Respecting the Will of the Other: On Adolescence

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By: Michaela Gloeckler, M.D.
Respecting the Will of the Other
Michaela Gloeckler, M.D. on Adolescence

interview by Johannes Denger

Why do young people today need help?

Everyoneneeds help – especially if they are unable or at least not sufficientlycapable of helping themselves.  The answer is directed to the currentlife situation and also the age of the person in question. This alsoapplies to young people. During adolescence there arises over and abovethe individual needs, the general challenge to the social surroundingsto understand this period of life with its specific possibilities aswell as its limitations. This is of greatest help to young people.

What are the special challenges for young people during puberty and adolescence, particularly in the area of health?

Amongstall the so-called “life crises” that occur, puberty has a uniqueposition. It is the only “natural” developmental crisis brought aboutthrough physical development and shared by all human beings in common.This makes it an archetypal developmental crisis.

Thedifference between a problem and a crisis is that problems requiresolutions that can be sought and worked through. Crises, however can beclearly recognized by the fact that there is no solution in sight.

Withregards to puberty, it looks like this:  the feeling for one’s body andthe self-awareness that has existed up until now, vanishes. Insteadthese feelings are more or less chaotically experienced in deepinsecurity – the burgeoning “adult” is not there yet. When and howadulthood will be achieved is uncertain. This classic situation ofcrisis is tied up with particular health challenges for young peopleduring this time. The less supportive the social environment  is, andthe less trust  and non-verbal humorous understanding is broughttowards the young person, the more difficult it will be for theadolescent to feel that he or she is going to “make it.”  Without thefeeling that everything is going to be all right, and that what ishappening is “normal,” the various classical crises can develop in thewake of puberty, which may require psychiatric treatment. Thesephysical and psychological disturbances range from depression, anorexia(girls), obesity (boys), aggressive behavior disorders with thetendency towards crime, obsessive/compulsive disorders, contactdisturbances (social disorders), concentration problems, sleepdisturbances, substance abuse, etc.  The fact that a stabileenvironment, where there is an awareness of  potential crisis, oftendoesn’t exist, and leads to the adolescent feeling of beingmisunderstood, shunned, and isolated.

Thesituation today is vastly different from how things were experienced,for example, forty years ago. At that time societal norms and standardswere such that they upheld and supported social stability. The growingspread of global change and crisis makes it harder and harder for theyouth of today to find their own orientation in relation to thedevelopment of their identity, perspective and purpose in life.

Why do young people take risks?

Thereis no other stage in life where the willingness to take risks is asstrong as it is during adolescence.  In contrast to the boundlesscuriosity and unconscious willingness to take risks during earlychildhood, the young person “knows” more or less that what he isrisking is a risk. However, because of the identity crisis broughtabout by the physical and psychological stage of life he is in, he isnot bothered by it. It is actually exciting for him to experiment withchallenges, risks and extreme sports to test his newly growing physicaland psychological potential, which in turn leads to an experience of anewly forming identity.

Howdo you explain the fact that some teenagers grow stronger throughchallenge while others break down through similar challenges?

Whetheror not one is strengthened or overwhelmed by hindrances, challenges orresistance is a question which is quite independent of the age group wehave been referring to. Even infants can be damaged throughout the restof their biography by an early traumatic experience. Or having to workthrough and overcome the experience in a constructive manner can laterbe seen as the pivotal point of a serious, creative and successfulbiography.  In health research one speaks therefore, of differentresilient and protective factors through which children and youth areenabled to withstand difficulties or harm without breaking down orbeing adversely affected, but are able to meet what comes  withresilience and resistance.

Whatis also interesting is that the most relevant protective factor is agood human relationship. If one were to research more closely what sortof criteria a relationship must fulfill in order for it to be “good,”then one would find that such relationships are permeated by qualitiesof honesty, loving understanding, as well as honoring the autonomy andindividual dignity of the child. Only those people who feel respectedand “accepted” in this way can feel somehow protected, acknowledged andsafe even when the outer circumstances may prove to be just theopposite. Here we can also see what can be experienced daily inmedicine: health is more infectious than illness.

Can deficiencies in early child development ever be compensated? If so, how?

Onehas to learn to live with deficiencies; one can work at trying tocompensate for them, but it will never be in such a way as if they hadnever existed. They are a reality in the development of every humanbeing. Just as the above-mentioned protective factors can help to dealwith deficiencies and difficulties in a constructive way, yet there isalways the point at which the person in question has to become activeand involved in compensating. The very best environment cannot supporta young person who is not willing to be helped, but instead withdraws.A great deal also depends on whether or not children and young peopleare of themselves in a position to find a way out of a destructivemilieu, and can find and cultivate relationships with people who canoffer them the necessary support.

What helped you in your youth?

Ihave to think about that.  What in relationship to what, helped me inmy youth? Where were problems? Why didn’t I ever have the feeling in mychildhood and youth that there was no problem I could not face?  Itcertainly must stem from the fact that there was nothing that I couldnot speak about to either my parents or my siblings at home. By thisfact alone, I could completely compensate for anything that I sufferedas a child or young person. Whatever was “left over” I sorted outmyself.

Inaddition, there were few rules and limitations imposed both at home andat school, so that the few that there were, were adhered to and highlyrespected. If problems arose, they were discussed and agreements weremade as to how they could be avoided in the future.

Myprotective factors were definitely those confirmed by research intoresilience: honesty in one’s interactions with others, openness fordialogue, and respect for the will of the other person. I have neverexperienced my will being broken, but instead it was made clear to mewhy this or that was not possible in what I had done or what I intendedto do. I could easily live with this. I was spared in my childhood andyouth from non-verbal power games, political/diplomatic agitation andjuggling, mobbing, playing one against the other, and so on. I wouldhave found such an environment hard to endure or unendurable.

Dr. Gloeckler, thank you.

Translated from the German by Anne Sproll

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