Adolescents and the social world

In psychoanalytic work with adolescents in particular, it is important for the clinician to think about the young person's development as an individual within not only the family context but also that of their social and peer-group world (Meltzer, 1973; Meltzer & Harris, 2013; Waddell, 1998). Both in unconscious phantasy and external reality, the individual young person's relationship to and questions about his or her place within the social world expands exponentially. The internal pressure to make moves away from parental figures is intimately bound up with an equivalent pressure to move towards peer relationships and groupings. This can, very positively, lead to friendships with previously unknown levels of intimacy and intensity (both of affection and rivalry), the seeking out of sexual encounters and couplings, and the joining of groups and movements devoted to discrete activities (sports, music, arts, politics, science, and much more). The coming together in groups provides a social crucible within which new ideas and ways of conceiving of oneself can be encountered, identified with, and assessed by the individual. Groups provide an alternative social structure to the family, in which adolescents may seek to define or re-define themselves.

The young person's interest in a particular group's life and activity, and his or her identification with the ambitions, values, and ethics that are operational within that specific group, may be short-lived or turn out to be lifelong. At their best, these activities and groupings allow experimentation and growth of the young person's sense of having some freedom of mind to make choices about what sort of young adult he or she might be becoming, in ways that may have both similarities to and differences from their parents and siblings. Group life provides a social structure and set of relationships that can be employed by each individual within it for the purposes of projection, introjection, and identification. Dynamically, what once was primarily within the domain of the family is now manifested more actively within the peer group. Coming together with passion, and falling away from one another in disillusionment, is a common feature of such adolescent groupings.

With regard to a young person's engagement in STPP, we have to bear in mind that they may be both suspicious of our thinking and methods and attracted to them in an idealizing way. Group life is highly active (whether enjoyed or feared) for adolescents, not only in external life but also within their minds. Psychotherapy may be approached by some adolescents as if it were a system of magical beliefs, either seductive or sinister, or perhaps a political structure designed to liberate or tyrannize. If the treatment and therapist are related to with this sort of social idea residing within the patient's mind, it could be thought of as a form of "basic assumption" (Bion, 1961), not subject to reality-testing. For adolescents in particular, in addition to the parental transferences, the psychoanalytic clinician may be viewed as representing the ideas, values, and politics of a discrete psychosocial grouping in relation to which the adolescent as a patient needs to locate him/herself. If so, this will inevitably inform the transference and needs to be borne in mind and worked with.

In the psychotherapy relationship, the young person's preoccupation with his or her place in a social grouping, particularly with respect to being inside or outside the circle, needs to be taken account of when considering interpretation. If the therapist simply takes this up as an aspect of the individual's dependent parental transference, for example, this may lead to the young person feeling that the therapist has failed to realize the psychic reality of the young person's emotional preoccupation with his or her peers as being in at least equal measure to his or her interest in the relationship to his or her parents. The two are, of course, intimately connected, especially with regard to oedipal concerns and dynamics, but it can also be a rich experience to identify and work with the transferences associated with siblings and peer-group relationships, which are differently nuanced from those relating to parental figures.

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