Donald Winnicott famously said that ‘there’s no such thing as a baby’1 when describing the interconnectedness of mother and child in the earliest stages of life. Although we grow up and away from this early stage, it’s often difficult to establish where family influence begins and ends, for ourselves and our clients.

Some counsellors will be working with primary school children, but many will be seeing clients who are negotiating (in every sense) their adolescence. We recognise that adolescence is the second time round for the stage of separation and individuation from family experienced by the young child – that of ‘me’ and ‘not me’ described by Winnicott1 – which makes it necessary to ‘shake the family tree’ to see what falls before automatically seeing the client only as an individual.

So what do parents hand down to their children? To give an example, one of the issues I encounter most as a school counsellor is anxiety. Clients claim the anxiety as their own, but often I’m not so sure that it belongs to them alone. In practice, the conversation might go something like this (let’s call our hypothetical client Claire). Claire is just starting in the sixth form and has come to see me because she is feeling anxious ‘about everything’. Around the third session, I suggest to Claire that she doesn’t seem overly anxious. In fact, she comes across as a sensible self-possessed young woman who seems to enjoy taking charge of situations when her friends are in difficulty. Claire takes a deep breath, sighs, then tells me of a time when she was younger and she didn’t want to go to the shops with her mum. It was a long time ago and Claire can’t remember why she didn’t want to go or what emotions were in play. What Claire does remember is her mum tutting and saying: ‘You always were an anxious child!’ In those six words, a spell was cast. Now, whenever Claire feels uneasy or confused, she attributes it to her anxious inner child. She doesn’t at first believe me when I tell her that a certain level of adult anxiety is normal – healthy, even. I recount to her some of the situations she has described being in herself, of how competently she handled them, and of the support she gives her friends. Claire looks confused, then relaxes and smiles.

Part of my role in schools and colleges involves giving talks to staff about how they can help young people in their care. These teachers and support workers are dedicated to the pastoral side of their work, but often feel nervous about how they exercise it. Something that comes up a lot in discussion is the question of experience. Adults often feel that they have plenty of experience to share – but can feel frustrated when young people reject it.

My job then is to help them think about what is happening here. Blos2 points out that during the latency period, before true adolescence begins, feelings of self-worth are obtained less from our parents and more from having our own achievements recognised by others. This shift is not always easy to manage, and occasional misjudgements can cause huge embarrassment to young people. The tendency for regression is high when they move away from the close family culture into unknown waters, but later on, ‘significant ego activities such as perception, learning, memory and thinking become more firmly consolidated into the conflict-free sphere of the ego’.2 In other words, our young people, through experience and observation, begin to acquire their own wisdom.

So when teachers attempt to pass on their wisdom, they often replicate a parental/societal transference that the young person is trying to challenge or escape. Our job is to maintain the developmental space and use our insights to explore directions and choices with our clients. This is a privilege of the therapeutic alliance that makes it markedly different from the directed-ness of school or home. If this space is not observed, the transference will assert itself as negative, creating a tendency towards acting out and resistance, but lacking the essential opportunity of working through. Of course, both we and our clients always run the risk of mutual rejection, and occasionally this is extremely therapeutically useful, provided the therapeutic alliance can be maintained – but not so if the young person subsequently feels too ashamed or overwhelmed to continue, and so becomes unable to pursue the therapeutic alliance.

Most young people start with the internalisation of a good object. Not only do we depend on the caregiver for our physical needs, but he or she also safeguards our emotional wellbeing by processing bad feelings for us. Perhaps the later anger at parents is about loss and disillusionment – because parents can’t always make things better. So we need to remember that teenage anger expressed in our rooms is as much about loss of childhood as it is the perceived lack of freedom, voice, or respect from their early caregivers.

Tight family machines and the fall-out

Jaques3 refers to individuals as ‘cogs’ who make up the family ‘machine’. I have also observed, when shaking the family tree, that in order to overcome the challenges of everyday life, a family machine can become so tight, so inflexible, that the wobbly ‘cog’ (my young client) has become the subject of unconscious blame from the rest of the family. The child’s reaction to this barely detectable disapproval is to introject it, along with the feelings of ‘badness’ inherent in the developmental crisis itself. This unconscious desire of a family or organisation or, more recently, society, to ‘fix’ a problem in its midst by ‘tightening’ is partly characterised in the tendency to seek medical diagnoses and treatments for difficult adolescent behaviour. Adopting a medicalised approach provides instant relief by removing guilt. The subject can’t help their condition, the parents can’t be blamed and everyone goes home feeling better. 

Sometimes, though, there are rewards for merely enduring the discomfort of adolescence, such as the concept expressed by Freud as ‘self-mastery’. I wonder if, by attempting to ease our path with medical diagnoses and pathologies, we have actually made things harder to understand. In Freudian and Kleinian theory, ‘far from soothing the psyche or the self or dismissing the guilt as unfounded, the analyst seeks to make conscious its unconscious, real or imagined grounds’.4 The trouble is that children who have not learned self-mastery become parents unable to tolerate the psychic upheavals in their own infant and adolescent children. Remember, that if adolescence is the re-enactment of infancy, the most potent opportunity of the primary caregiver is the provision of reassurance and developmental space. If this is lost, if the parent cannot bear and absorb the child’s cries, but interprets them as sharp and accusatory, the child cannot then model self-mastery.

It follows that teenagers who feel both invincible and abandoned – often characterised by self- alienation or a nihilistic outlook (think ‘Emo’ or anarchic tendencies) – are perhaps experiencing a reprise of the ‘terrible twos’, trying to exercise their autonomy in the family while at the same time fearing abandonment. The self-consciousness of growing up, the stretching of familial bonds, when parental aspirations are swallowed up along with the limitless potential of childhood: this is the place where young people look for their own meaning, determined to find the truth of their existence.

So this is what I like to explore in my practice – the duality of adolescence and family. It’s a sliding, shape- shifting thing that moves quickly together and apart again, never quite resettling into what it was before. It’s both traumatic and beautiful to be part of. As you might imagine, I encounter many relationship ‘styles’ when working with young people. It’s common to observe the reactive/preverbal communication between father and son, or the verbal/emotional bond of mother and daughter and, of course, all things in between.

Relationship templates from home

Relationship templates derive from family life, and may or may not work outside the family environment. Conflict and conflict resolution styles especially, are learned first in the home, often leaving little room for developing children to adapt and improvise. During adolescence, we begin to challenge our parents’ way of relating and try different approaches. These new approaches may be formulated from books, TV, movies and games, or time spent with friends in their family home. The observation and reformulation of established mores can bring a great feeling of relief for those who feel different from their own family – and which of us hasn’t had a profound feeling of difference and being grossly misunderstood in our teenage years? It’s not uncommon for younger teenagers to inhabit some form of adoption fantasy, hoping to be ‘rescued’ by idealised ‘real’ parents who will truly understand them. Here again, we can provide a space during therapy to compare and contrast realities, unconstrained by family values and loyalties.

Parents can feel terribly rejected by teenage tantrums and anger. So it’s important to promote the idea to our young clients that this is part of the teenager’s rejection of self being projected onto those closest to them. This new order of things is a disillusionment for both parties. It’s difficult to sit in the destruction zone as a parent and imagine all is well, and I often invoke Winnicott’s assertion that ‘no one would claim the word “health” is synonymous with the word “ease”’ as a welcome piece of wisdom to offer.Although we attribute a lot of power to peer pressure among teens, in any group – including school and family – there is pressure to fit in. This is the world that adults dwell in: timetables, meetings, work, planned holidays. Fitting things in is essential to daily functioning – if someone isn’t fitting in, it throws things off balance and causes insecurity in the group.

When teaching groups of trainee counsellors, I notice a tendency for the trainees wishing to work with children to stick with me and those wanting to work with adults to find another tutor to adopt. This interests me, because I know that an awful lot of the work I do with adults revolves around their own struggles with childhood and adolescence. Jaques3 points out that by the time their children reach adolescence, parents will usually be in a relatively stable period in their lives, which should make it easier to work through their children’s turbulent teens together. But I wonder if this doesn’t sometimes compound the ‘rude awakening’ of parents who feel they had been getting things pretty much right. Jaques3 does, however, concede that parents going through emotional or relationship difficulties may experience teenage upheaval as the final straw, and in these circumstances the projection of unhappiness can make it feel like a perpetual cycle of blame, making it impossible to tell which cause and what effect belongs to whom.

There are, of course, parents (of our young clients) who themselves failed to negotiate adolescence successfully, and we need to watch out for and recognise this. Sometimes they were deprived of the freedom that their own children seem to enjoy, and they want to ‘join in’ on the fun in some way. But what do you do to rebel as a teenager if your parents want to be like you? Alternatively, parents who feel they didn’t make the most of their education might decide to set impossible standards for their children as a way of repairing their own past mistakes. But adolescents’ capacity to deal with life challenges depends on their inner resources, and these develop from earlier relationships with caregivers and need to have been healthy, which is why we shake the tree and see what falls.

However, sometimes, an older or more distanced family member can ‘draw the heat’ from those parents who are fraught with arguments that go nowhere and sap energy from family life. I’ve frequently heard about grandparents providing a safe haven for my adolescent clients. The vital ingredients in this healing relationship seem to be time and non-judgment. It can also be, if introduced subtly, a place where adolescents find out from someone who was there at the time that their parents were also difficult teenagers. Rodriguez5 observes that in times of family upheaval or conflict, where extended family members are unavailable in some way, the therapist, too, can represent a stronger, safer object than their parents.

The upshot of shaking the family tree is this: that although it’s perhaps instinctive to collude to some extent with the ‘misunderstood’ adolescent, however much we wish to respond to them as individuals, we cannot escape the fact (and neither can they) that they are a product of their family and environment. Using what we learn about the therapeutic alliance in family therapy can throw up some interesting pointers. We can involve parents to some extent, and this can be helpful in alleviating splitting behaviour in parents and children alike. And moving from thinking about a ‘problem child’ towards an understanding that the whole family is facing change can be extremely useful in addressing the reciprocal anger, fear and disappointment we encounter in our young clients.

Laura McDonald MSt is a psychodynamic psychotherapist, consultant, lecturer and supervisor working with a range of educational organisations. This article was inspired by her interest in adolescent issues and the role of school counsellors.


1 Winnicott DW. The child, the family and the outside world. London: Tavistock Publications; 1964. 
2 Blos P. On adolescence. London: Collier Macmillan; 1962.
3 Jaques P. Understanding children’s problems. London: Unwin; 1987.
4 Carveth DL. The unconscious need for punishment: expression or evasion of the sense of guilt. Psychoanalytic Studies 2001; 3(1): 9–21. 
5 Rodriguez de la Sierra L. Working with addicts in adolescence. In: Wise I (ed). Adolescence. London: Karnac; 2004 (pp87–107).