The Adolescent Storm: A Handbook for Parents.
I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint (Hesiod, eighth century BCE).
There is an irony, lost on adolescents and often lost on their parents too, that parents were once adolescents themselves. There is, perhaps, an eternal struggle between parents and adolescents to understand and be understood by one another. The preoccupations and conflicts of adolescents are very different from those of parents in their very different developmental stage. In twenty first century South Africa, worries that adolescents are wilder, more imperilled (by, for example, crime and technology) and more pressured than our youth of yesteryear concern parents and sometimes leave them flummoxed--perhaps as flummoxed as their own parents, their parents' parents and the parents of Hesiod's time.
We generally recognize adolescence as a stormy time, characterized by mood swings, experimentation and tensions between the pull to individuate and the need for dependence. As parents, we dig in to weather the storm as best we can. Sometimes, however, the storm is ours: parents may experience more turmoil than their adolescent children.
Meg Fargher, an educationalist and school principal with many years' experience and Helen Dooley, a psychologist with extensive expertise working with adolescents, have collaborated to produce the book The Adolescent Storm, specifically written to help parents navigate the storms of adolescence--both their children's and their own. The book offers parents a way to think about what their adolescents are experiencing, be it physically, emotionally or scholastically. Importantly, the book also offers parents a way to think about their own parenting and the conflicts they may face. The authors have chosen Winnicottian theory as their guiding framework, offering parents concepts such as good-enough parenting, the importance of play, the fruitfulness of paradox and an understanding of adolescence as an 'in-between' state in which the shades between the inner and outer worlds are as important as their delineating contours.
Like Dr Graeme Codrington, who wrote the preface to the book, I was eager to review The Adolescent Storm because I was hoping to armour myself against my tween's upcoming (and eagerly anticipated, at least by him) adolescence. Somehow, understanding psychological theory around adolescence, or even working in the consulting room, does not feel sufficiently preparatory for an actual living, breathing adolescent in one's own home. The tone of Fargher and Dooley's book, which offers advice at certain points but also offers a way of creatively engaging with both the challenges and joys of adolescence, quickly left me looking not for armour against adolescence but instead ways to play and to engage reflectively with a stormy, changeable but also alive and creative time. 'Seasons pass', say Fargher and Dooley, 'it is never winter forever; there is never endless sunshine nor perpetual sublime autumn mellowness. So too adolescence passes and it would be very sad to have missed out on all it has to offer you as a parent' (2010, p.xix).
Fargher and Dooley employ the metaphor of the changing seasons as a central motif in the book. In juxtaposition to their title, they present adolescence as akin to the changing seasons. This helps parents to appreciate the nuances of adolescence and, as the seasons must naturally change, the importance of the different changes adolescents pass through. The authors consistently draw links between the adolescent's own experience and that of the parents: 'just as the seasons have their moments of joy and light, dark and pain, so it is with the stages we have to go through with our teenagers' (p.xix). This is a journey that should be embarked on together, although the authors also stress that there are times when it is important for parents to allow their adolescents to experience the seasons on their own, perhaps with parental assistance but not with parental control. As the seasons cannot be controlled, so too must adolescents find their own way.
Each chapter in the book is organized around a month of the year, linking the changes of the weather, or the changes in the school calendar, with a particular issue. The first chapter, 'January', begins with the heat of midsummer and the anticipation of a new year. The chapter explores the importance of 'change and new beginnings', encouraging readers to embrace both the opportunities and losses that change brings and to understand the simultaneous attraction and fear change poses to adolescents. As the book progresses, each month is linked to particular seasonal metaphors and, through this, to typical adolescent issues. The chapters cover a broad range of issues, including troubling adolescent emotions (love and hate; disappointment; death and loss), challenging school issues (choosing school subjects; dealing with peer relationship and peer abuse) and, of course, the changing adolescent body and the ascendance of sex, drugs and rock and roll (the latter placed in May because, just as May is neither summer nor winter, 'betwixt and between, so adolescents don't quite know where they are and they resort to acting on impulse rather than thinking through' (p.80)). A chapter is also devoted to 'technological communication and the digital divide', an issue not shared by Hesiod. This chapter offers guidelines for how to deal with the proliferating, and sometimes frightening, technological avenues available to teens in the twenty first century. The chapter links these 'new' parenting issues to guiding principles concerning, for example, respect for privacy, the importance of communication and the necessity of ground rules and limits. There is also a chapter devoted to the implications of parental conflict and reconstituted families for adolescent development. Appropriately, this is the chapter that has been chosen for October, with its 'dramatic ... electric thunderstorms' (p.158), reminding us that the 'adolescent storm' is intimately connected with the family unit and the parents' own storms.
Each of these chapters offer a brief introduction, often metaphorically written, a few case studies that illustrate the issues in the chapter and pay particular attention to the dilemmas raised and then a section entitled 'developmental considerations and suggestions'. This latter section is designed to help parents understand the issues at play and find ways to remain reflective in response. Helpful hints are included but the chapters are seldom prescriptive: the emphasis remains on finding ways to relate and to respond. The penultimate chapter is devoted to frequently asked questions. A range of questions are included, some very practical ('should I read my adolescent's text messages or journals?'; 'what do I do if my child is exceedingly untidy?'); others giving voice to more foundational questions (do I always have to like my adolescent?; I feel like an ATM machine with taxi capabilities. How do I stop resenting this?). The chapter ends with an answer to the question 'what is the most important thing I can do for my adolescent?' The response to this question is warm and accepting; readers of this review are encouraged to read the book if they would like to know the answer.
The book ends with December, a chapter on 'endings and the importance of play'. December 'is a divine time indeed, although endings bring with them both joy and hope for the future and pain at what will be lost' (p. 194). December is also linked to the end of the school year; adolescence is full of endings and also new beginnings. Fargher and Dooley encourage parents to embrace the seasonal variations of adolescence and offer a sensitive developmental understanding to parents. Parents are encouraged to offer themselves and their adolescents the space in which to play and also the boundaries within which to feel safe.
The Adolescent Storm is an inspiring read, both realistic and reassuring. It is quick and pleasant to read, written in an accessible manner that engages parents creatively and thoughtfully. The structure of the book also makes it very user friendly and invites both cover-to-cover reading and ease of reference, with the possibility of dipping in to particular points of interest. The Winnicottian influence is presented in a psychologically sophisticated but nonetheless accessible manner, both at the beginning and end of the book as well as integrated all the way through. The authors take up this thoughtful stance not only in their use of theory but also in their style of writing; parents reading the book are likely to feel understood, supported and encouraged to find their own good-enoughness and their own playfulness. The book offers particular interest to parents but would be also be useful as a resource to psychologists and teachers.
One drawback of the book is that it is clearly written for relatively well-adjusted families and adolescents from comfortable backgrounds. Most of the case studies involve white middle-class children who get themselves into trouble in relatively straightforward ways. The book presupposes some access to resources and to good schooling; the challenges of poor adolescents, their families and their schools are not addressed. Highly dysfunctional families are not really represented and the adolescents are generally not pathological. This somewhat limits the book's interest to psychologists working with more serious adolescent and family issues. This is not, however, the audience the authors envisaged when writing the book. They assume that parents interested in reading the book will be interested in responding functionally to their adolescents: while 'there are no perfect parents, no perfect teachers and certainly no perfect adolescents ... the very fact that you are reading this book suggests that you are a deeply interested and caring adult wanting the best for the adolescent or adolescents in your care' (p.xviii). The tone of the book gently encourages parents to remain interested and caring through the changing seasons of adolescence.
I recently spent a session with a patient who was talking about her own teenagers. Although she had never commented on the contents of my office before, and although the book was on my desk surrounded by papers, my patient spotted the spine of The Adolescent Storm. Clearly taken by the title, she commented that perhaps she should read this book. The title of the book does indeed ignite the interest of parents. It offers the possibility of longed-for answers to some of the most difficult questions of parenting. The book lives up to the promise of its enticing title, not always by providing answers, but certainly by offering parents their own place of calm within the adolescent storm.
University of the Witwatersrand
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|Publication:||Psycho-analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2010|
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