Boundaries are of course more obvious when they are crossed – adolescents spend a lot of effort in discovering this. If all goes well, they gradually discover the limits without serious damage being done. The process of discovery has a particular quality which is especially important for the helping profession, not just in work with adolescents. Unhappy young people are often not content with talking about their miseries, especially when it comes to communication with parent figures. In some way, before they can be sure that they have any chance of being understood, they need to make you feel what they feel. Actually, the more they are confused about their feelings, the more they need to experience them within those caring for them. This is why caring for a young person is so exhausting – and exasperating. Reasoning misses the point – indeed some young people seem to like an argument in which they can passionately attack the inconsistencies and failures of the middle aged. The argument becomes a way of keeping you under control and at a distance whilst filling you up with all their rage and self disgust.
This characteristic pattern of behaviour in which unmanageable feelings are somehow transferred to another person is apparent throughout childhood. The infant’s cry touches some programming in each of us that arouses feelings that we cannot ignore. For some infants sadly, this primitive cry arouses such similar primitive fear and rage in their carers that they act out the violence against the child. The ‘terrible two’s’ of temper tantrums can similarly arouse uncontrollable rage in the parents, as dramatic scenes in any supermarket can remind us!
At key points of emotional development therefore, children seem to need to take advantage of the yet to be formed boundaries between themselves and their parents, by transmitting their most disturbing feelings into those they must believe can cope with them better.