Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

The Challenge of Similarity

Being different isn't necessarily what young people fear most

As we get older, we complain that we’re becoming more and more like our parents: reacting like our parents, sounding like our parents, parenting like our parents. We profess exasperation but, on the whole, accept that this is what happens, that we’re not so different from our parents after all and certainly not as different as we set out to be, all those years ago.

However, most young people struggle to accept that they’re like their parents. Developmentally obliged to separate, most set about the task with great urgency, striving to be as different from their parents as possible and going on to profess a fascination for all things different, weird, peculiar. At home, arguments rage, people say things they regret: all because of a young person’s understandable determination to be different. Yet the harder task for most young people, the task sometimes overlooked by adults and professionals looking to support them, is of acknowledging similarity: all the ways in which young people are like other people, sharing the same anxieties, hopes, fears and vulnerabilities.

Perhaps similarity is so embarrassing for young people because it reminds them of a time when they saw themselves reflected in the parental face looking down as they lay there wriggling and gurgling, of a time when they were relieved and delighted to be understood, to feel connected to their parents – not different at all. Perhaps to feel understood by another person and to enjoy the relief of that connection is to feel infantilized.

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In my experience, boys struggle with similarity more than girls. Having set out to become heroic warriors needing no one and nothing (“Certainly not my Mum!”), they’re left high and dry, victims of their own publicity (“But darling, I asked you earlier and you said you didn’t want any help!”). I’ve sat with groups of boys where it’s been really hard for them to acknowledge that they could possibly have anything in common and yet, when it happens, their relief at being able to acknowledge the things they have in common is almost palpable. Supporting the same football team becomes hugely important for many as a socially acceptable way of expressing similarity, a way of connecting with other boys, sharing the fear of the team losing, the frustration (and even tears) when it loses, the joy when it wins. Winning even allows boys to dance and – shock! horror! – hug each other.

We think of bullying as young people relieving their anxieties about difference by trying to make it go away, bullying in the belief that “He’s not like me! He’s disgusting!” or “She’s weird! She’s a freak!” Professionals try to help young people tolerate the difference they see in others in the belief that this will reduce their need to bully. But I wonder whether the greater anxiety for bullying young people is about being the same as the other person…. My skin colour may be different but I, too, know what it feels like to be in a minority. I may be straight but I know what it feels like to love a best friend. I may be physically big but I know what it’s like to feel small. I may be clever but I know what it’s like to feel stupid. Perhaps to admit to being like other people is dangerous because it risks losing a hard-won sense of independence, as if that brittle facade will to come tumbling down and there’ll be nothing left of the person. For all young people, that’s a truly terrifying prospect.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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