This is adapted from a talk I was invited to give at the Manchester and District Medico-Legal Society. 15 February 2012.
It is probably considered too long for an article on a website …. although I know people do in fact read entire books online… so I have prepared a brief summary.
The thesis is quite simple and probably very unattractive or even unacceptable for many people.
We have two massive crises in the world at the present moment: Firstly the environmental one where human greed and consumerism has depleted resources, created pollution including carbon dioxide which has caused global warming with terrifying consequences.
Secondly, in parallel with this there is crisis of mental health with extraordinary levels of anxiety, depression, violence including self directed – self harm and suicide as well as a widespread general dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
I think the two crises are linked by the simple fact that the dominant culture is now one of the a massively exaggerated acting out of adolescent impulses, values and behaviour.
Normal adolescence – at the appropriate age of puberty – is a time of separation of the child from their parents or carers – their attachment figures. It is a time for the young person to seek to make new attachments in romantic and sexual terms. It is a time therefore marked by anxiety at separation as well as self-consciousness, vanity, competitiveness and consumerism.
How can it be that we have an epidemic of ongoing exaggerated adolescence? My answer is that unsatisfactory childhoods, the early problems or even failure of healthy attachment between child and parent cause a child to be anxious and rejecting.
Those are appropriate emotions and behaviours at puberty however that adolescent state is being triggered prematurely and in an exaggerated form. It is massively encouraged and has been institutionalised as the norm in by our current culture with advertising, role modelling and social media.
Perhaps because it starts prematurely and is encouraged in this way, institutionalised by the culture, it becomes a permanent, on going state. No value is ascribed to post-adolescent maturity – in fact the concept is hardly spoken of – and people have become locked into this ongoing state of exaggerated adolescence.
A curious but effective way of addressing what our current social norms and encouragement is to look at the shelves in the newsagent. There the adolescent “needs“ of men are being catered for with hyper-sexuality, divorced from real intimacy, fascination with power in the form of cars, planes, guns, hunting as well as self-consciousness in the form of bodybuilding. And the adolescent needs stereotypically of women is catered for by a phenomenal degree of encouragement of vanity with the emphasis on remaining young – effectively adolescent – as well as a fascination with other people’s adolescent behaviour – particularly with a focus on role models in the form of celebrities and their romantic and sexual behaviour or of imaginary figures in romantic literature .
There is also a great deal of focus on home-building and food preparation although even that has a strong streak of competitiveness and self-conscious showing off.
The next question then becomes: how can it be that there is such general dysfunctionality in family life?
And my answer is the second unattractive thesis presented here – the isolated, nuclear family is innately unhealthy.
There is general intuitive understanding of the wisdom of the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child.“ That can be modified slightly to seeing that it takes an extended family within a village to raise a child in an emotionally healthy way.
But the model of the village and the extended family has been destroyed, with urbanisation, population mobility and contraception, leaving as a generality only a nuclear family of child or children being largely parented by one or maybe two parents or parental figures.
Those adults have the task of giving the unconditional love that the child needs for a secure base but equally the burden of socialising – which is ultimately one of restriction, control and often disapproval.
Compare that with a wider family or a village where the socialising is effectively done by a wider circle of adults but largely in play with other young people. In that situation a child is told what is not acceptable by older siblings, cousins, friends. Equally importantly those young people give models for a child to imitate which can sometimes be unhealthy but can also be healthy especially with benign and concerned adult input.
The socialising, the checking and the learning of social norms – which has a cost in terms of the child’s selfishness – is carried out socially then the relationship with the parents does not carry the exclusive or excessive burden of that socialising.
A second major point is that in such an extended family / village situation, the child themselves soon has the responsibility and the healthy power to help care for and socialise younger children – a real role and quite different from being the relentlessly powerless role in a home with parents or at school.
To describe this as innately unhealthy is not to suggest some universal traumatizing of children. The language of therapy has now moved to broaden the question from only obvious trauma of abuse and neglect to looking at Adverse Childhood Experiences which also includes much more common problems in the family such as parental conflict, substance abuse etc. We can now broaden that further to include the innate disadvantages of the nuclear family.
Whether you accept this second thesis or not, the first thesis of the predominance of the ongoing, exaggerated adolescence must surely be confirmed by the deeply alarming and depressing evidence of catastrophic social and worldwide dysfunctionality.
Any ideas for a solution?! It would be reasonable to ask what I suggest can be done to assist us in moving out of adolescence and into a state of greater maturity.
On the logic above it looks like we need to be able to process the Adverse Childhood Experiences that we have had.
Some of those are relatively obvious and would qualify as abusive and even traumatic. But many people have not had such clear experiences and the problem lies in the much more pervasive, normal as explored above – and therefore much harder to notice – issue of over parenting and the claustrophobic nuclear family situation.
It is generally understood that the ongoing damage resulting from an adverse childhood experience has to be understood as the severity of the damage multiplied by the degree to which it is covered up, denied and ultimately repressed by the person themselves. This covering up does not need to be oppressive and brutal – it can be the result of the sheer normality of the unhealthy situation as outlined above.
The obvious analogy is with a physical wound. The ongoing consequences reflect the seriousness of the wound in the first place and then the degree to which it has been covered up and allowed to fester and go gangrenous.
And the obvious implication of that is that the healing begins when we uncovered the wound very carefully and let light and air get to it – and drain off the pus. This is otherwise known as therapy and involves saying the previously unsaid and unsayable and thinking of the previously denied and unthinkable and feeling the previously numb.
I am working on ideas about how therapy can address these issues and I’m still in working on an unobvious idea which starts with bereavement counselling, which I have done for many years now, and how the lessons I have learnt from that are valuable in therapy in general.
I am working on writing a couple of articles on those issues which I will add to this website soon I hope.
Below is the talk I gave in Manchester rather a long time ago but it seems more relevant than ever. Warning – it is long, exploratory and get into the historical aspects and the political consequences. ———————————————————————————
Crisis: Our culture of permanent adolescence – anger, stress and other addictions.
This is ambitious – very general and only from my own thinking – not relying on other writers, texts etc.
So how dare I? Answer – I think it is necessary: As a culture – there is an undeniable, urgent crisis facing us. Things are going wrong. People are suffering – unnecessarily. It is not too extreme to say that people are dying – unnecessarily.
In my world – the world of the lawyers here: In the home – people are suffering and dying in domestic violence, of child abuse and neglect. On the streets – other crime, of drugs and alienated youth and gangs – a huge and rapidly growing problem in all our cities that I will come back to in more detail. And I think I can offer some ideas about that subject. And wider, much wider – throughout the world – fundamentalism, hatred and wars.
For the doctors here – dealing with the victims of this violence and the self inflicted violence – overt self harming, drugs, as well as self harm in smoking, food eating disorders, the obesity time bomb, etc. All in all – We are talking gross dysfunctionality.
Before moving on please note holding in the mind both acute, extreme cases (murder and suicide) and widespread disfunctionality, normalised in society (from obesity through to family breakdown, parenting problems, unhappiness – etched in the faces of so many of us) .
So it’s zooming up and down this spectrum of symptoms: Acute and chronic. That could make us dizzy or confused. Actually it’s not that hard. For doctors: heart attacks are embedded in the extreme symptoms of unfitness, poor diet. For child care lawyers: abuse is rooted in lack of love, which also produces chronic neglect of all degrees. Hate and anger is rooted in lack of care and love. Lack of the inclination – perhaps the ability to love.
Another huge issue underlying disfunctionality is the fact of our greed, relentless, insatiable appetites; making so many people simply unhappy, frustrated, feeling failures. And globally -trashing the planet for our descendants. Insatiable. We will come back to that important word.
Why? Why, when we have solved some of the concrete, physical problems do we self-inflict new problems – or exaggerate old ones? This surely calls out for an urgent answer. An answer which explains attitude and behaviour, lack of love and care, too much aggression. And too much greed. I think I have it. Hence the tough subject matter. What can I possibly offer? Indeed – Why was I asked at all?
Well you have heard my background which maybe can establish my credentials and may explain where these ideas come from:- I assume I have been asked here as I have been a legal aid solicitor for 30 years, a therapist for 15 years with particular emphasis on bereavement and then running parenting workshops for 10 years. (and I am blessed with two daughters in their 20s. [now 30s] )
I have found that these areas of professional work and my family life do connect: As a solicitor for the first years of practice I was dealing with clients in crime and mental health, family breakdowns and acting for clients on both sides of Domestic Violence, victims and perpetrators. And then care cases – care here meaning abuse and neglect. All of these dealing with the symptoms if you like – the acted out dysfunctionality.
I could talk all evening about those behaviours; those symptoms of dysfunctionality. Possibly interesting, even amusing in a bleak sort of way.
After a few years in practice I began to specialise in child care cases – working for the children and for parents. Involving violence and neglect. Seeing dysfunctionality from both sides. Within families. Digging down a bit more into the history and the causes. The cases involve studying the history of people and families, lengthy observations, enquiries and psychiatric and psychological reports. It is really useful to see the roots in the lack of attachment, love, care. Seeing that connecting up with overt aggression and callousness to others and to self. That’s where I come from.
Let me say now that the talk has three subjects: Firstly stating and exploring how it is that many of the problems of society and for individuals are caused by a culture of permanent and exaggerated adolescence. Distorted adolescence.
Secondly I will explore how that distorted culture has developed over history. A sociological perspective.
Third I will explore exactly what happens psychologically in adolescence and how that has gone wrong. How and why adolescence is a very vulnerable moment and why it has therefore been so easily distorted. Integrating the personal psychological perspective with a historical, sociological perspective is another challenge. To see how they feed into each other.
And there is a fourth stage – we can see if these theories produce any useful suggestions for changes and solutions. This is an area of development. I have no complete instant solution.
The next and final challenge: not only is this not polished. It also deals with some deeply unattractive matters. And the thesis is quite resistible. And I have found from discussions that it is especially unattractive to women. Because it is most obviously about Men … Behaving Badly – and my trying to understand that – explain it. And that could be seen as excusing it. It’s not. It really is about understanding – in order to challenge and change.
I will really appreciate your feedback. At the end – or by e-mail.
How does this relate to adolescence? Let me explain this by saying how this thesis developed?
Stage one: I noticed many years ago dealing with youth crime, then with young parents… no prizes … their behaviour and the attitudes behind them were immature. Adolescent. Aggressive, callous. Lacking care for others and self – self-destructive.
That was easy. Young and working class. Or underclass to use an accurate, unpleasant word.
Stage two: then I saw that with older clients in crime and family. These adolescent characteristics continue. Anger, violence.
Stage three: Then for 15 years as a therapist trying to mend the damage that adult individuals are left with. Mainly middle class and apparently well functioning people. Who struggle with their anger – and with their inability to love fully. To be warmly intimate. Getting close to home.
Stage four: Running parenting workshops for very well intentioned, concerned, middle class parents determined not to pass on emotional damage to their children and appalled to see they are.
Especially as the parenting workshops attract parents of actual adolescents – I had to examine explicitly the struggles, the characteristics of adolescence. The parents so often reported a shocking change ‘as the hormones came in’. “I have lost my son or daughter.” Especially – but not only – boys. Moving from warm, affectionate, reasonable, loving to parents and siblings – to being cut off, rejecting of home, obsessed by his peer group, angry, anxious, sexually obsessed in the most alienated, aggressive, pornographic, unpleasant way. Real shock and distress for parents. Angry and unloving.
Stage five: the way the parents dealt with the problems of adolescents led me to begin to see also the conflict between the immaturity of the child and the less than complete maturity of the parent. Adults with adolescent qualities.
Stage six: That points to a socially very widespread, milder dysfunctionality of adolescent characteristics . A spectrum disorder. Quite hard to keep a clear focus because now we are talking about acute cases embedded in a chronic emotional unhealth. So widespread, so universal and culturally normal – that it is hard to notice it, it is almost invisible.
Not just our clients and patients but even in ourselves.? Dare we look at that tonight? You may be glad to know there is no time to look at that tonight. We will just talk about Other People. If the ideas seem useful you may like to see if they in any way apply to you. They do to me.
As you know – my answer is – Adolescence. The title of the talk: “Our culture of permanent adolescence – sex, anger, stress and other addictions”: This was slightly misleading – to avoid using the word “Hyper-adolescence”. Hyper-adolescence is a more accurate but an unattractive word.
I say hyper-adolescence because I will explore with you the idea that many of our major problems as individuals and as a society come from the fact that we live in and are formed by a culture of 1. premature adolescence, 2. exaggerated adolescence and 3. extended, continuing adolescence. Unnatural, pathological, hypertrophied.
How can I say these are problems of hyper-adolescence?
This is where we come to the psychological bit. We need to put it in place before the historical.
Let’s ask what is the essence of adolescence? – Is it not the psychological and social changes that arise from puberty? The moving out of childhood.
And this is a traumatic transition period. Not usually recognised as such.
Because psychologically the issue is leaving the main attachment to parents and siblings – severing those bonds – Separation and loss of the relationship that ensured your survival as a child. Pushing away Care and Love and safety . How scary is that? How crazy? Why do it?
Answer: This is in order to become an adolescent who, from a Darwinian perspective, has one purpose in life – to form new attachments – first to peers – to form very, very powerful peer groups, friendships groups. And then to seek new sexual attachments. And procreate. Darwinianly – that is the Imperative. You can’t put it any higher than that.
Sorry to be reductionist but we are only here to reproduce – as parents or to support other people who perpetuate our genes. We are only here because our ancestors succeeded in this.
And anyone who is around teenagers knows this behaviour. First the obsessive peer relationship struggles. Friendship issues. Friends vastly more important than family.
And then love sick, sex crazed. And any of us who dare to remember those times ourselves ….. the all consuming obsession with mate choice, fancying, hoping, rejections, sorrow, joy.
Adolescence is a huge step, dangerous. Surely how that transition, this separation is handled is crucial. Crucial to the immediate issue of parenting and family relations …. and crucial to the long term future of each child. Adolescence is about insecurity.
So we are talking about separation and loss. Like a bereavement. This is not obvious but please give this a chance. Having specialised in work around bereavement for some years I am aware that some bereavement losses are more easily processed and others are not. The signs of the ones that are not are often those marked by exaggerated and ongoing anger, guilt, anxiety, pain. Which leads to the use of pain killers – anaesthetics – which is the root of addictive behaviour: either the obvious ones of drugs and drink or the less obvious of hyper-busyness, workaholic, pursuing complaints, campaigns.
And these are often the result of certain sorts of deaths: unexpected deaths, suicides and murders, or the opposite where death has been drawn out for too long. Where there has been conflict with the deceased person. Or with the family. Ambiguous circumstances. Unclear – a disappeared person. Or where there has been no funeral or a confused conflictual funeral and situation after the death. . The ceremony spoiled. These are messy, ‘bad deaths’.
We know what makes a ‘good death’ – To be very clear these are no less deeply painful wounds – but they are cleaner and more healable. Answer: Good feelings with the person who died , death not too fast, not too slow, good family harmony, joined in grief, ceremonies, acknowledgement from many people – the tribe. Rituals and symbols – connecting to deeper emotional parts of the brain. Not too rational.
OK so in light of that – how about adolescence? The separation and loss of childhood? Of childhood attachments? Is that separation and loss handled elegantly? Calmly? Lovingly? Easily? In a structured, socially blessed way? Blessing rituals. Rites of passage. Is it complete?
Or is it resisted? Is it impractical in our society? At a time when an adolescent should be leaving home, does he or she have to stay and take A levels? Trapped? Does that mean it has to be fought for? Does it require powerful rejection behaviour by the child? Who denies any regret? Who needs to elicit rejecting behaviour in the adults? Is it a time of conflict and bitterness? Is it a process that may be not only unhappy but incomplete? With ongoing consequences – an incomplete grieving process continues indefinitely. The answer has to be yes – it is all those things. We could ask – what can we learn from bereavement to import into the adolescent loss and separation?
The culture of permanent adolescence is an attachment issue, almost a widespread attachment disorder. A process which should be transitory but has got stuck.
In fact we have made it so much more messy, confused, difficult, unsatisfactory that adolescence is now actually a danger to us all.
As I have said, this talk is unhappily mainly about men – or males. As we are the main problem in terms of antisocial behaviour. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, for me as a man to talk about women as collusive in any way with in this charade.
This is not an excuse for bad male behaviour. nor is it a statement that it is all in the genes, irresistible, hopeless. The point is to understand what is going on and find a solution to the problems,
So – to repeat – the basic thesis — we have not just permanent adolescence but premature…… exaggerated ….and permanent adolescence. Pathological adolescence.
We can look in a moment at why this has come about and the history of this confusion but first can we look more closely at the “qualities” or characteristics of adolescence: of what is classically the preadolescent child and then the adolescent.
Please note: Some problematic characteristics . But crucially some very good – very necessary. As we will see – it is because they are necessary that they have grown to become overdeveloped and bad. I am not saying adolescence is Bad. Any more than someone would say Fire is bad. It can be dangerous and destructive. It can be good – providing warmth and light – if understood and controlled and worked with skillfully.
I have to say ‘classically’ because now, precisely because it has recently become premature, exaggerated and permanent it is no longer occurring in such clear distinct stages – the picture is confused, the stages are mingled. It is necessary to go back to a time a few decades ago when these divisions were more clear.
Not all good qualities – the terrible twos are a rehearsal for adolescence but generally more moderate:
More natural and unselfconscious
Sensible Cooperative, keen to please
Engaged and affectionate – loving
And in adolescence they become far more:
Not all bad qualities – but generally – extremes so anything you say – the opposite is often also true.
Acutely self-conscious, showing off,
Often false and pretending. To be tough.
Risk taking, brave, masochistic, self harming, self denying, Heroic.
Absent minded – and sometime hyperfocused.
Defiant, oppositional, challenging of conventions and mores
Pulled in different directions and erratic extremes of laziness and hyperactivity, – games.
Hot headed Passionate and sometimes strangely cold-hearted.
Difficult, Irritating. Aggressive. Rejecting and provoking rejection.
Disengaged, alienated, losing affection in gaining sexuality, often predatory. developing a callousness and cruelty to others and to self
Not your children? Not mine? Just caricatures? Ok – easier if I say : I remember this well – in me. And I see it in clients. Don’t you?
The reason of so much of this is simply the need to assert separation. the terrible twos are a rehearsal for adolescence – the first great separation, pushing away.
Yes, modern pre-teens show many of these adolescent qualities . That is the point. Premature adolescence. So we need to use somewhat dated examples – stereotypes to identify the essence. Leave it with you.
Two big questions:
1. How can we encourage and harness the good qualities of adolescence and minimise the problematic ones? That can only be answered by answering the second big question:
2. Next: why is it exaggerated and how long does this last?
Answer to the question of how long it lasts: — It should be a limited duration transition period It can be a move from sanity to a form of madness, antisocial attitudes and behaviour, outside of the tribe, tolerated for that time. Then the mating game. And then when they are paired up and possibly pregnant, return to the tribe and sanity. The model looks like this:
A blip ____n__________ at age ? 13 – 15? For 2 or 3 years? Off on their own peer group. Then a return to sanity. To the main tribe.
But no longer. My thesis is that it is premature, exaggerated and perpetuated
like this: __/ ¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯ from age 7 or 8? For…? 20 years if lucky….or 60?
The adolescence characteristics continue into adulthood – and to look at the list of them – it is pretty obvious these are problems – for the society and for each individual.
Yes also the hyperfocus, obsessional traits and the self-sacrifice, heroism are important and we will return shortly to that but so many of the characteristics especially the interpersonal ones are the source of real problems.
To remedy or help with these problematic behaviours – we need to ask why should this be? How has it happened? What’s gone wrong? What can be corrected or compensated for?
The Origins of this hyper-adolescence.
It is not just a 21st-century phenomenon involving computer games and television. I will give a very brief run through of history in this subject: 1. to convince you it is real. 2. To identify causes – as per medicine – in order to find a cure. 3. To explore which are the healthy and useful behaviours and which are the unhealthy and dangerous ones.
1. This tendency is pushing at an open door: neoteny is the only technical work I will use all evening. Neotony is retaining into adulthood the originally juvenile features of a species – i.e. delayed development – if that benefits a species.. . Haldane stated a “major evolutionary trend in human beings” is “greater prolongation of childhood and retardation of maturity.” Physically and behaviourally we are neotonous apes, adolescent chimpanzees. Playful, inquisitive, innovative: qualities that make us successful. So it’s not just 20th century TV and media – the roots of the problem lie some 6 million years ago. Inquisitive, innovative, adaptable. reflecting the huge growth in neurones at adolescence is the secret of our success as a species so we could count this as a Good Quality. So where – and why – has it gone wrong?
2. But it is not a simple fact – humans are immature. It is more that they have the capacity to switch on or leave switched on some of the qualities of a certain immature phase – of alienation, detachment, callousness. Why? What is this selectivity?
The really crucial fact is that adolescent madness and the qualities listed here are not always just a blooming nuisance and danger – they are useful and necessary in other ways to a tribe because – especially in boys – they are warrior qualities: risk taking, showing off, hungry for status, competitiveness, ready to suffer, callousness to others and self,.
It is hard for people like us in times of peace really to appreciate the need for this madness in war.
The warrior needs to be prepared not only to kill another member of his own species but also to face the very high risk, sometimes certainty, of dying or being mutilated. For the tribe.
Nobody in this room has that challenge. It is hard to let it in properly.
This is a huge paradox in Darwinian terms. It goes much further than the long discussion about altruism. It means in fact the tribe with particularly crazy boys, spoiling for a fight, aggressive and competitive, who want to form a group or band usually with identifying marks, badges, uniforms, with rituals, who see members of another tribe as nonhuman, ok to kill and who are themselves willing to risk death — that tribe wins out. Obviously. Those genes become dominant. Think for a second. They kill many of the other tribe. They take their women. (gross – sorry to say that…) More children. And their genes become dominant. Establish the potential – not the inevitability – of this gross warrior mode..
But turn the viewpoint just a bit and see other points on that spectrum of behaviour – necessary and admirable. Some of those qualities – risk taking, ready to suffer are present in Fire-fighters, lifeboat crews, police officers, medics, nurses. praise be,,,. . those are the peace time heroes and heroines. And note how they also wear uniforms, badges of rank: symbols of unity and common purpose. Even lawyers try and tag onto that pattern. We have milder uniform and rank signals – and a proportionally milder sense of duty and self sacrifice?
So buried in the warrior spectrum is simply Duty: preparedness to work for others, sacrifice not necessarily one’s life, but one’s time and energy and money. That is benign, admirable.
Another good quality of adolescence is hyper-focus, obsessional behaviour. Seeds of genius. Even possibly the dedication any of us required to sit and pass professional exams?
So – lots of good stuff here. Mixed blessings.
But to return to the origin of the problematic qualities – in war we need Warriors – with the adolescent characteristics of callousness to others and self, risk taking, ready to suffer, showing off, hungry for status, competitiveness.
So these are Bad Qualities. But why isn’t the human race totally, continually warlike and crazy…? Or perhaps I should say – why wasn’t it once? Because it is beginning to look more like that now…
The answer requires us to make a distinction: This is the warrior impulse. And warrior is fine for skirmishes, raids, battles.
You can switch on this behaviour for those occasions and then switch off to become more sane, revert to being caring and cooperative, because this reversion to care mode also increases your gene heritage. If you care for your family in times of peace – you end up with more children. Simple. Switch on warrior in blips. ____n__n___n_____ Switch off and go back to care.
That is the way behaviour – instinct if you like – becomes hardwired, innate in the genes. Switch on and switch off. We need to understand the on off switch. Especially the off switch on aggression. The on switch for care of others and self. Maturity, care – love.
What’s gone wrong? To what extent have we lost the switch to turn off the warrior mode.? And turn on the care mode? If this is true – then Why ? This is where the problems begin.
Where did we lose the switch that moves us from warrior to carer?
3. Soldiers. If you move into Recent Times, ie the last 10,000 years since the Neolithic revolution, we have settlements and towns. And with them — permanent armies ie permanent soldiers. They are very different from warriors.
For soldier in armies – we need to institutionalise those qualities – encourage them, exaggerate make permanent, long lasting, (no off switch) ….and then control them. Stoke up and also clamp down.
An image I will return to: A pressure cooker – or boiler for steam and energy. Power. And, as in the early days of steam, the danger of leaks and explosions. But only in the early days of steam when they didn’t quite have the understanding and techniques…. Of which more later..
Chaotic warrior competition becomes a strict hierarchy with a system, symbols of rank. Tribalism and group dynamics become institutionalised into regiments and battalions. Uniforms, symbols totems become developed, exaggerated. Think of Rome and Greece and Sparta. Institutionalised showing off, public notice, recognition and acclaim: Rank, medals and reward risk taking and self-sacrifice: purple hearts medals for suffering injuries. Immortality is promised in exchange for death.
Military cultures: Institutionalised deliberate adolescent severing of attachment: Sparta. Israel’s kibbutzim. Boarding schools.
Loss of attachment: with no grief allowed. Turn grief into anxiety and then that into anger, searching, energy. As a bereavement counsellor I am familiar with failed grieving and the mad energy that can bring – energy which can be channelled and used. Brutalisation. US marines.. Abu Ghraib
So we have soldiers with those qualities but controlled – who are a large part of the ruling elite that set the moral culture and tone. The assumptions so widespread they are invisible.
Crucially for what we see as normal and admirable – That tribe gets to write the history books. Greece and Rome – these dynamic cultures. Peaceful, pastoral agricultural societies have not written the history books and are overlooked – possibly despised. Classicism is totally taken for granted. Yet the history of Rome is one of almost pathological expansionism and aggression, slaughtering opposing tribes, incredibly sadistic treatment. Held up for admiration. British Empire building may be over but the assumption of macho culture remains.
4. With organised religion – in contrast to the individual tribal priest or shaman, organised religion is another hierarchy, with uniforms, clear signs of ranks, and later with severing attachments, celibate priests, monasteries, seminaries. Alienate. Self sacrifice. Exaggerate the adolescent experience, and then need to impose controls – which in religious orders we all know sometimes fail horribly. Pressure cookers – which leak or explode. Later we will talk about other more positive aspects of religion itself – ie not the institutionalised, organised aspect.
5. Sex at last – let’s talk about sex….. sadly – not in a nice, exciting way: Consider this: Previously in a small tribe or clan – you knew everyone, you had been raised with the opposite sex (or same sex if that is your taste). They were largely your cousins. There was the damper on sexual response. Incest taboo and even when not blood related, a sort of incest taboo: clear example is that reported in Kibbutzim. You don’t fancy the people you shared a dormitory with.
On the other hand – the sexual interest in strangers is obviously, from a Darwinian perspective, a Very Good Thing in terms of avoiding in-breeding and enriching the gene pool.
So strangers, new faces are interesting, attractive. Sexually exciting. To meet a stranger puts you into a possible courtship mode. Sending and receiving messages of sexual attraction.
And then you go and live in a city and what happens? Towns and cities are full of strangers – of course. All day long you meet strangers: excitement, stoking up excitement levels. Of course we take it for granted but it is huge. An obvious fact. An unobvious outcome:
Rather shocking outcome: This puts us into continuous courtship mode. Which consists of?
1. The beauty and fashion industry. Historically in women initially. Though now both genders.
2. And if men display their courtship fitness by power and success – then the endless and relentless will to power and successaholicism. Women catching up there too.
3. Enlist the hunting instinct. Even the enemy fighting. Warrior. Dehumanise the prey, the target.
4. Grasping, intruding, illicit. Sexual addictions.
5. Arrested at the visual stage in the courtship process. Have a look at Kurt Freund.
6. Adolescence is antithetical to fidelity. Happily married, but strongly attracted to other women / men? How terribly common. And a source of tension at least – tragedy quite often.
And this is almost invisible because it is universal. At least in this culture. A few weeks in Kenya last year made us realise something: it was on our return that we were struck by the extraordinary sexualisation of our culture.
I could make this evening really memorable and myself very unpopular by asking us to look at each other and ourselves in this light. Courtship display, visual, fashion, beauty, achievement, status. Men showing off?! Moi? But I won’t….
That is a part of sublimation, acceptable acting out. Because, with this stoking up of adolescent sexual excitement, there is a need for control. Another pressure cooker.
6. Enough about sex…. moving swiftly on to Capitalism: go to the 19th century: driven by alpha males who turn their military impulse into commerce. Not for nothing are they called Captains of Industry. Power, competition. Hierarchy
And they need customers. The qualities of adolescence suits that. Grasping. Acquisitiveness, competitive status, keeping up appearances. Insatiable.
So the military-industrial complex emerges. There was a phrase invented as a warning as to its corrupting power by outgoing President, ex-general Eisenhower: breaking cover, warning America – and perhaps he knew what he was talking about in this field.
7. 19th and 20th century. Smaller families, no real work for children compared with the old agricultural world. Smaller, nuclear families. No real childcare responsibility for young people which was previously the norm. Extended childhood because of the demands of education. And later, contraception. Delayed parenthood. Teenagers at some level infantilised in terms of responsibility. This is central to my work with families who struggle with adolescence.
8. Late 20th century. So there are many reasons to encourage, inflame and exaggerate adolescent characteristics and this is not just because of modern television, media and advertising.
But they do join in and add a massive further exaggeration. Some of the finest minds and the largest budgets in our society are dedicated to promoting adolescent characteristics. Link this to industrialists, business lobbyists, party donors. Real power.
Extended adolescence and commercial interests. Advertising including magazines and hyper sexualisation. For men War books, films. Violence. Computer Games. A new vast industry. Pornography. And old vast industry. For women the pressure to be beautiful, desirable, young. Hair, face, body.
9. And whereas previously institutionalised exaggeration of adolescence was linked with control – military religious or industrial – that control has now been reduced by the loss of military and religious plausibility.
10. Addiction and Religion –some positives. If only we had another evening…. We have explored the fact we have an exaggerated, inflamed, over-heated sexuality especially the desire to display. And an exaggerated, inflamed, over-heated acquisitiveness or greed.
Both addictive and insatiable. Because the appetite is not functional. It is neurotic; symbolic. We are trying and failing to fill an emptiness, a hunger. With images of food with images and gestures of attachment. Comforting an anxiety but not resolving it. Anesthetising a pain – but when the anaesthetic wears off the pain is there. Hence addiction.
Hence religion. Which attempts to control, limit sexuality especially sexual display. And control or limit acquisitiveness or greed.
And also religion – curiously less written about, less obvious – worship. A place of childness. Relation to and love for and love from a parental god or goddess. Safe surrender. The image of the Bedouin bowing down 5 times a day into that relationship and rising as a true adult to face the bitter hardship of the desert with calm courage and resolution. Very un-adolescent.
11. Finally — the flipside — the loss of valuing age, wisdom. Once the elders held the knowledge, the wisdom. Gray hair indicated wisdom and commanded respect. Now – knowledge, facts, cleverness and the answers are in books and now on the Internet. Who needs the wise elders? Grey hair is dyed away and made invisible. We are all young. We are all adolescent.
BUT – deep breath: now the 21st century and the future: There is a real possibility in times of change – that maturity could still have wisdom: have a different form of knowledge. Not facts but skills, emotional resources, interpersonal skills, capacity for affection and love. For contentment.
That brings us on … what is to be done? This is not doom and gloom. This could be ‘ah ha’ time.
But you could ask what could possibly stop this tidal wave of adolescence, rooted 6 million years ago, 10,000 years ago, post-war, fed by military, religious, industrial, commercial, advertising industries and their paid politicians in Westminster. Formidable foes. What chance of a culture change?
Consider John Snow, the Victorian doctor with his simple, outrageous act of removing the handle of the pump in Broad St Soho as he could see, as others could not, that cholera was waterborne. Very simple. Very effective. Ignored for years. Simmelweis – ‘if doctors wash their hands more you will cut puerperal fever deaths’. Ignored. He went mad with frustration. Richard Doll – smoking causes cancer. Massive opposition from well funded lobbyists for the tobacco industry. But finally successful. Simple ideas can change cultures.
But these medical analogies help us see that the way forward must be two parts: first by the society – social, political change and second: one of personal choice and change. Public health measures to reduce smoking and personal responsibility to quit.
But smoking is pure poison. We have identified adolescence as having some historic benefits. At least in times of war etc. But we have lost the knack of turning them off.
Consider junk food: we cannot turn the clock back to a Stone Age diet but we can become aware of the dangers of a modern diet and do something to ameliorate those dangers.
I suggest this is a fairly precise analogy which is helpful: A taste for salt, sweetness and fat were survival skills in the Stone Age. With modern technology producing unlimited salt, sugar and fat, they become lethal tastes. Are they true addictions? Or can we do something about it?
We can reduce the salt, sugar and fat content of food. We can reintroduce roughage and fruit and vegetables.
Notice two approaches: 1. as a society – by political will and regulations (banning transfats, lowering salt in processed food etc) and by education and then 2. on a personal, individual level each person’s choice in diet.
If culturally our taste for adolescence, our impulses, compulsion was functional and some of them have now become lethal and destructive, what is the equivalent in terms of removing from our emotional diet the elements that increase and inflame adolescence? High levels of salt and sugar desensitise the palate. If you reduce those ingredients, food at first tasteless, bland and boring. But only at first. After a few weeks the palate regains sensitivity and healthy food tastes good again. But you need to see that. Go through a period of mild discomfort.
And as a society? Massive question. Difficult issues. Censorship? Tricky. Against our liberal instincts and with the internet how practical ? ….although we now accept censorship on race hate etc.
Restrictions on advertising would be easier to promote. Or a hefty tax….
But huge vested interests would oppose it. Remember huge vested interest opposed control on smoking, alcohol, salt, sugar and fat and continue to fund lobbyists to promote these poisons.
If you think about it, there are huge vested interests in promoting adolescence – advertising, consumption drives the whole economy.
And then competition with other nations. Is it possible to have a revolution in one country? Is it possible to have carbon reduction in one country if it puts that country at a disadvantage? Or adolescence reduction in one country if it reduces consumption and competition?
Ok – simpler – move onto the individual level. Each of us can choose to change our physical diet. And behaviour. Each of us can choose to change our emotional and cultural inputs and behaviours and those of our children. Will we? Can we do either – social change or individual choice?
Is it simple and easy? The title of the talk is about addiction to sex, anger, stress.
Again a slight deception, over-simplification: Truly addicted, compulsive behaviour is strong and hard to change. Habitual, unchallenged expectations, culture is weaker, easier to change. To be controversial – the latter is susceptible to CBT the former needs deeper therapy.
Which is the picture here? Answer: both
Addiction: what I said earlier about soldiers, military culture, boarding schools, kibbutzim – early enforced separation from carers – loss of attachment: but no grief. Turn grief into anxiety and then that into anger, searching, energy.
As a bereavement counsellor I am familiar with failed grieving and the mad energy that can bring – energy which can be channelled and used. And ways in which this can be healthily resolved and healed.
I offer 6 reasons to be hopeful:
1. It helps to see the enemy, the opposition: Whose interests are served? Who is exaggerating it? Premature: who sells make up for toddler, padded bras to 8 year olds? Argos. Tescos. Irresponsible business. Uncontrolled free market economy.
Who pumps up adolescent qualities – in war games? In porn? In the beauty industry? Irresponsible business. Uncontrolled free market economy. Who controls the media, the culture? So people believe in there being no alternative. Who funds lobbyists who control our bought parliament and civil servants?
2. Change is possible Consider the analogy of public health resistance and progress. Resistance to the truth about the poor lung health that developed in the industrial revolution. People literally could not afford to notice the effects of pollution from a factory or mill if the livelihoods of the town, the whole economy depended on it. They were in denial. Classic resistance.
Three things cracked the blockage which we could learn from:
1. it was only when death rates rose in early 19th century that the Acts were brought in – only when the chronic became acute. When it was perceived to be a crisis. As it is now in our culture with the pollution of adolescence.
And 2. when the epidemiology showed the cause and effect. Which this theory does. Modest? Moi?
3. Technology allowed cleaner factories. If there is a solution people may be prepared to see there is a problem. (I don’t have the equivalent of that right now for adolescence.)
And smoking leads me to point out that change is possible: what seems absurd or naive to hope for or expect has in fact happened in some areas: attitudes to gay issues, race, seatbelts…. and the simplest: the smoking ban. 10 years ago if you had suggested it you would have been laughed at. What changed? This is really worth looking at isn’t it? Serous change in perception, common sense, taken for granted. People smoked on the London Tube!! Unthinkable now. To ban it was unthinkable then. Change in thinkableness – a hugely important issue.
The realisation of damage. Initially resisted and denied both at a social, political, business led campaign level – and at an individual personal; level of denial. But the truth gradually soaked in and softened opposition to the change – which in fact came easily and quickly. Richard Doll 1950 – smoking ban 2010 = 60 years. Do we have to wait for 60 years? I shall be a bit old to enjoy it.
3. Consider a conjuring trick. If you cannot see how it is done, if it is baffling and impenetrable then it is convincing and the mind easily goes to thinking something magic and unknowable is going on. But once the trick is explained or understood, the magic disappears and the power goes with it. Same with a con-trick… which is closer to our subject. Can we see through the adolescence culture con-trick?
4. A culture in crisis is ripe for change. A backlash is forming — what sort of backlash? Reactionary, authoritarian, closing down debate? Saying keep the adolescence but impose more controls. A tighter lid on the pressure cooker?
Or turning down the gas? Lowering the pressure? There is a Buddhist concept of wisdom being reducing the fire. Reduce the force of adolescence. The assumption. The values.
Some of us are baby boomers. Always accused of trying to run the show. Now we are reaching our 60s. We can value maturity. Make it fashionable at last.
5. There is in fact a movement afoot. Possibly a bit of a rag tag army of change already here: Emotional intelligence. Awareness of stress, pollution. The happiness debate: Lord Layard. Questioning the capitalist model. Questioning gross inequality: Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level. Yoga, meditation, downshifting.
Certainly it is rag tag and confused and much in society is going the other way toward greater adolescence. Is that confusing? A picture may help: a column of ants — or lemmings — the mass is still heading towards oblivion but some parts at the head of the column are turning aside and exploring paths to avoid total chaos.
Closer to home – both personal therapy helps break the cycle of dysfunction – but most effectively parenting workshops and courses have an enormous beneficial effect. A lot of what I have said here comes into my parenting notes and courses on coping with a teenager. If we can help at that key moment, it would make a huge difference. Explore the skill at dealing with adolescence – of giving responsible independence we are dealing with the very root of the problem.
Can we bring to the debate information from other countries, other cultures, other times? Rites of passage. The public acknowledgement and blessing of the transition moment from childhood to adulthood. We have creativity now in humanist burial services, marriage, naming ceremonies. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah is the only rite of passage I am aware of. What does a creative, humanist coming of age ceremony look like? What ones already exist? Which may include that peer group element? American Summer Camps? Gap Years? The old National Service? Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. The Scouts etc.
6. Personal individual approach: a lot of the above is social, abstract, general and political. I suggested there were two approaches – like reducing sugar and salt in the diet. Government control and personal choice. Let me offer an example on a personal basis:
Let me quote one example of one client I worked with. She was in her 60s. All her life she’d been anxious about her domineering older sibling and appeasing towards her. And equally – defiant, provocative. Prone to depression and finding it difficult to be a mother and grandmother because she was resentful of the demands of children.
We worked towards a realisation that she was stuck in adolescence with its characteristic insecurity and anxiety mixed with defiance. And a resentment of the demands of children.
She saw the problem. Ah ha. But her initial reaction was that she would have to become ‘mature and boring’ and ‘put away her colourful clothes.’
We worked that one through – maturity is not boring. It is stronger, more serious and present minded but also allows room to be playful in a happier way. She is now stronger and confident around her older sibling and a more playful, relaxed and far happier grandmother.
Myself also. The confused state being an adolescent has to some limited extent resolved with more seriousness and more playfulness. Work in progress but it’s rather nice. I recommend it.
And adolescent hypervigilance about threats can transmute into hyper-alertness and alertness of positives with the capacity to notice and to enjoy. To relish. To connect. Camus said maturity was moving from passion to compassion. Outgoing energy and incoming receptiveness.
7. To end the list of possibilities – at the risk of losing you….Going one level deeper — death.
May we talk about death – please? We have seen why adolescent characteristics include with Warriors – risk-taking and the denial of death.
The belief in one’s immortality. We see this in clients and many of you will see it in patients. Unrealism. The devil may care. “I will be ok – if I smoke – if I climb high walls to burgle…” Mixed mysteriously into “Anyway I don’t care if I do die”.
These two beliefs are a key part of the adolescent delusion, the con trick. Totally necessary for Warriors in the time of war but in peace? The denial of death is now totally widespread so widespread it is hard to see it.
It is made visible when it is not there. Hospices. I have friends who work in hospices. They are always asked “Isn’t it rather grim?” The answer is always “No – it is uplifting. A privilege. Something very special happens in hospices. People accepting death. The struggle is over. The denial is over. Some special truthfulness comes in. Some arrival. Some peace. Something … sacred.”
I don’t think we are very good at talking or thinking about peace ….or about sacredness.
And what loss is there? I am still working connecting this to the general thesis but it is obvious to me that mad heroic struggling of adolescence is the opposite pole from the peaceful, calm acceptance of death. It may be that if we import into our culture a more mature and courageous and honest attitude to death, it would be some antidote to adolescence. And as baby boomers reach the threshold of death, they / we may take it in and work with this to alter the culture?
So building on that and finally to end on an upbeat note: What would progress look like?
If the preferred transition is from sensible child to silly adolescent then to sensible mature adult. Take it further. what happens with very sensible , very mature. Completely mature? What does that look like? The move from unselfconscious as a child to self-conscious adolescent – then less self-conscious: what does very unselfconscious look like?
In exploring strong and deep maturity are we exploring what some religions have called enlightenment? Whoa! Grandiose? Maybe but I like to end on an upbeat note.
Consider the qualities of the pre-adolescent and then increase them again as an adult:
Mature Adult age and experience and wisdom PLUS:
Natural and unselfconscious. Genuine. Cooperative, keen to please. Integrated, intact. Sensible.
Moderate. Warm. Loveable. Engaged and affectionate. Capable of Love.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a bit more of that – each of us – and socially?
John Snow removed the poisonous Cholera laden water supply. In time people stopped getting ill. Smoking has been cut down, transfats removed – and heart attacks have declined.
Can we remove or reduce the toxic effects of hyper adolescence? Can we learnt to use adolescence – like fire, with thought and skill? To reduce the unhappiness, the problems, danger and damage it causes. Or to put it positively – to allow people to be happier and better?
I look forward to hearing your responses. This is a lot to chuck at you. I hope somebody here may consider the idea, allow in explore possible and use. Let me know. Thank you very much.