Problems, hormonal swings, impulsiveness, changes, questioning, chaos. These are usually among the first words that come to mind when we speak about adolescence.
Since the first publication on this topic in 1904,1 several academics have debated this matter. The common thread that appears to bind together various classical approaches is that adolescence is a tumultuous period to be overcome, something necessary and inevitable – a developmental ‘disease’;2 a ‘psychosocial moratorium’;3 a ‘breakdown’4 or an inevitable ‘necessary disease’.5 And the adolescent seems to be a passive creature without any particular grip on their life, dominated by inner, unrestrained forces that awaken and set them in motion, making them both disturbing and disturbed. At least, this is what an adult and external view might look like.
Meanwhile, what do adults take for granted about adolescent experiences? Which aspects of adolescents’ exciting, and at the same time scary, world are not being taken into consideration? What might we discover if we were to look at the world through their eyes?
To help answer these questions, George Kelly’s metaphor of the ‘person as a scientist’ may prove useful. In his opinion,6 the person – instead of being the result of an impulsive determinism – is actively engaged in research and exploration in order to make sense of themselves, the world and others. This person, in our case an adolescent, elaborates hypotheses on the basis of their own experience – both rationally and viscerally perceived – and instantly puts them to the test in everyday life and relationships.
In Kellian theory,7 adolescents are acting as protagonists and not as victims of their predetermined story: past experience gives them a theory and hypotheses (called ‘anticipations’ by Kelly) that are projected into the future. They test and verify these in the here and now, and then modify the theory itself, both if it is confirmed (and thus strengthened) and when it is falsified.
Therefore, adolescents can anticipate the future and verify their own assumptions of their world through different personal ‘experiments’, trying to manoeuvre among conflicting and sometimes puzzling relationships, for example with themselves, with their own bodies, with love, with peers, with adults, with the past, and with what the future may hold. It is possible to imagine the confusion, but also the excitement, that this process of self-construing might stir in adolescents. And we can catch sight of how adolescents might feel when not knowing who they are in any clear way, while also trying to decide who they want to become. Although adolescents actively engage in this process, ‘they often change their accounts of what they like to do and the people with whom they like to be’.8 This unpredictability, however, enables adolescents to experiment, thus fostering a greater elaboration of their own ideas and shaping of the self.
Self-exploration between risks and experiments
But what happens when, in our clinical work, we meet adolescents who tell us about their sexuality? And what if these tales include information such as unprotected sexual intercourse, continually seeking the morning-after pill, or doubts about having contracted a sexually transmitted infection?
Working in the sexual prevention field, as I do, these requests often seem recurrent narratives to me, and the roles become clear: reckless teenagers get into difficulties and ‘wise’ adults not only provide solutions but also educate the adolescents about correct and healthy sexuality, something that teens supposedly do not have.
How would this scenario change if the adolescents who get into trouble are the very ones who know perfectly well the basis of a healthy sexuality? In other words, why do they behave in this way despite knowing the risks?
Maybe we could say that in the midst of their sexually oriented experiments, adolescents indeed bypass or fail to linger long enough to properly examine the implications of casual, unprotected sexual intercourse. But unfortunately, defining teenagers as careless, impulsive, ruled by hormones, incapable of considering the consequences of unprotected sex etc, does not help us to understand them better! In contrast, if we consider adolescents as naive scientists, we can imagine them experiencing something and, given some restrictions, being able to choose. Without this possibility, it is clear that they will inevitably be determined by something else (hormones, impulses, motivations etc).
So what are adolescents choosing to do?
People, immersed in the flow of their anticipations, are constantly engaged in choosing between at least two alternatives – that which is the best one from their point of view, or, in some cases, the ‘lesser of two evils’. When we refer to choice, however, we do not think of it as something necessarily in our awareness or deliberate: choice might be simply visceral or tacitly taken.
A curious adolescent researcher is testing new physical, cognitive and relational competence; reviewing anticipations that have, up to now, channelled their being in the world quite well. So let us imagine, therefore, that the adolescent is actively looking for a new observation point on the world, through which to better understand themselves, one that is more useful than the one they used as a child up until a short time ago. The teenager is actively elaborating their own identity, which develops from a clear and incontrovertible one – the one developed during infancy – to a multifaceted and varied one, which takes into account the many new and diverse experiences they are starting to undergo. In these terms, adolescence can be seen as the complexification process of their own identity.9
Engaged in this ongoing adventurous experimentation, full of newness and research, and clarification and questioning of old and new parts of themselves, adolescents might not be able to properly anticipate the outcomes of these lively experiences, such as their desire to get acquainted with their bodies and as yet unexplored sexuality; the discovery of the pleasure they can procure; and, of course, the reality of finding themselves sexually attracted to another person. So, even behaviours such as unprotected sex can be seen as an experiment directed towards a clarification of who they are and what is important to them.
When exploring something new, in one sense we are all somehow clumsy and unskilled. An adolescent’s feeling of uncertainty and bewilderment while they look for a way in which to navigate relationships is therefore understandable.10
So, for example, thinking of a sixteen-year-old girl who has promiscuous, unprotected intercourse, who often looks for the morning-after pill and accuses those who ‘try to make up her mind’ and treat her as a child, we could understand how important it might be for her ‘not to adhere’ to other adults’ definitions of herself – those same adults who applied themselves to establishing what constitutes ‘responsibility’, ‘correct behaviour’ or ‘healthy experiences’; in other words, trying to control her. (I am putting these terms in inverted commas because, in Kellian theory, a construct encompasses much more than a mere definition.)
On the other hand, this girl, albeit in an unusual and almost opposite way to that of the expert-adults, lives day to day in various ways in order to ‘travel her route’, ‘find her path’ – trying to combine both her and others’ views of her.
Another reflection on adolescent sexuality is possible if you think of an eighteen-year-old boy, who hasn’t been using a condom during one-night sexual encounters because his friends don’t use one and ‘it’s for losers!’ Talking with him, the notion arises of how much the point of view of his peer group is central to the process of his identity construction. His friends are a main resource for verifying new and still unclear ideas and the borders of his identity. In this sense, the group represents a relational context wherein to experiment with reciprocal identity validation.11
Looking at these unsafe and risky experiences, I wonder how impulsive adolescents really are, or how ‘impulsiveness’ (such as not taking into consideration the many different and sometimes unsafe implications of their sexual behaviour) might be a construction of the adults who observe and interact with them.
In my work, when wanting to understand what teens are engaged in doing, I try to ‘move away’ from my role of expert-adult. What I notice is that the labels used to define adolescence and adolescents say more about the observer than the observed.
Nevertheless, what emerges and is observed cannot be separated from the one observing it. And if the observer changes (eg the adult rather than the adolescent), the importance given to one aspect or another also changes. For instance, the adult seems to look at the negative impact of the adolescent’s choices, whereas adolescents would be concerned with the outcomes and validations or invalidations they receive while experiencing and testing things out to be new clues about themselves.
A consideration of this gap between the intergenerational narrations can help us avoid restrictive and controlling educational dynamics and probably guide us towards a reflection on how the story and the choices of our adolescents can be channellised and not predetermined.
It is important to remember that the challenge in working with adolescents is to commit oneself to continuously construing their processes. At the heart of education, we need to make a continuous effort to construe adolescent experiences that are sometimes too different or too threatening from the adult point of view – this effort would be aimed at bringing out the construction processes of adolescents and fostering mutual understanding among the players involved. Only in this way is it possible, as Bannister and Fransella said,12 to be in a relationship with adolescents, and not only do something to them. In life as in the therapy room.
Elena Bordin is a clinical constructivist psychologist-psychotherapist who has been working with adolescents and young people in Padua (Italy) since 2010. Elena also works in the field of sexual education in primary and secondary schools. An area of special clinical interest for her is creatively developing research on adolescents’ identity construction and on parent-adolescent relationships.
1 Hall SG. Adolescence. New York: Appleton; 1904.
2 Freud A. L’adolescenza come disturbo emotivo. In: Freud A (trans Cinato A). Opere. Vol 3. Torino, Italy: Bollati Boringhieri; 1985 (pp99–1005). (Original work published 1969).
3 Erikson EH. Identity, youth and crisis. New York: Norton; 1968.
4 Laufer M. Adolescent breakdown and the transference neurosis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 1981; 62: 51–59.
5 Bonino S. Il fascino del rischio negli adolescenti. Firenze: Giunti; 2005.
6 Kelly GA. A brief introduction to personal construct theory. In: Bannister D (ed). Perspectives in personal construct theory. New York: Academic Press; 1970 (pp1–29).
7 Kelly GA. The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton; 1955.
8 Viney L, Truneckova D, Weekes P, Oades L. Personal construct group work with school-based adolescents: reduction of risk-taking. Journal of Constructivist Psychology 1997; 10(2): 167–186.
9 Giliberto M. An invitation to elaborate ethics through PCP. In: Bourne D, Fromm M (eds). Construing PCP: new contexts and perspectives. 9th EPCA Conference Proceedings. Norderstedt: Gmbh; 2010 (pp220–232).
10 Bordin E. Adolescents in ‘transition’: the sexual risk of self-channelization. Journal of Constructivist Psychology 2016; 29(4). doi: 10.1080/10720537.2015.1134367
11 Giliberto M, Bordin E. Ditegli sempre di si. Paper presented to the congress: Ditegli sempre di si… storia della costruzione di un’onnipotenza trigenerazionale (Tell them always yes: story of a tri-generational omnipotence construction). 15–16 January 2015 in Taranto, Italy.
12 Bannister D, Fransella F. Inquiring man: the psychology of personal constructs. Harmondsworth: Penguin; 1971.