Adolescence and boundaries

I was driven to see boundaries in a developmental way. The sense that the physical separation of the baby from the mother is only a small step in a person’s individuation. The first mother and baby observations I have already referred to and this whole chapter in part explores the emergence of boundaries as I moved into a professional role. The work of course requires you to consider when the individuation process has gone wrong, and what the significance of the maturation of personal boundaries has for work at different stages in a young person’s life.

Working with young offenders under the rather toothless supervision order, it seemed that some of their difficulties were to do with ‘pretending’ to be an individual. This was not a deliberate pretence – it seemed largely unconscious. It was most apparent in the way young people’s offending could rarely be seen as an individual experience. The probation officer was constantly persuaded that the child was easily led. No one other than the truly disturbed could ever be seen as the leader – that the child was easily led was therefore something of a joke in the office.

This was seen, in some ways rightly, as a phenomenon of group identity amongst young people in peer groups. It was a process of social learning in which there was often an unspoken shared assumption that the parent was irrelevant or a problem. The boundary issue was conceived as a peer issue and working with it a matter either for individual work with the youngster, or group work with a collection of young people.

And yet, from my perspective, the parents always seemed to be there somehow. Even the fact that they were ignored, not mentioned or dismissed with a grunt, brought them more to the fore in my mind. It was odd that although on one hand everyone understood that adolescence was a process of separation from parents, on another young people were sometimes treated as if the separation had already taken place, and they could therefore be understood apart from their parents. This led me to change the way I supervised some of the young people and in particular to treat non attendance at appointments, or inarticulacy at appointments as a sign that they may not yet have achieved the level of independence that would allow me to work with them outside the family setting. Parents have to cope with the same issue – their children can only be an individual if they are physically apart from the parents. Attempts to talk to the children founder – questions attract grunts or ‘dunno’. Sometimes this leads to fights – often inconclusive in outcome; ‘victories’ quickly losing any apparent value – but valuable nonetheless in confirmation to the youngster that they matter enough to arouse such strong feelings. More often progress is made as it were by stealth, by indirect means. Communication happens when it appears incidental, where escape routes are obvious. Likewise for the helper or supervisor, I would look for the indirect as a way forward. Usually, this meant spending time with the parents, trying to help them cope with their troubled child.

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