do; I still don’t originate my own choices if I make a point of doing the opposite to what my parents do.

• There is the dilemma of identity: do I make basic choices in order to create who I am, or do I decide who I am in order to make basic choices?

• There is the challenge of different kinds of identity: to do with moral values, with fulfilling potential capacities, with social recognition, and with economic livelihood.

• There is the ever growing pressure, as the teenage years go by, of choosing a career and a life-style, to meet the challenge of economic survival in the adult world, and relate it to the other kinds of identity.

• There are peer group pressures and sibling rivalries.

• There is the restricted, authoritarian model of education used in secondary schools. There are the limited attitudes and reactions of many other authority figures in the wider reaches of political and economic life: the cynicism, the competitiveness and self-centredness, the manipulation, the moralistic interference, the hypocrisy, the low commitment to care for the planet and the people, the lack of idealism.

• There is the total absence of initiation to mark the emergence of adulthood at puberty. The culture as a whole has no grasp of symbolic and affirmative rituals, rites of passage, affirmative apprenticeships, initiatory bondings, imaginative developmental pathways. There are only well-intentioned, piecemeal, lukewarm ‘ youth’ enterprises here and there, dotted haphazardly over the cultural landscape.

All these together, even without compulsively misguided parenting can generate a high level of tension. And this, of course, makes the case for empowering parenting all the stronger. To begin with , I will look at the first large item on the list above. It is all about the central teenage issue of discovering how to make truly personal choices.

Anxiety about growing up

Growing up in the teenage years means coming to grips with the second item on the list: the anxiety of choice – I want to do my own thing, but I’m frightened to let go of the security of my parents choosing for me. The teenager is in the watershed era, between the dependence of childhood and the independence of adulthood. There is a drive within to achieve personal autonomy, offset by a fear of stepping outside the familiar zone of parental guidance.

The anxiety is increased by the first item on the list – the bewildering array of choices to be made. With so much development going on within, there is a call to make all sorts of choices in the world without, where a huge array of options waits. The very abundance of possibilities can be frightening and confusing. Where to start and how to begin?

This fear can be a separate cause of disturbed teenage behaviour. Overcome by the panic of making a personal, responsible choice, your teenager does something rebellious or exploitative or regressive, to provoke you into disapproval and control, so you end up telling him or her how to behave. Once you are provoked into taking over the controls again, your teenager feels your familiar guidance. Now he or she can keep you hooked in a negative cycle. The total cycle looks like this.

• Your teenager is afraid of real choice.

• He or she provokes you.

• You take over the controls.

• Your teenager feels the safety of the familiar cage, but it is still a cage.

• He or she rebels against the controlling bars of the cage.

• This provokes you into renewed forms at control.

• Your teenager feels the safety of the familiar cage, but it is still a cage.

• Your teenager again rebels against the control.

• And so on.

So it goes fear-provocation-control-safety-rebellion/provocation-control-safety-rebellion/ provocation – etc. If any act of rebellion doesn’t elicit disapproval and control, then your teenager will start up some new provocation. This vicious cycle is continuously run by your teenager’s fear of making real choices and will enable him and her to go on avoiding them. By needling you into oppression, he and she can feel safe, indulge their resentment, justify their rebellion, and persist in evading the challenge of emerging into adulthood. Provocation and rebellion become a negative and addictive substitute for real decision-making.

Julia, 16, regularly does things, apparently inadvertently, which pull down upon her the controlling wrath of her mother. For example: she turned on the bath, went to her room and forgot the water was running until it was all over the floor and seeping into the flat below; when there was no-one else in, she went out for the evening and left the front door ajar; and so on and so forth. Her mother not only scolds her forcibly for these events, but also tells her what to do on all sorts of other occasions for fear that she might be careless again.

Because of your buried script and the compulsion to control which comes from it you are already primed to collude with this negative cycle. So both you and your teenager become locked into an addiction to fruitless behaviour, each for your own disturbed motives. Once you are both displacing variations of fear in this way, real life passes you both by. That is, the real life of real people, where you make choices that fulfil yourself and empower your teenager to make personal decisions, and he or she feels the inner zest of making them.

Teenage rebellion: evasion or protest?

Is your teenager rebelling, or being exploitative or regressive, because he or she is afraid of making real choices, or because he or she is feeling oppressed by your compulsive and outdated control? Put briefly, is the rebellion to do with inner evasion, or external protest? It is extremely unlikely that it is either entirely rooted in a fear and evasion of responsible freedom, or altogether reactive, a protest against your inappropriate control.

Since compulsive parental control, based on mistrust, is probably continually present throughout most teenagers’ lives, their provocative behaviour will certainly have a strong reactive element in it. It also seems reasonable to suppose that there is a core of existential anxiety, a fear of decision-making as such, underlying it. But though these two things are of relatively independent origin, they massively reinforce each other.

• Your teenager’s fear of freedom leads him or her to a provoke and exacerbate your pre-existent compulsion to control, setting up the repetitive negative cycle described in the previous section.

• Your compulsion to control, which carries the message ‘I don’t trust you to make the right choices’, greatly exacerbates fear in your teenager about making responsible decisions. Your mistrustful message, itself rooted in fear, transmits fear to your teenager, thus undermining his or her self-confidence and implanting a negative self-image.

Julia, 16, described in the previous example, has always been over controlled by her mother, from her earliest years. And as she goes through the teenage years, the control becomes even more strident. As a result she has low self-esteem and damaged self-confidence, and thus her fear of finding her own way in life is greatly increased. Her repetitive carelessness is both an unconscious protest at the control, and also a way of making sure it doesn’t stop, since she feels too bad about herself to deal with the challenge of making her own real choices in life.

It is this last effect that creates the biggest ambiguity. How much of the fear in your teenage is their own stuff, and how much did you induce by your mistrustful attitude? Whatever, the answer, you have certainly increased the total amount. Because of this, it wise for you to treat your teenager’s rebellion and provocation as primarily reactive, and to put your house in order accordingly.

If you do put your house in order, withdraw your compulsive control and apply the sorts of strategies to empower teenage decision-making that are suggested later in this book, then your teenager may continue to try to provoke you. This continued provocation does sometimes happen and may go on for a while. And initially, at any rate, it is still ambiguous. Is it motivated by the fear of freedom, or by a disbelief that your empowering intent is genuine and a consequent need to put it the test for a time, or by the continuing low self-esteem that is the legacy of your past over control?

The longer you hold your new course without wavering, the more certain it becomes, if the provocation continues, that it is existential anxiety at work, your teenager’s fear of emerging as an adult decision-maker, exacerbated by leftover low self-esteem. The greater then the need for you as parent to give supportive affirmation of this emergence.

Conformity as cover-up

At least if your teenager is rebelling, or being exploitative or regressive, you know he or she is busy with the turmoil of growing up, either resisting the challenge, or protesting your over control, or both. But what if he or she is apparently compliant, conforming to all your guidance and control, stated or implied, with very little evident turmoil at all?

This is in some ways more disquieting. For behind the apparent compliance, there is highly likely to be covert rebellion, hidden defiance, carefully veiled reactive behaviour. If this compliance bridges the whole teenage period between childhood and adulthood, then the teenager emerges as a very pseudo-adult, whose behaviour is all convention and conformity and none of it the outcome of authentic personal choice. Meanwhile the hidden reactive behaviour also continues on into adulthood, turning into all manner of distortions and disturbances in the individual’s private life.

Sally, now 32, was the apple of her parents’ eyes. As a teenager she fulfilled all their hopes and ambitions for her: she did well in school exams, played in the school teams, brought home the nicest kind of girls and boys, was attentive around the house, and well-mannered to all her parents’ friends. She was happy to choose the career they wanted her to have. From the age of 16 she started to drink spirits, always ensuring that her parents never found out. From 17, when she was trusted to stay away from home, she quite regularly got drunk. At college, she was a controlled alcoholic, and got a good degree. She is now a confirmed alcoholic, with one marriage disaster behind her, and is seeking recovery through the twelve step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous.

While your compliant teenager may make life much easier for you, in the limited sense that your status quo is not disrupted and you can continue on unawarely re-enacting your buried script, there is a twofold deficit.

• You are never challenged to grow into full parenthood, to facilitate the emergence of an adult decision-maker and so never discover who your son or daughter really is.

• Your son or daughter slips by undeveloped into adult life, carrying on your own buried script as their own, almost word for word the same, ready to transmit it unblinkingly to yet another generation.

The first step: being different

Teenagers feel the urge within to become their own person, to make their own choices. Suppose your teenager overcomes the anxiety that this urge arouses, doesn’t get stuck in either provocation or compliance, he or she is then faced with a dilemma – the third item on opening list of this chapter.

• For your teenager to make the sort of choices you do doesn’t feel original to him or her.

• To do the opposite of what you do is still a formula based on what you do, and while it is a step of separation, it doesn’t really feel original.

How does this dilemma get set up?

You are the ever-present model of adult decision-making, who has been there every day since the start of your child’s life. A lot of the choices you made in the earlier years were choices made for your child, decisions made on his or her behalf. Even the choices you made entirely about yourself, your own preferences and life-style, set the context for directing the life of your child: he or she grows up associating all your decision-making with directing his or her actions.

For the teenager, faced with the challenge of adult decision-making, you are a potent and influential model. But you are still, in all your actions, associated with direction and control. So it is difficult for a teenager to feel that a choice is his or her own, even if he or she has a good reason for making it, if it looks the same as your kind of behaviour. Such a choice is ambiguous because it is uncomfortably close to compliance. If I am your teenager doing the sorts of things you do, then I may believe I really have my own reasons for doing them, but I can also wonder whether this belief is just a way of rationalizing my conformity to what you want me to do.

How, then, can your teenager cope with you as a powerful and influential adult model, strongly associated with control, even where your behaviour has nothing to do with directing your child? How can he or she get out from under this association, while still finding some security in you as a model? The simple solution is to use the formula of doing the opposite of what you do in certain kinds of up-front, basic everyday behaviour. Your teenager uses you as a model in an upside down way by setting out to be different from you.

• We must allow that this formula of doing the opposite of what you do, in quite obvious ways such as language, clothing, hair style, behaviour round the house, taste in music, choice of foods, social customs with peers, while it is not really independent behaviour, is a first step for a teenager in getting a feel of what it is like to do his and her own thing without actually doing it.

• By the use of the formula, they can create images of themselves as people who make choices that are different to yours. Being a different, separate sort of person in this reactive way is not being a truly autonomous one, hence the underlying disquiet of the dilemma. But it creates a platform from which teenagers can later on launch themselves into real independence, and so move out of the discomfort of the dilemma.

• This being-different platform is strengthened because it is shared in large measure by your teenager’s peer group, all of whose members adopt broadly similar language, clothing, hair style, behaviour round the house, taste in music, choice of foods, social customs. This shared identity within the peer group eases the anxiety of separating off from parental behaviour as a reference point and of becoming a different sort of person.

It is also important not to confuse this formula of being different to you with the business, described above, of trying to provoke you into control. Being different to you is way of establishing a psychological base for making real decisions later on. Whereas trying to provoke you into control is a way of avoiding the challenge of making such decisions.

And while it is important that you don’t mix them up in your perceptions and see all being-different as provocation, your teenager may well mix them up in behaviour. Just because being-different takes your teenager in the direction of making real choices, this may stir up the fear of doing so, then the being-different behaviour may sometimes degenerate into provocation.

Peter is 17. His parents like soft mood music and traditional romantic ballads. His choice in music is acid jazz, a merging of traditional jazz with 70s style funk, 90s hip-hop beat and cutting-edge technology. There are occasions when he plays it in his room very loud. Sometimes this is just his way of being different. At other times, when it is very late at night and decisions about the next day loom at the back of his mind, or when his parents are entertaining and decisions about his own social interactions come forward, it is his way of dealing with the fear of choice by being provocative.

Being-different behaviours are usually fairly superficial, to do with immediate impact, appearance and preferences: they are matters of external taste not of deep morality. Once your teenager feels sufficiently different to you in these relatively superficial ways, he and she will feel the urge to become more fully autonomous. They will do without the prop of an inverse model, and start to make truly independent, deeper choices that reflect values either the same as yours or very different to yours.

There is, finally, the very important point that the less directive and controlling you are in relation to your teenager’s life, and the more affirming you are of his or her ability to take charge of his or her own life, the more freedom he or she will feel to use you as a right-way-up model. This means your teenager can do the sort of things you do, because he or she can feel and inwardly approve the values that are evident in how you behave. The more you support your teenager’s independence and personal responsibility, the more he or she can see you free of the aura of control, and appreciate in their own hearts and minds what you stand for.

Identity: discovery or decision?

We now come to the heart of your teenager’s crisis of choice. This is the dilemma about whether to discover his or her identity through action or whether to decide on it first in order to act.

• As a teenager, do I first make basic choices in living in order to find out who I want to be?

• Or do I first choose the sort of person I want to be in order to make my basic choices?

Do I plunge into the maelstrom of choices in order to discover who I am? Or do I decide who I am and make my choices accordingly? To put it another way: Do I make everyday decisions of various kinds first and then see whether the person I become is the kind of person I really choose to be? Or do I first of all decide what sort of person I want to be, and then make everyday choices accordingly?

Marie is 16. She was raised in a radical kibbutz in Israel with a highly collective life-style. She left it two years ago. She has strong views about her experience, and would like to write about it. In talking this over, she wonders whether she just decides to start writing about her experience in order to discover if she is a writer; or whether she first has to decide that she is a writer in order to be able to write about it all.

Of course this crisis is not peculiar to a teenager. It faces each of us, all the time, whatever our age. A person is a self-creating being. Each day the process of inquiry begins anew: what I choose to do creates my personality, but what sort of personality am I going to choose to create?

Your teenager, however, faces this crisis at its first dawn and in its most acute form. When he or she has overcome the fear of choice, has got used to being different by the use of upside-down modelling, there arises, somewhere deep within his or her being this great dilemma of identity. Who is the ‘I’ that is involved in decision-making? Do I make decisions to discover and create my identity, or choose an identity in order to make decisions?

It is not that your teenager sits down in a reflective mood and defines the problem in this explicit form, rather he or she feels the dilemma as an inner crisis of how to be and do. To help get some insight into resolving it, there is a simple distinction between the potential-I, the actual-I and the ideal-I.

• The potential-I is the whole range of innate propensities, aptitudes and interests which start to make their claim on your teenager’s behaviour. I alluded to this burgeoning of personal development in so many different directions at the opening of this chapter: emotional intensities; romantic phantasies; erotic arousal; exploratory, adventurous impulses; corybantic, untamed energy; intellectual curiosity; the urge to create and to master challenging skills; the ambition for personal achievement; the pursuit of exemplars; spiritual and mystical awakenings; the search for ideals. The potential person within your teenager is a dynamic seedbed of impulses to think, feel and act in these various ways.

• The actual-I is who your teenager has now become by virtue of what he or she has done and is now doing. Incidentally, this also includes what teenagers did to themselves in the past in order to survive what was done to them by others.

• The ideal-I is found in the visions and values your teenager aspires to, his or her sense of what is a fulfilling, rewarding and uplifting way of life. And this is not to be confused with socially conditioned morality, with the internalized prescriptions and proscriptions acquired from parents and other authority figures in earlier childhood. Personal vision is in a zone of inner truth beyond the level of social conditioning.

Following the prompts from within

Because of the burgeoning power of the potential person within your teenager, following its impulses is the royal road to his or her personality development. There is not much point in nature producing this upsurge of capacity if the dispositions to action that go with it – which I call life prompts – are simply to be ignored. This is where you as a parent need trust: trust that the emerging potential is reliable and will flourish in vigorous healthy forms if you affirm it and support its active, creative expression.

Your teenager needs both inner courage and your outer encouragement to take this royal road. One way of avoiding the challenge, of falling prey to the fear of following the exploratory promptings of inner potential is for a teenager to invoke some vision or ideal of how to be, construct choices to realize this, and ignore life prompts altogether.

If this happens then the ideal-I within the teenager swings into premature and fundamentally defensive action, suppressing life prompts and the experimentation that follows from them. This defensiveness is heavily veiled by the ostensible idealism of the chosen behaviour. So we get the phenomenon of young people identifying fully with the doctrinaire idealism of some religious cult, with rigid codes of conduct. They are caught up in a false euphoria based on the evasion, suppression and displacement of their own dynamic potential.

The rigid codes may prescribe abstinence, or indulgence or some mixture of the two. Whatever the case, what underlies the codes is a spiritual dogma about what choices to make, and a subtle coercion to make them.

Paul, 17 is uneasy about his sexuality and how to relate to girls. He is frightened of his healthy impulses to meet them, talk to them and explore friendship with them. He becomes a devotee of an oriental cult which strongly encourages explicit sexual activity in workshop settings as a means of spiritual liberation. Paul suppresses and ignores his life prompts about healthy relationship, and learns, exhorted by robed ‘guides’, how to sexualize himself and others in order to discover the ‘joy and freedom’ of the road to enlightenment.

In a similar vein of thought, Anna Freud (1958) identified strategies that adolescents inappropriately use to try to cope with and control their burgeoning impulses. One is asceticism, avoiding pleasure by strict diets or vigorous exercise. Another is intellectualization, developing personal theories about the nature of love and of life.

A better role for the ideal-I within the teenager is to monitor the effects of acting on life prompts. The inner idealism can evaluate the learning that stems from following these prompts and assess whether the actual-I one thereby becomes is the kind of person one really wants to be.

The dilemma of identity for a teenager is: do I make choices to discover who I am, or do I choose who I am in order to make choices? The resolution proposed here for your teenager is to turn the dilemma into an interactive sequence. Go for the first part, then the second, and let them interact in that order. So the recommendation to your teenager is as follows.

• Follow the life prompts of your potential-I to make choices to find out what kind of an actual-I this creates.

• Then invoke your ideal-I to see whether you want to be like that.

• If you do, then let this confirm future choices of a similar kind. If you don’t, then let this realization shape new choices that accord more with what you want to be.

• Meanwhile, continue to be open to a continuing upsurge of life prompts in all sorts of directions of living.

• Keep this interaction going, giving primacy to life prompts, monitored, confirmed or modified in their outcomes by your inner vision and ideals.

In other words, let idealism follow and temper prior experimentation, rather than precede and inhibit it.

Marie, 16, described in the previous example but one, feels a strong prompt to leave school and the whole social environment of her life, and to go abroad to find work in another country. She wants to discover more about who she is by making choices in an unfamiliar and different kind of setting. Once she is abroad, she keeps checking in with her inner vision of who she wants to be, to see whether her bold plan of self-discovery is proving to be worthwhile.

The life prompts can of course be suppressed in other ways than the misplaced idealism illustrated by the case of Paul above. There is also the teenager’s fear of choice leading to the negative cycle of provoking your control, then rebelling against it in order to provoke more of it, as described in an earlier section of this chapter. There is your anxious over control generating the sort of rebellion, different from provocation, that distracts your teenager from following creative life prompts.

Teenagers know in their bones that they really need to follow life prompts. They also know in their bones that it is scary. Hence the possibility of giving way to the fear and acting it out in misplaced idealism, negative provocation or persistent rebellion at your over control.

Identities galore

I have so far looked at your teenager’s basic identity crisis as a dilemma of choice: do I discover who I am by making choices, or do I decide who I am in order to make choices. But when a teenager is concerned with what kind of a person to become or choose to be, there is also the challenge of different sorts of personal identity and of how to integrate them.

There are several aspects of personal identity and it is vital that they are not all run together. Erik Erikson (1963, 1968) tended to make the choice of a career as central to the formation of adolescent identity. If the teenager cannot select a career, he thought, then role confusion follows, characterized by an inability to further educational goals and by over identification with popular heroes and cliques. But this is too quick.

Personal identity is multi-stranded, and each strand needs attention. It certainly cannot be assumed that all these strands will coincide with the choice of a career. And the notion of a career is ambiguous: it may or may not include several of the different strands. The four main strands are moral, psychological, social and economic:

• Doing something worthwhile What shall I do that will be worthwhile and enhance the wellbeing of other people and myself, of the planet and the life forms on it?

• Fulfilling myself What shall I do to realize and express my special interests, talents and abilities?

• Achieving social recognition What shall I do that will win me the esteem of other people?

• Surviving economically What shall I do that will be a livelihood, will earn me a living.

All these different identity goals are relatively independent of each other; and it is possible to fulfil each of them without the other three being met at all. You can do something morally worthwhile, such as voluntary work among the afflicted, that does not involve realizing your talents, that achieves little or no social recognition and that makes no contribution to your economic survival. You may fulfil yourself, for example as an inventor, but invent a lot of useless things that make no contribution to anyone’s welfare, that are socially ignored and make no money. You can become socially recognised for behaviour that is neither worthwhile nor fulfilling and yields no financial return. You can survive economically doing relatively worthless and unfulfilling work that no-one notices.

At the other extreme, each of the four identity goals can be met to a significant degree by following one career. The environmental architect is doing something worthwhile, that realizes his or her creative talents, that is esteemed by others and that makes a living.

The four goals can also be distributed singly or in various combinations over different life activities. Thus some young people in the Philadelphia Life Centre separate off surviving economically from meeting the other three goals. They have part-time jobs, often of a hum-drum kind, in the surrounding culture in order to make enough money to meet subsistence needs. The goals of doing what is worthwhile and of being fulfilled, they realize through being social activists and change agents within a widespread network, the Movement for a New Society, and through living in community and creative innovation in their life-style. The goal of social esteem is met through the approbation and support of other members of the Life Centre. Their money-earning, being part-time, gives them time for their other, more valued pursuits.

So the Life Centre people treat their money-making identity as necessary but unimportant, and stress the importance of the non-economic goals of doing what is socially worthwhile and personally fulfilling, social esteem among their peers being the by-product. Some people, including myself, would regard this gap between subsistence and other more valued activities, as relatively healthy. But it is a much more sophisticated way of forming an identity than someone like Erikson was able to envisage.

The great danger in our sort of society is that another kind of gap often develops which is not at all healthy and teenagers can fall foul of it in their choice of careers. This is the gap between, on the one hand, achieving social recognition and making money, which together are highly valued as career goals, and, on the other hand, doing things that are worthwhile and fulfilling, which are not valued or included as career goals and are regarded as purely private, secondary pursuits.

Worthwhile and fulfilling goals are about inner, personal development. They involve activities that are intrinsically rewarding – done for their own sake, for the satisfaction internal to them. They can have attached to them a sense of calling,a vocation, the commitment of a personal mission. If a career does not involve them and is all about social recognition and making money, then that career is extrinsically rewarding only. It is done entirely for the sake of external gains and benefits. It does not fully engage the human person. It is motivated by one or more of the following: social and economic survival, competitiveness, social ambition, need for conformity, covetousness, greed, lust for power, pursuit of sensationalism, fear, insecurity, deprivation, and so on.

Of course, the potential conflict between survival on the one hand and personal development on the other is one of the great recurring tensions of the human condition. So often, so many people have felt driven to survive by doing work that negates the unfoldment of their capacities. It is all too easy for a teenager, faced with anxious parents, a competitive society and his or her own anxieties about choice, to settle simply for economic survival and the social status attached to it, and disregard his or her identity as a moral being and as a self-realized person.

Choosing a career

‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ In the old days, this was the sort of question friendly adults would ask shortly after a child of nine or ten, especially a boy, had been introduced to them. It was fondly supposed that every small male child was a micro-adult with a keen eye on future career and status; and that every small female child was already planning the drapes in the house in which she would raise her children and look after her husband.

At the same time, such children were regarded as unfit to be heard and barely fit to be seen save on terms controlled and dictated by their parents and betters. This contradiction – that a child could readily decide what to be, while being treated as totally incompetent to decide anything properly for itself – was a convenient myth that enabled parents to imagine that the careers they imposed on their children were the ones the children had always had in mind. In this way, parents could absolve themselves for any responsibility for fostering autonomy and self-direction in their children. This sort of contradiction still persists today, in somewhat altered form.

• Many parents expect that teenagers of both sexes will give serious thought to planning their future careers around about the age of 14 or 15. This, in a country like Great Britain, is the age at which choices must be made about O level examination subjects, since these have some bearing on the later choice of A level subjects, which in turn affect entry into different courses in higher education, many of which are a direct entry to various professions and careers.

• Yet in all other respects, a teenager of 14 or 15 is treated with condescension, as a helpless, incompetent and immature being who is unfit to run his or her life without continuous parental control. This contradiction is in itself a great source of stress for the teenager who is at the receiving end of it. How can a teenager of this age give serious thought to a preferred career, when being so mistrusted in self-management by the very people who are encouraging him or her to make a choice.

There are certainly differences of social class in this matter. The contradiction just described applies in many middle and upper class homes where it is assumed children will go forward into higher education. In many working class families it is assumed that children will leave school after gaining some minimum number of passes in the sub-O-level CSE examination – a qualification just sufficient to mark them out as having enough working intelligence to take on semi-skilled work or train on the job for skilled work.

In this case, the contradiction is of a different kind. On the one hand, the teenager is expected to be able to choose a worthwhile job right here and now in their teenage years. On the other hand, they are regarded as someone who is not capable of choosing and not worthy of receiving any kind of higher education. Some would see it not as a contradiction, but as a double put-down: you’re only fit to be a low-skilled and low-paid wage-earner; and you’re not fit to be properly educated.

Where the full-blown contradiction does apply, in middle and upper class homes, the teenagers concerned often fudge and compromise in the subject and career choices they make, because they have not been encouraged to exercise personal responsibility. They have therefore developed no capacity for creative, autonomous decision-making. They have no base within, no nurtured area of life prompts, whence a real sense of direction can emerge.

They are then, because of their underlying anxiety, in great danger of falling foul of the gap mentioned in the previous section. They may choose a career that is all about making money and social status and doesn’t bear much relation to their inner values and interests.

So there is a double dose of stress: firstly in trying to make such a decision encumbered by such a contradiction; and secondly, in having to live with the ongoing consequences of a decision which the teenager may feel was never rightly or wisely made.

Teenagers with teenagers

Let’s now have a look at some of the sources of teenage tension other than parental over control, described in the first chapter, and the inner challenges of choice, so far considered in this chapter. An obvious one is the pressure that comes from associating with other teenagers. Here there are two main features, and the first one is this.

• People who are oppressed, oppress each other. If young people, especially, are victims of oppression and can’t find any way out of it, to survive it they internalize it, identify with it, and then they reproduce it in their own behaviour in relation with each other.

If members of a teenage peer group are being driven into compulsive rebellion by being over controlled at home and school, and this is exacerbated by their own fear of making real choices about their lives, then they will act out this over control in relation to each other. Of course it won’t look like the parental control from which they all suffer and it certainly won’t be focussed on the same issues, but it will have the same sort of intent and effect, which is to get conformity of behaviour.

Peer group control of this sort is exercised through joking, cajoling, goading, mutual conspiracy, mocking, plotting and railroading through decisions. What it is aiming at is negative conformity: collusive rebellion and provocation, with some exploitation and regression thrown in. So quite apart from what parents may or may not be doing, there comes a point at which teenagers themselves, through the pressures they exert on each other within their peer group, keep themselves locked in compulsive and negative behaviour.

Margery, 17, is attractive and sociable. Her peer group of teenage friends is heavily into sexualizing their interactions, a culture of covert rebellion in the face of misplaced authority in parents and teachers. On her birthday, she is given a card by her friends decorated on the inside by attached condoms. She makes love regularly with her current main boyfriend for fear of losing his interest if she doesn’t. The experience actually makes her feel, more often than not, quite sick.

• The second main feature of a teenage peer group is that it is an arena in which basic social tensions are worked out. Each member of the group has his or her own simple social identity crisis which consists of three main quite normal anxieties. They reinforce each other, in the individual and in the group as a whole.

• Will I be accepted? Will I be approved of, liked and wanted? Or will I be rejected, disliked and unwanted? Here the teenager’s need to love and be loved is at risk.

• Will I find a role? Will I understand what is going on in the group? Will I be able to make sense of this situation, so that I can find some kind of role, function or position within it? Here the teenager’s need to understand and be understood is at risk.

• Will I be effective? Will I be able to do what I want to do? Will I be able to control the situation to meet my needs? Will I be competent or incompetent? Here the teenager’s need to act and choose, the need for mastery and personal power, is at risk.

These are all perfectly normal and healthy concerns. On their own, if modest, they may act as spurs to fulfilment, motivating teenagers to find acceptance with each other, to make sense of what is going on in the group and explore rewarding roles in it, and to feel effective in managing and meeting their needs. If this is so, then the influence of these anxieties within a teenage peer group is constructive, helping to create a co-operative, meaningful and creative climate for social experimentation and learning. Within the peer group, a teenager can try out a variety of roles, such leader or follower, change-agent or conformist. The values and norms of the group provide a context within which each member can acquire a perspective on their own values and attitudes and so develop an increased and positive sense of their own identity.

But if the three concerns become stronger, and get into overload, then they may distort what is going on in the peer group. One obvious way they get into overload is if the teenagers bring with them to their peer group the emotional effects of the persistent mistrust imposed on them by their parents. The three quite normal anxieties about finding some satisfactory kind of social identity within their peer group, become increased and warped by the low self-esteem and self-confidence that are the inevitable effects of such sustained mistrust. And as well as all this, there are the tensions to do with the three forms of the teenage crisis of choice. The resulting overload of emotional stress can deform behaviour in the peer group in three classic ways, which interweave and interlock together, diving expression to a negative sense of identity in group members .

• Following the leader Several teenagers in their peer group become submissive and passive. They rather blindly follow someone in the group who strikes a pose as a leader. They find acceptance by adopting the same posture and plan as the leader. Inwardly they feel powerless, with a low sense of their own identity in the group.

• Running away from reality All the teenagers may collude in taking flight from social and physical reality, in drugs, sex, drink, theft, laying about, continuous partying, and other escapades. They find a meaning and a role in avoiding the constraints and challenges of the real world. Unable to find meaning in their own creative life impulses, they give rein to meaninglessness and chaotic impulses.

• Going on the attack Some teenagers in the group may make an aggressive bid for leadership. The dominant leader may start off a campaign of scapegoating one member of the group, of initiating a verbal or physical attack on some other teenage group, of mocking any genuinely creative initiative from anyone else in the group. The other group members collude with these and other forms of aggressive behaviour. They find how to be effective in various forms of violence, in an attempt to compensate for a loss of real inner personal power.

The disaster of schooling

The secondary schools that teenagers attend, whether in the public or the private sector, make the same mistake as most parents – inappropriate control – but on an even greater scale. Parents who try to tell their teenagers what to do and how to be in their lives, at least acknowledge that control is an irregular business. It can’t be pursued all the time, it’s a hit and miss affair and there are great tracts of time where it is not applied at all. Controlling parents do not have daily timetables that specify prescribed activities.

Secondary schools, by contrast, are monuments to persistent, authoritarian timetabling. They tell their teenage students what to learn, how to learn it, when to learn it, and whether they have learnt it. Staff make all the educational decisions for students, choosing within any given course the range and order of topics, the method of learning, the timing and pacing of learning, the method and procedure of assessment. Within the learning process there is no self-direction by teenagers in all these basic areas, only in the execution of homework and other projects which are chosen for them.

And this is for young people who well before the age of 18 are expected to make critical life choices about a career; and at 18 are expected to be self-directing participants in the democratic process voting for their preferred member of parliament, to take their place as responsible citizens in the work force, or to become autonomous students in higher education; and, if male, are expected to make life and death decisions on the battlefield in times of war and national emergency.

So secondary schools control everything about the learning process right up to and into the eighteenth year of a teenager. Then suddenly, overnight, young people are expected to find their feet as autonomous decision-makers with no prior preparation, experience and guidance at any point in their school years. It is no wonder that many teenagers feel that the educational method to which they are subjected is demeaning and damaging for them and condescending on the part of staff.

When she was 16, having completed her O level exams, Val had a long talk with her father and complained that the attitude of staff to the pupils at her school made her feel she was being managed as a child. She felt her integrity was abused and treated with disrespect. Impressed by her clear, intelligent account and persuaded of its unanswerable correctness, her father asked her what she would prefer to do. Val suggested she take her A levels at a College of Further Education where she believed she would treated much more as an adult. Both her mother and father agreed to this plan. Val found that the college of her choice , while still not ideal, was more to her liking as an emerging adult. She had the right to attend classes or not as she thought fit. She therefore only attended those classes given by teachers she felt were really good. If the teacher of a subject was no good, Val dealt with it by private study. In her main A level exams Val obtained straight As.

The disaster of secondary schooling, then, is that it does not in any way, within the learning process, encourage students to be self-directing, to make important learning choices and decisions for themselves – about what to learn, when and how to learn it, and whether they have learnt it – in a context where teachers can guide, counsel, challenge and support. It is not that secondary students should decide everything about their curriculum entirely for themselves. This is a ludicrous opposite extreme to the prevailing total authoritarianism.

But what is needed to avoid the current disaster of schooling is an educational culture in which teachers invite students to collaborate with them more and more in managing the learning process. In such a culture there is a clearly graduated progression from initial hierarchical control by staff of everything, through varied degrees of collaborative planning between staff and students, to increased delegation and student autonomy.

In the absence of all this, the experience of secondary schooling is another great source of teenage stress and can only reinforce the effects of compulsive parental control at home. So we get more teenage rebellion, exploitation, regression or compliance, within the classroom, within other school-based activities and within the school facilities and grounds. And in extreme cases, while parents are more problematic for their own teenagers to assault, school teachers are conveniently non-related subjects for violent attack.

A teenager in term-time moves to and fro on a daily basis between one pole of compulsive control, the parental home, and another, the school. The distorting impact of all this on teenage behaviour is bound to flow between the poles, with overflow at one end being increased by tension generated at the other.

Gaie is 15. One day, when she comes home from school in a mood, she is immediately subjected to inquisitorial, controlling and persistent questioning from her mother, Sandra, who never really listens to what Gaie may need and want to say. Gaie starts screaming and yelling abuse, runs into her bedroom and trashes it. Sandra is non-plussed and bewildered why her daughter should relapse into such extreme and uncontrolled behaviour, after ‘just a little friendly and sympathetic interest’.Revolution in learning

Beyond the level of secondary education, in staff development units in higher education all over the world, there is a massive modern revolution in learning under way (Heron, 1989, 1993). It is true that the majority of departments in universities, polytechnics, institutes of technology and colleges of various kinds are highly conservative and traditional in their educational methods. But the wind of change is unmistakably blowing, and as always in the history of human rights, it is only a matter of time before the innovations being undertaken in a minority of departments spread wider afield. And as a matter of moral urgency they need to be launched within secondary education itself.

It is worth briefly spelling out that nature of this educational revolution since it has such a major bearing on the theme of this book – that parents of teenagers need to affirm and support self-determination in their teenagers lives. What the revolution has fully grasped is that education is first and foremost about learning and only secondarily about teaching, understood as an aid to learning. And what it has grasped about learning is that is entirely a matter of personal autonomy: people can only do it in and for themselves.

Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skills from experience, study or teaching. It involves interest and commitment: we only really learn what freely engages our minds and wills. Then too it supposes practice, understanding and retention: we have learnt something if through mental rehearsal or practice we understand it or know how to do it, in the case of a skill, and can retain that understanding or competence for some significant period of time.

All these aspects of learning are necessarily your business: no-one else can do them for you. Interest, commitment, practice, understanding and retention are all self-generated, self-sustaining and self-directed.

It follows from this account of learning, that teaching can no longer seen as imparting things to the student, but as enabling and supporting the process of student autonomy in learning. How to facilitate the students’ inner learning process becomes the focus of concern, rather than the old-style pre-occupation with how to teach things to people. With this goes a significant shift in the onus of responsibility. In the old model, the teacher is principally responsible for student learning. In the new model, the primary responsibility rests with the self-directing learner; and only secondarily with the teacher.

The concept of learning as self-directed only appeared in the old approach as students working on their own on prescribed tasks, such as set homework, set essays, set practicals and projects. The new approach applies it to participating with teachers in three main areas of educational decision-making. To educate persons means to facilitate their self-direction not only in learning what the content of a discipline is, but also in learning how to learn it, in learning whether they have learnt it, and in working with other self-directed learners. Hence the importance of the following kinds of participation.

• The learning contract This is all about learning how to learn. The student, at the appropriate stage, is invited to co-operate with teachers in decisions about learning objectives, that is, about the main subjects and detailed topics to be learnt; and also about timetabling, pacing, teaching and learning methods, the use of human and physical resources. Such collaborative design of learning programmes may involve both one-to-one contracts and one-to-group contracts between teachers and learners. The contracts can be introduced progressively as part of a gradient which starts with traditional control of everything by teachers, followed by involving students increasingly in collaborative planning with staff, and leading over to more and more student self-management.

• Collaborative assessment This is about learning whether you have learnt. First, the learner takes part with the teacher in determining criteria for assessment. Next, the student assesses his or her own work in the light of these criteria, and the teacher assesses that student’s work in the light of the agreed criteria. Then together they negotiate the final grade. The importance of helping young people to become self-assessing in this way cannot be overestimated, since once they are living and working in the adult world, the primary way they exercise responsibility is through being self-assessing about their life and work.

• Co-operation with peers Persons can only be self-directing in reciprocal relations with other self-directing persons. The autonomy of the learner entails a context of co-operation with other autonomous learners. Hence the importance of group-based learning, of students working together on problem-solving, decision-making, practical work, projects, giving each other feedback, using self and peer assessment amongst themselves on their work. The independent learning group is an essential context for the new educational approach. This too is an essential preparation for the kind of creative teamwork increasingly needed in modern organizations.

The relevance of all this to the message of this book is clear. Those responsible for the development of teaching and learning in higher education have grasped that learning is entirely a matter of personal autonomy: people can only do it in and for themselves. This, of course, is in relation to academic and technical subjects. How much more true it is in the business of learning how to live, how to manage your life, how to form your identity, create your personality and shape your destiny. And this is the great task upon which your teenager is launched. He and she know in their bones it is their business, their responsibility. You as a parent can only enable, affirm and support them, in a secondary role. In so doing, you can make use of something like the learning contract just described above, as we shall see in a later chapter.

No rites of passage

Primitive, premodern societies gave great prominence to rites of passage, ceremonies to mark what for them were the main events of the human life cycle: birth, naming, puberty, marriage and burial. Both boys and girls underwent a rite of passage at puberty to mark their coming of age. It typically had three phases: separation, initiation and reincorporation (Campbell, 1949).

The first stage was separation from childhood and frequently involved painful ordeals, the experience and assimilation of which marked the initial turning of the child into adult. In the second stage, among members of his or her own sex, the fledgling adult was instructed in the myths and practices – spiritual, technical, social – of the men or women of his or her tribe. The third stage marked the formal and full emergence of the newly qualified adult, perhaps with some insignia or a new name, who was now eligible for marriage and could assume adult rights and duties.

The great virtue of this process is that it makes a huge affirmation of the physical, sexual, emotional, mental, practical and spiritual capacities that are burgeoning into development at puberty. It both affirms these powers and affirms that the young human being is now capable of expressing them in a responsible and adult way. In this respect it honours fully the message of nature: seeing all these remarkable capacities coming forth in a rush, tribal societies rightly took it that this meant they were ready for real use.

Its great deficit, from the modern point of view, is that it does all this by imposing tribal conformity: the only way to be adult and responsible is in terms of long-established traditional practices, from which no variation is conceivable. So while the young person is fully acknowledged to be capable of handling adult responsibility, what that entails is predefined by the authority of tribal custom. The ideal-I was defined by social convention, imposed upon behaviour and the life prompts of the potential-I could manifest only within those rigid limits.

In such a process, there is no adolescent phase of self-discovery, experiment and identify formation, only the dramatic passage from childhood to adulthood (Keen, 1991). There is no acknowledgment of individual liberty, of personal responsibility forged by the free discovery of inner values. The old coming of age rites of passage simply won’t do for the modern world.

But neither will the absence of any kind of fully explicit rite of passage do. Modern teenagers suffer the disabling insecurity of members of their society making no ritual affirmation at all of the sudden and burgeoning increase in their powers. This huge event of nature and immanent spirit is treated more as a comic-book problem than the dramatic emergence of new capacities which it truly is.

What, then, is needed are new forms of an ancient practice, new rituals to mark the coming of age of our young people. First, the new rituals must affirm the power of the emerging capacities of adolescents. Second, they must affirm the trustworthiness of these capacities and their reliability as guides to action. Third, they must affirm the readiness of the adolescent to respond fully and creatively to them. Fourth, they must launch the young person on the path of becoming responsible for the management of their own lives, with the full blessing and active support of all the adults present. Fifth, as an essential aspect of this, they must affirm the importance for young people of trial and error, experiment and adventure as vital to self-discovery and identify formation. In a later chapter, I discuss further the possibility of rituals of this sort.

Reviewing the sources

It is probably useful at this point to look back and pick out the main sources of your teenager’s tension so far discussed. The first one was described in the previous chapter, and the rest in this chapter.

• Parental mistrust There is the mistrustful and destructive image of your teenager that comes from your misguided attempts at controlling their lives.

• Crisis of choice There are the four forms of the crisis of choice – the plethora of options, the anxiety of choosing, the dilemma of modelling, the dilemma of identity – which your teenager harbours within him or herself. And these lead over into issues to do with the different sorts of identity and with choosing a career.

• Peer group pressure There are the strains that arise within your teenager’s peer group of friends: the three anxieties to do with acquiring a social identity within the group, and the ways these can deform group behaviour, if they get into overload through the addition of the other items.

• Inappropriate schooling There is the tension that accumulates from being treated at school too much like a child, for whom all educational decisions have to be made right through to the age of 18.

• Absence of affirmation There is the subtle insecurity of feeling stirred by remarkable developments within, while adult society makes no deep affirmation of the phenomenon and treats it as a problem.

These are the most immediate sources of tension in teenagers from the start of the teenage years. They provide a convenient check list for trying to get a sense of where the primary stressor is. For while all of them interact with and reinforce each other, at any given time of crisis it is likely that one of them will be in the foreground.

Chapter 3: Parent powerEmpowerment

I have already used the word ’empower’ several times in phrases like ’empower your teenager to make personal decisions’ and ’empower teen-age decision-making’. It is now time to find out more about what this empowerment is all about.

Synonyms for the word ’empower’ are ‘enable’ and ‘facilitate’. Empowerment, as I am using the concept in this book, is about enabling other people to realize more fully their own innate potential, to express more completely their latent human capacities. It is the opposite of the compulsive and distorted kind of power that seeks to manipulate, control and dominate others. Such negative power is a source of oppression. Empowerment is a source of liberation.

The prime requisite of being able to empower other people out there in the world, is that one is already empowered within by one’s own inner resources and capacities.

George is 15. He likes his dad because his dad talks to him not simply like a man but also about being a man, about the personal experiences that have led him to be the kind of man he is today. It is not a lecture, it is not advice, just honest sharing from the heart. George feels lots of space inside himself to become who he wants to be.

Becoming yourself

• The first thing is to accept yourself fully just as you are. Stop judging and condemning yourself; stop running away from yourself. Be as you are being and say to yourself that it is all right to be like this. This is the first step toward mental relaxation.

If you are not mentally relaxed, your are almost certainly fretting about the past or preoccupied about the future, and in each case driven by mental ‘should’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’: what you should have done, or what you ought to be doing next, or what you must get done before too long. ‘Should’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ of this kind have an anxious, compulsive air about them. They are uninvited guests in the house of the mind, taking up residence without your permission, exploiting your naivety in accepting their pretensions to authority, imperiously taking over domestic business and converting it into a flurry of driven, and fundamentally unhappy, activity.

Accepting yourself as you are puts a stop to all this. The ‘should’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ are like ghosts which manifest in the dark areas of self-doubt and self-denigration. They fade away and dissolve in the daylight of self-acceptance.

When Margery’s husband and father of their young children died unexpectedly, she was pole-axed with grief and it was three years before she emerged from it. Then she took stock of her life and realized she was driven from dawn until dusk by ‘should’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’. With a little help, she gradually allowed herself to relax and let go of these and follow more of her own inner impulses. Her children, now teenagers, started to treat her with more respect and consideration.

• The second thing is to start learning to listen to your own life prompts, by attending to the area where they manifest within you. Try this exercise.

This inner space where life prompts can arise is not only active when approached in this way by means of mental exercise at a special time and in a quiet spot. It is also the place, in the midst of everyday life, where you feel on-the-hoof prompts and especially a sense of timing in your actions: when to set out, when to stay, when to get up and go. Some actions, of course, are time-tabled in advance, and the relevant comings and goings are managed by the schedule and the clock. But there are many interpersonal occasions where this is not the case, and where a developed sense of timing is one of the primary keys to effective relationship.

And it is also the place where you have a feel for a good pattern, when arranging things in the house or garden, in decoration, in dress sense, in music, architecture and all the visual arts. Indeed, this idea of having a feel for a good pattern, can be used in a much more generic sense to cover life prompts, and a sense of timing, as well. For these are all about artistry in living, interrelating the various elements one’ s life into a satisfactory form in space and time.

• The third thing is to begin to identify the things you are busy not doing to fulfil yourself by trying to control your teenager’s life.

What also go with such attempts at control are: feeling responsible for what he or she is or is not doing; and allowing your own sense of worth, value and happiness to be determined by how he or she is making out according to some external, conventional canon of success and failure.

This form of speech – ‘being busy not doing certain things by doing other things’ – is an odd one, but an important one. Putting it this way brings out the fact that the real motivation for what you are doing comes from wanting to avoid what you are not doing. You control your teenager in order to avoid the challenge of self-development. In order to reverse this tendency, try the following.

• The fourth thing is to use every occasion on which you feel the compulsion to control your teenager as an opportunity to do some little thing that gives you pleasure, unfolds your potential, affirms your way of being in the world. So instead of acting out an unhealthy urge to interfere in your teenager’s life, you liberate within a healthy impulse to care for yourself.

The great thing is to remember that you were mistrusted as a teenager, and as a result your were conditioned to mistrust the great surge of life that was occurring within you on many levels. This means you never learned to trust fully the source of your own life prompts, following some and ignoring many others and generally surviving in the social system of the day by conforming to external standards of appropriate behaviour. You then, perhaps, ceased to care for and cultivate the needs and wants and creative impulses that spring up from your own inner being. The well-spring within was boarded over, only leaking here and there with occasional and spasmodic spontaneity. So the challenge is to start to break out of all this; and it is a challenge underlined by the exuberance of your own teenager’s presence.

Owning yourself

Caring for your self, your inner being, your real needs, wants and interests is the foundation of real co-operation and relationship with others, especially, as in your case, with your own growing children. It is not launching yourself on the path of selfishness and egocentric behaviour at the expense of others, as your unsolicited ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ would have you believe. And they would have you believe this, so that they can keep taking you over and bossing you around.

There can be no real relationship between any two people each of whom thinks he or she ought to do what the other one really wants. It leads to the ridiculous but familiar dialogue which runs:

A and B have been conditioned to feel guilty about owning what each of them really wants to do. So they feel they ought to find out what the other one wants to do, and they pretend they like trying to find this out. The dialogue has already started to degenerate into the blame game in which A accuses B of not telling the sort of thing that A is not telling, and vice versa.

A and B have not learned the rudimentary rule of healthy relationship, which is that it cannot exist until each one owns his or her own living impulses, what prompts present themselves here and now as personal needs, wants or interesting options. Once each person owns this to the other, then they can enjoy supporting each other in fulfilling whatever needs, wants and options have been stated.

There are two useful definitions of human loving which I like, one informal, the other more formal. They are two sides of a coin of shared gold. The informal one is: ‘To love a person is to delight in and take pleasure in enhancing that person’s uniqueness’. The more formal one is: ‘To love a person is to help provide the conditions in which that person can, in liberty, identify and realize his or her own true needs and interests, wherever possible in association with other persons similarly engaged’.

What is presupposed by both definitions is that the person being loved is active too. In the first case, the loved one is actively delighting in his or her gift of life and celebrating it uniquely. The loving one cannot delight in someone who takes no delight at all in their own living presence. In the second case, the loved one is seeking freely to identify and realize his or her needs and interests; and the loving one can only facilitate, help and support this process.

In a relationship of mutual loving, each person needs to be self-disclosing and self-revealing, opening up and sharing their inner being, taking pleasure in discovering and manifesting who they are. Then there is someone really present for their partner to love. This then is a possible model for you and your teenager.

Declaring yourself

What is clearly important is that you declare yourself. You become open to your own inner, living impulses toward fulfilment, and to your active emotional states; you own them fully to yourself; and then you declare them to the relevant other with whom you are in loving relationship. Nothing sours a relationship more readily than strong impulses and emotional states which are acted on, but which are not being properly owned or declared.

The person who acts on them, without owning or declaring them, is not taking responsibility for them, and so they emerge in a disguised and distorted form – which will almost invariably try to put the onus of responsibility on someone else, to get them to do or not do something, to initiate or stop something. The other will justifiably feel aggrieved, because they have been treated dishonestly and manipulatively.

• I feel insecure and uneasy about what you are doing, unowned and undeclared, becomes ‘I don’t think you are old enough to do that on your own’. When fully owned, understood and declared, it becomes ‘I feel uneasy about what you are doing, but that’s my problem. I really understand and appreciate how important it is for you to do that on your own.’

• I want more time and space to develop my own interests, unowned and undeclared, becomes ‘It would be a good experience for you to spend several months abroad this year doing some kind of international voluntary service’. When owned and declared, it becomes ‘I’ve decided to devote about another four hours a week at least to my wood carving; and I need to negotiate with you how we can plan out the exclusive time we both want in the workroom.’

• I feel hurt and resentful that you don’t understand how much I worry when you are out very late and I’ve no idea when you are returning, unowned and undeclared, becomes ‘I want you in by 11 pm, and I don’t care how late everyone else is staying at the party’. When owned and declared, it becomes ‘I do worry when you are out later than I expected, and I don’t find it easy to manage or control my worrying. So I would appreciate it if you could help me and give me a ring to say if you are going to be much later than expected.’

• Your mother (father) and I need some extended time all alone to re-establish a deep connection with each other, unowned and undeclared, becomes ‘I want you to be more independent and move out into your own apartment, like other young people I know’. Properly owned and declared, it becomes ‘Your mother (father) and I have decided to spend a month alone together to become more fully in touch with each other; and we want to discuss with you how and when we can do this so that it is manageable for all of us.’

The key to declaring yourself is to cultivate the practice of using many more first person statements, especially the basic rock bottom ones that start ‘I feel’, ‘I like’, ‘I enjoy’, ‘I appreciate’, ‘I want’, ‘I need’, ‘I will’, ‘I intend to’. In this way you learn to be more open and self-disclosing, as a basis for an honest, non-manipulative, non-controlling relationship with your teenager. And there are several key areas where it makes sense for you to get into this more open way of relating. There are declarations to do with:

• What you feel and think about the ongoing experiences of your life. People are what we meet. Your teenager meets you when you tell him or her what it feels like for you to encounter other persons, places, the different situations you find yourself in, and what you think about them. To quote Sam Keen again: ‘The best thing I can give my children is an honest account of what I feel, think and experience’. Of course, such declarations are not indiscriminate and total. But if you listen to your inner promptings, you may be surprised at the range of things about the real you that it is appropriate and meaningful to share. This is satisfying for you, builds real relationship, and is a good model for your teenager.

• Your own rights, needs and special interests at all times, and especially where they are being encroached on by your teenager’s behaviour. It really is important for you to stand up for and declare your rights, needs and special interests in areas of life which are entirely your business, and which are central to your own growth and well-being. You state what the right, need or interest is, how important it is to you, define clearly the boundaries you want your teenager to respect, and ask for his or her support and co-operation. All this is done without rancour, attack, blame or attempts at control.

In this way you declare yourself to be a person who is committed to care for their inner being, to honour their life prompts, to change and unfold. You openly show that you are seeking to be true to yourself and putting this truth forward as your basis for a healthy relationship of respect and co-operation. This is a very good model for your teenager in his or her need to learn how to make real decisions.

• Your appreciation of your teenager as an independent decision-maker. Make a point of declaring regularly and as an equal, without condescension or patronage, what you are enjoying and appreciating about how your teenager is looking, being and doing: ways he and she are taking charge of their own lives in this or that respect, being adventurous, taking risks, trying out this or that. Practise affirming their reality, appreciating their perspective.

• Your anxieties and concerns about your teenager. You are not disclosing these in order to control what your teenager does. Actually it is when these anxieties are not fully owned and shared that they convert into attempts at control. The point of declaring them is to be up-front about your own vulnerability and fearfulness, so that, without denying or suppressing your emotions, you can go on to affirm your teenager’s right and capacity to learn how to run his or her own life. Again, this an effective way of relating to another and it models for your teenager the fact that owning difficult feelings helps one not to act on them.

Enjoying yourself

What this whole chapter adds up to so far is the simple idea of empowering yourself by enjoying yourself. In the old days enjoying oneself carried strong implications of self-indulgence and selfishness. Duty was separated from inclination, desire and pleasure, and meant denying these things in a spirit of self-sacrifice and service to others. The trouble with this kind of split is that the resultant dutiful service is experienced by those who receive it as oppressive, interfering and morbid.

This is because it is based on a fundamental mistrust of the inner life of the person. Principles, rules and ideals are imposed on life, dampening it down. They are not carried along by life as on the crest of an uprising and dynamic wave, that mingles with and empowers other waves. People who suppress their own inner life prompts in order to serve others, end up doing things which damp down the inner life energies of those they profess to serve. Everything they do breathes out mistrust of the human well-spring within.

The mistake made by this old, oppressive notion of duty, was that it confused inclination – what a person wants to do – with ‘the base passions’, that is, a low grade gratification of the senses. Wanting was seen as desiring and desiring was always construed as debased, moving in the direction of greed, lust, sloth and indulgent sensationalism. At the heart of this misguided tradition in the West is St Augustine’s doctrine of original sin as concupiscence, sexual lust.

Once this view is widely disseminated by parents, teachers and preachers through their attitudes, bearing and behaviour, it becomes self-fulfilling. Treated as basically no good, people feel no good, and can only find an identity in being no good, so their life energies, when not being bullied and coerced by some external authority, are distorted into all sorts of sensory indulgence. Then those in charge of church and state call out for more discipline, law and order in society and the inculcation of a stronger sense of duty, self-discipline and self-control at home and school. This leads to a further distortion of human energies, and so the vicious cycle rolls on. It takes human societies a long time to find their way out of this catastrophic misreading of the human condition.

The modern view is quite different. It puts forward the doctrine of original blessing (Fox, 1983; Perls; Rogers; Maslow; Jung; etc). It affirms the innate potential of persons for creative living as the foremost truth of human nature, instead of making central the idea of its inherent waywardness. There is a well-spring of life within, and this life is whole. It embraces spiritual life, imaginative life, mental life, emotional life, volitional life, sensory life, sexual life. When this spring wells up toward action, it is experienced as wanting to, wishing to, liking to, needing to, desiring to, seeking to, intending to, being interested to, and so on.

On this model wanting to is fundamentally wanting to celebrate oneself, not indulge oneself. This means wanting to celebrate one’s life source in action; wanting to do so in all kinds of different ways, some of these being old and familiar, others being entirely new and ground-breaking; wanting to do this whole, so that whatever the kind of action some selection of the different dimensions of life – for example, spiritual, imaginative, sensory – are manifest in it; and wanting to share this other people. Note there are four features of wanting to here:

• It is celebratory. It is about enjoying one’s inner well-spring of life, of taking delight in it. Enjoyment is having pleasure in the process of life, whether the focal process is emotional, intellectual, sensory, spiritual or whatever. It is about bathing in the waters of the flowing source of everyday behaviour. It is not to do with getting absorbed or lost in chunks of sensation: this is sensationalism, the resort of those who have been oppressed by false doctrines of duty as the opposite of pleasure.

• It is adventurous. As well as enjoyment of the familiar, wanting to reaches out to new horizons, new depths, new ways of living. So from time to time wanting to can be unpredictable, spontaneous, surprising, thrusting in unexpected directions. This also makes it highly personal and idiosyncratic. Each person makes new gestures of being in their own extraordinary way.

• It is integrative. Its thrust is holistic, toward being and feeling whole, toward the interweaving of life’s many diverse threads. Life is one, with many interrelated frequencies of energy: the life of the spirit, the imagination, the intellect, the emotions, the senses, the limbs. Wanting to is intrinsically multimodal, multidimensional, multitrack. It desires the interfusion of modes: of the spiritual and the erotic, the intellectual and the emotional, and many other combinations. Having a one track mind or intention is a distortion of human nature, occurring when the capacity to celebrate life has been blocked and damaged.

• It is social and participative. Wanting to is wanting to celebrate together. It reaches out to the other to give and receive, to share my delight and share in your delight. It is about communication, togetherness and relationship.

Enjoying yourself is about trusting your wanting to. Mistrust it and shrivels into low grade even despicable impulses which fight with compulsive, obsessive notions about what you ought to be like. Trust it fully, without let or hindrance, with celebration and affirmation, and it blossoms into the fullness of the many-coloured blooms of an active and creative life.

One important consequence is that the old-fashioned split between moral duty and personal inclination is at an end. B because wanting to celebrate one’s life source in action is fundamentally social and participative, because it is committed to dialogue, reciprocity and relationship, it is inherently facilitative and enabling of others: it seeks to elicit delight in being as much as it wants to share it. It replaces the old idea of duty as self-denying sacrifice in the service of others, with the idea of the celebration of life with others.

Self-abnegation for others was always a self-contradictory and self-defeating ideal for human beings. A society in which everyone practises self-denial for the sake of each other is logically impossible and would lead all its members into the neurotic, irrational and fruitless kind of A-B dialogue illustrated a few pages above. What is entirely possible, and liberating to contemplate, is a society in which everyone wants to celebrate their own life source for the sake of sharing it with each other. This is a model of creative moral abundance: ‘wants to’ here is inherently moral in the sense of being committed to enhance the wellbeing of people. The gap between duty and inclination is entirely closed.

Enjoying yourself, then, is about trusting the living surge, the dynamic wave form, of the potential-you as it rises and falls, ebbs and flows, at the very source of your creative choices in everyday life. The ideal-you of course is always up there like some star in the sky of the mind: the guiding vision of your life, of the sort of person you want to be, of the kind of society in which you wish to live. But if you try to impose this stellar ideal on your actions at the expense of, to the neglect of, the living rhythms of the potential-you, then disaster strikes in the form of contrived, unreal and idealized behaviour shot through with contradictions and ignored hypocrisies.

Also because imposing controls is what your parents used to do to you, there is the danger that trying to impose the ideal-you on your behaviour will get it all confused with the injunctions of your internalized authoritarian parents. Then you get in a big mess because you mix up life-enhancing ideals with misplaced bossiness.

Much the better role for the ideal-you is for you to use it to monitor and value-check both the promptings of the potential-you, and the outcomes of acting on these promptings. This way the potential-you and the ideal-you can be used to check each other out. Neither is likely to present themselves to you in immaculate form. There are the distresses of childhood, the internalized parental control, the prevailing values and norms of society picked up through socialization, the belief-systems built into the way everyday language is used, the apparent limitations of your current life-situation: all these may cloud the way in which the potential-you and the ideal-you manifest in your consciousness. Equally there may be times when each of them manifests without obscurity. So strong and clear life prompts from the potential-you may help to correct mistaken apprehensions from the ideal-you. And luminous intimations from the ideal-you may clarify uncertain prompts from the potential-you.

This model affirms the metaphors of depth and of height. The potential-you is the living well-spring from the depths of being, with its continuous upsurging prompts of wanting to. The ideal-you is the guiding light in the heights, shining down a steady vision of what can be. The actual-you is the fulfilled person manifest in creative action, open to the depths and responsive to the heights.

Parent power

Parent power is to do with being empowered from within, by accepting yourself, enjoying yourself and declaring yourself in the ways that I have suggested. This being empowered within is the basis of empowering your teenager. The influence works in three ways.

• You are modelling a person who is being true to him or herself, who is in touch with him or herself, who is responsive to the well-spring of life within, declaring and sharing what is truly going on in his or her inner being, defining clear goals and limits as a basis for effective co-operation.

• This inescapably means that you are also responsive to the potential-I, the life source, within your teenager. You are in touch with a place inside yourself which wants to appreciate, delight in and encourage the unique, innovative and adventurous decision-making of your teenager.

• It also means you are a person to be respected, worthy, important and interesting to do all kinds of business with. Your presence is such that your teenager cannot but engage with you: it is a challenge to him or her to relate to you person to person, adult to adult, outside all the games and distortions that characterize relations between a parent and a teenager who are both busy avoiding themselves.

No longer afraid of your own unlived potential, you no longer fear the remarkable upsurge of life energy in your teenager. By trusting and caring for your own inner being, the wanting to that arises within you, you enjoy trusting your teenager as an emerging, creative adult decision-maker. There really is no other way. Mistrust your own well-spring, and you will be driven to try to control your teenager’s life in all sorts of inappropriate ways that either never work, or if they seem to work, only do so because they have procured unhealthy compliance.

Springing the parental trap

This is the trap discussed fully in Chapter 1 in which you unconsciously keep reproducing how your own parents mistrusted you, by projecting your buried teenage self onto your son or daughter and acting out, in relation to him or her, the hidden memories of your parents’ behaviour to you. What you do to your teenager may not be exactly like what your parents did, because of sameness-in-difference, also discussed in Chapter 1, but the net effect is the same – mistrust. It is now becoming clear how to get out of this trap.

• The first and most radical thing is to adopt a new belief system.

• The second thing is to start believing in your teenager.

• Trust the source of life within him or her. It is in its first full flood. Your teenager is very close to its promptings and will achieve a great deal in life if living in an atmosphere in which those promptings can freely flower into decision and action. Don’t confuse its boldness with lack of experience and ignorance. Give it a lot of scope, in your own heart, to follow its own track. Be on its side. Honour what is going on.

• Love him or her as an emerging decision-maker, someone whose urgent and joyful and sometimes frightening business it is to learn how to live by making choices about all manner of things. Respect the fact that there are huge areas of living which are either exclusively or primarily your teenager’s business. Accept fully in advance that if teenagers are going to learn how to live by making choices, then

• Co-operate with your teenager. Make conjoint, negotiated decisions in those life areas where you both have a stake and a concern. Stand up clearly for your rights, needs and interests in life areas which are exclusively your business; and expect your teenager to respect them and do intelligent and considerate business with you about making sure they are honoured in action by him or her.

• Enjoy your teenager, his or her boldness, originality, vulnerability. Appreciate him and her: give them verbal strokes, applaud them, saying freely and easily what you are enjoying and valuing about how they are being and what they are doing.

• The third thing is to watch for the snap points. Snap is a card-game in which players call ‘snap’ when similar cards are exposed. To snap also means to speak irritably or spitefully. A snap point is when your teenager’s behaviour immediately triggers some bit of your own buried history as a teenager, a bit in which you were simply not given enough freedom to grow and develop as you needed to. And when the similar cards are exposed, you say something irritable or spiteful, echoing the early treatment which you yourself received and from which you are still allowing yourself to suffer. So if you aren’t in charge of snap points, have no command over them, you will compulsively come down on your teenager’s behaviour, controlling it, criticizing it, mocking it, undermining it – in general doing something unpleasant and interfering.

I have already mentioned what to do with snap points – the fourth point in the section on becoming yourself at the start of this chapter – and I will run through it again here.

Chapter 4: Teenage power

What does your teenager need in order to emerge as an adult decision-maker? He and she need to feel certain things, understand certain things and do certain things.

Feeling accepted and respected

Your teenager needs to feel honoured as an emerging decision-maker. To this end, certain things are basic.

• A rite of passage that throws into dramatic relief the huge changes that are taking place within your teenager’s being. What I have in mind here is some kind of ritual event, held quite early on in the teenage years, that symbolizes in its language and its procedures the teenage upsurge of physical, psychological and spiritual forces. I shall consider the possible form of such a ritual and the role that you as a parent might take in it, in a later chapter.

• An acknowledgment by you of all those areas of a teenager’s life that are properly his and her business, where he and she take the leading decisions, and where you abandon attempts at inappropriate control. A list of these areas might look something like this. I present the most radical and complete account of it.

Your teenager is empowered by feeling that you genuinely believe that all these areas are for the proper exercise of his or her own decision-making.

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