Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

When Young People Get Trapped in a Role

Recognizing her in her infinite variety.

Instead of giving her money or an iPad or an expensive bike for her birthday, Gemma's father gave her a bar of chocolate. A small bar of chocolate. "It made my day," she laughs, “because he knows I really like that type of chocolate. And he bought me two chocolate bees as well ‘cause he knows how much I like bees. And he got me a whole load of other little things he knows I like!" 

Over the last months, she’s been worried about her relationship with her father. He lives a long way away and she did something at school several months ago - something bad - which made her worry that he wouldn't want to see her any longer. When her father found out about what she’d done, he was angry and disapproving. Their relationship was distant for a while and that was horrible for Gemma. She was scared that she'd lost him, which was why these little presents mean so much. They show that he'd been thinking about her and about the things she likes. He hadn't just given her money or a new bike or an iPad, the things some parents buy in order to save having to think. These little, inexpensive presents clearly mean a lot.

Young people spend a lot of time trying to get the attention of adults, trying to be noticed, trying to be memorable in some way. But it’s not the things that they become famous or notorious for that necessarily matter: the fact that one person is a swimming champion or that another has a criminal record. These become lazy stereotypes, generalized ways of remembering a person without having to think. Instead, it’s the little things that count, that mark a person out as memorable, like when we remember the name of her friend or pet budgerigar, his favourite meal, her most hated TV character, the book he’s currently reading, her dream holiday destination or, for that matter, her favourite type of chocolate. These things tell young people that someone’s noticed, been interested and remembered.

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Growing up, it’s easy to get stuck in a particular role, as the angry girl or shy boy, as the academic or sporty person, as the drama queen or disruptive student…. It’s tempting to play these roles because they’re familiar (“If that’s what you think I’m like, then that’s what I’ll be like!”) and yet it’s frustrating to be typecast. Most young people want the security of a familiar role to fall back on, but also want to break free of that role, developing a wider repertoire. Their attempts to try out new roles only succeed when the new roles are recognized by other people. So Gemma’s father certainly recognized her as Gemma-Who-Did-The-Bad-Thing but his little birthday presents also recognize her as Gemma-Who-Likes-Earrings, Gemma-Who-Reads-Science-Fiction, Gemma-Who-Paints-Her-Nails-Black, Gemma-Who-Likes-Baking, Gemma-Who’s-Interested-In-Africa and so on. When young people are recognized in their infinite variety, they tend to do the same for other people.

With a smile, she describes her presents, clearly delighted not to be typecast but to have been thought about, really thought about by her father, recognized by him as his multi-faceted, ever-changing, always interesting daughter.

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

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