Youth and Authority 12

Our subject of course is rebellious youth, but again the same processes I think are at work. The way in which we respond to rebellious youth is not simply the outcome of our own particular philosophies and beliefs, or our own agencies’ policies. It is also crucially affected by the way in which young people relate to us. I will conclude by illustrating a couple of characteristics of this relationship.

To repeat the obvious, adolescence is a time when young people are trying to discover a secure sense of themselves as people, able to compete in the adult world, with a secure sense of their own personality. The struggle to achieve this involves going through a period of immense confusion as they give up dependence on their parents and the way their parents have helped to define their personality, and try to find something for themselves. Adolescents are particularly good at communicating this confusion that they feel to the authorities with whom they relate. They will often make strenuous efforts to demonstrate that it is the authorities who are confused in order to hide their own uncertainty. One of the especially powerful ways in which this can be achieved is by a mechanism which can be described as splitting. Again in the family setting this is familiar enough. The young person will ask permission of the mother to do something and this permission may be refused. Instead of accepting it, the young person will then go to the father and ask the same question in perhaps a slightly different way, having learnt from the first experience how to make the plea more effectively. The father may react hesitatingly or may take a different view from the mother – chaos ensues, with the parents being then preoccupied with sorting out their differences rather than attending to the real question the young person is asking.

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