The Awkward Age

On our lack of sympathy for adolescents (and for the adolescent we once were).

Posted May 29, 2020

When adults look at adolescents, they often see what they wish they had—vitality, a future full of possibilities, luscious locks of hair. British sociologist Cyril Smith, writing in 1968, says, similarly, that from an adult’s point of view, youth appears:

exciting, unrestrained, engaged in conflicts with authority, and deeply involved in meaningful relationships with the opposite sex. [1] 

"Deeply involved in meaningful relationships" is not exactly the expression I myself would use to describe young people's romantic involvements (nor are those necessarily with the opposite sex)—romantic attraction at this stage is exhilarating and electrifying rather than meaningful—but otherwise, Smith is right. He is also right about what he goes on to say next, namely, that adolescence is:

[E]nvied for this drama and preyed upon by adults who wish to prolong their own adolescence. [2]

Pensive young woman
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

 Since it is difficult to sympathize with those we envy, adults rarely sympathize with adolescents and may see them as a nuisance, even as some adults may, in the words of Smith, try to prolong their own adolescence.

There are other reasons adults are not prone to a compassionate view of young people. The chief one is, perhaps, that adults are acutely aware of how little responsibility teenagers have to bear in comparison to older people. The very young don’t have to feed a family, take care of ailing parents, or pay rent or a mortgage. If a teenager is fired from a part-time summer job, this is no tragedy, and the teenager in question may even joke about it with his or her friends. If an adult is laid off, that’s no laughing matter.

But while it is true that the responsibilities of adolescents pale in comparison with those of adults, young people’s defense mechanisms are weaker still, and the strategies they have for solving their own problems are few and frequently ineffective. Adolescents, I wish to suggest, deserve a more compassionate view. In what follows, I will make a case for this claim and explore some of the difficulties associated with adolescence.

Let me start by noting that adolescence is a time of peculiar misalignments. On the one hand, there is a person’s sexual development, which is generally complete at that stage; on the other, there is his or her emotional development, which is still very much in progress (though of course, to some extent, it remains so for the duration of a person’s life). There is also a discrepancy between a person’s subjective perception that he or she, being no longer a child, ought to be treated as an adult, and societal structures that do not accord adolescents full adult status.        

Most adolescents go through a phase (the Holden Caulfield phase?) when they believe that no one—save, perhaps, for one special person—understands them. One may wonder what it is exactly that they think others do not understand. I believe that what they actually feel is frustration over the fact that they have limited autonomy and choice. Multiple adults exercise power over them in a non-reciprocal manner. This leads to pain and dissatisfaction that young people may choose to interpret as feelings of alienation or as being misunderstood. That is a more flattering interpretation of the experience. There is something inherently humiliating about feeling powerless, but misunderstood? That’s a different matter. There is a sophistication and assertion of individuality in the latter that is not present in the former.

Indeed, I suspect that suicide attempts among very young people are often an assertion of autonomy. When adults attempt suicide, the reason generally is depression or terrible life circumstances. When young people do it, it is often a way of saying to the world, “You cannot control me.” This is true even when the attempt has to do with drug use: Use of illegal drugs on the part of young people is itself, quite often, a rebellion and a way of asserting one’s own freedom; on the part of adults, by contrast, it is an escape.  

There is another reason why adolescence is difficult. Young people suffer a good deal at each other’s hands. Adults are much less dependent on any particular person’s approval than teenagers are. This is because adults have a wider and more varied social network. If you don’t feel you “fit in” at work, you still have your friends outside work. Or you have your running group, or film club, or church. Things stand differently for high schoolers. They have little opportunity for developing relationships outside high school and are, thus, highly dependent on the approval of their peers.

In addition, while adolescent cultures are often engineered as a counterpoint to “establishment” adult cultures, adolescents seriously restrict expressions of each other’s individuality. To the extent individuality is allowed, it is allowed to a few youths only—the ones with social power, the trendsetters.

People tend to become considerably more relaxed about these things with age, and adult cultures are more accepting of different lifestyle choices. Moreover, while adults may try to be like someone else, they feel at liberty to pick the role-model, the person they want to emulate. High schoolers feel pressure to resemble models picked for them by other high schoolers, even when their natural inclination is to emulate a very different person.

There is a final reason we may fail to be as understanding of young people as we could be. It has to do with the fact that we, adults, often have a tangled relationship with our own adolescence. While we tend to idealize childhood and want to keep the child in us alive—share her sense of wonder and her ability to feel pure, unadulterated joy—few would say they want to keep alive the adolescent in them or that they wish to resemble that much younger self. A child’s mind is seen as a beloved mystery. An adolescent’s mind is seen as simply immature. Psychologist Erik Erikson made a similar point once:

We who know so much about the child in the adult know so much less about the fate of the adolescent in him, whether as a continued source of renewal or as a split-off younger self, alternately idealized and repudiated, revived and ‘murdered’ — and, of course, reprojected on the young. [3]

There is much truth to Erikson’s observation here. (Incidentally, Erikson struggled with his own identity, and described the struggle as bordering “neurosis and adolescent psychosis.”[4] The crisis did not end until he dropped his stepfather’s last name and adopted a name he himself invented: “Erikson.” [5] Erik renounced his lineage and became his own son; or attempted to.) We know little about the fate of the adolescent in us, despite the fact that some of us attempt to extend the period of adolescence indefinitely.

What this suggests, I think, is a final reason to be more understanding of young people, a reason that has to do with our own life trajectory. In treating young people with more compassion, even when they deliberately act in defiance and opposition, we can reclaim our own pre-adulthood years.

We will never be adolescents again, nor do we really want to (we want the benefits of adolescence, yes, but without the costs). Yet, adolescence is a key part of our own life story; a somewhat awkward, potentially embarrassing, and not fully owned up to part. But ours it is. We are reminded of this—whether we acknowledge it or not—any time we experience social anxiety. We do not transition from childhood to adulthood in a day. And we never transition to adulthood fully. We have the child in us, much as we wish. But also, and whatever our feelings toward this younger self, we have the adolescent. 


[1] Smith, C. (1968). Adolescence. London, UK: Longmans, p. 2. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Erikson, E. (1975). Life History and the Historical Moment. New York, NY: Norton, p. 222. 

[4] Ibid., p. 26. 

[5] Erikson Bloland, S. (2005). In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Viking Press, p. 64.