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Problems of Adolescence

By Norman J. Kelman

[In this lecture, Dr. Norman J. Kelman talks about factors affecting the development of a self in adolescence. Topics include:

« Discussion of the "development of self" among adolescents.

Influence on physical and emotional changes, and the complications of the irregularity of these changes between peers.

It is natural for youths to push against authority and form gangs with peers.

Sexual interest is natural, but violence associated with these urges is worrisome.

Detachment from self should be investigated.

Resentments of the mother.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection » (quotations from - AKS]

Problems of Adolescence

Transcribed from NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, December 12, 1949

Adolescence is one of the most difficult periods to know, understand, and work with. This applies not only to the grown-ups who are associated with young people, but also to the adolescent himself. Mental health at any age is based on respect for oneself, out of which emerges a real and healthy regard for the needs and demands of social living.

The first five years of a child’s life are the years when this self is defined; in this period, the healthy child has begun to clarify what is himself, and what are the others in his environment. From this time until adolescence, the child is relatively stable in this definition of himself. Changes in the personality do occur, of course, but the self in relation to others has at least been defined. The early years of a child’s life are of crucial importance in the development of self, but all events thereafter are not merely repetitions of patterns already established. In all life experience, there is the possibility of constructive growth; however, changes of a destructive nature are possible too, and even a healthy beginning in the first five years can be sorely tried by unhealthy experiences in later life.

When the individual reaches the period of adolescence, he has established some working relationship with himself and others, based on a more or less healthy concept of himself. At this time, however, a host of changes occur which subject this concept to marked strain. There are changes in his relationship to himself and also in his relationships with other people. These do not go on independently, but each participates in a mutual relationship with the result that the character structure is strengthened or weakened.

One of the difficulties we have in defining the onset of processes which go on in the adolescent period is precisely the basis for one of the problems faced by the adolescent himself. The changes, individually and as a group, are erratic. Bosom-companions bid each other good-bye before the summer vacation, exchange rides on their bicycles, and discuss the toys they will take to the country. Then, in the fall, Johnny rushes to meet Steve, only to find a boy a head taller than he, with a husky voice, and a strange alteration on his face. The few short months have wrought tremendous physical and emotional changes in one boy, and few or no changes in the other.

It would be difficult enough if a child had to deal only with the changes in his anatomy and physiology, or even with the rapidity of these changes. But the problem is complicated by the fact that these changes are so irregular, from individual to individual, and from one organic system to another within the same individual. Some children begin the changes of adolescence at ten, and by twelve, have undergone most of the structural changes which will occur; others begin at the same time, but the development will take longer; still others begin much later, and take the same fast or slow pace as those who began earlier. To further complicate the problems of the child, as well as of his parents, some children show a rapid and complete growth of muscle pattern and strength, and a retarded development of sex characteristics, for example. Because of the variability in this growth curve, it is easy to see that even a quite healthy character structure undergoes some strain.

The three categories into which the problems of the adolescent may be placed: first, the great changes which occur within him provide him with a quite unfamiliar physical and emotional being which must be integrated into the process of growth and must be related in some way to the personality he has had up to this time. Second, he must make some working arrangement with other adolescents, many of whom have undergone different changes from his, or who have not changed at all. Third, he must deal with his parents, who are often as bewildered as he by the changes they are observing.

By the time he reaches adolescence, the child has begun to recognize and even to make some consolidation of his position in the group. He knows what love and what hostility he can expect from the world. He has probably gained some basis for the evaluation of himself. He probably falls into one or the other of Horney’s three categories of personality: moving toward, away from, or against people.1 Or perhaps he has developed such a degree of mental health that he can approximate a moving-with relationship.2

Then, all of a sudden, the world begins to rock and quake. If at first he does not experience inner changes, at least some of his friends begin to talk differently and have interests which are foreign to him. His parents, if they measure him against others, may find him babyish and retarded — and then the whole of his inner being begins to change. The feeling of self he had developed wavers before the reality of the changes he is experiencing. or before the different status in which he finds himself in the group. As a rule, the change is not a reassuring one, no matter how much the child is wishing to grow up. A well-built, sturdy youngster suddenly begins to sprout in all directions, or suddenly secondary sex characteristics appear which are caricatures of the vigor or charm which will develop later. There is a real task to be faced, and the child faces it with the resources available. These resources include the family, the community, and most important of all, the character structure which has been established through the first decade of his life.

Now, adolescence need make no profound change, either constructive or destructive in the character. If the child has sufficient confidence in himself, and in the treatment he can expect from his environment, he’ll be able to meet most changes, accept them, and integrate them into his life pattern. At any period of stress, or in any changing situation, even the most healthy individual of any age may arrive at some unsatisfactory solution before he resolves a conflict.

The adolescent is in such a predicament, and in addition does not have the experience to resolve conflicts with ease. Therefore, many of the features which we consider characteristic of the adolescent are really the gropings of individuals who are attempting to find unity within themselves. Adolescents use all psychological devices which individuals of all ages use to solve their conflicts, but two — externalization and living in imagination — are frequently most prominent. These are the bases for the rapid expansion of the individual, in encompassing the whole world and its problems into his daily thinking. The adolescent applies the solution of his own problems to the problems of the whole world, and thinks and acts in terms of changing the world.

One outstanding feature of most fairly healthy adolescents is the extreme seriousness with which they take themselves. They desire intensely to face issues realistically, but have difficulties in doing so because of their rampant imaginations. They insist that their problems are not within themselves, but in the environment; that the solution lies in changing the environment. They indulge in fabulous daydreams in which everything is going to be different. What boy hasn’t dreamed that the girl who slighted him is now standing at the railroad station as he passes through town with a movie star on his arm? Faith is placed in the future by these youngsters.

Suppressing certain aspects of his personality is another device the adolescent uses. He is, in turn, rebellious, compliant, and withdrawn. And the intensity with which he attempts each of these solutions makes him something of a trial to live with. Feelings of omniscience are quite evident in the adolescent. This attitude — a feature of the idealized image — arises from basic anxiety. Confronted by a shattering of his previous knowledge of self, and uncertain about his worth, the individual may erect some image of himself which is so highly idealized that it can only be achieved in imagination. He strives, however, to realize this image. Thus, he begins to believe that he knows all the answers and he feels that his parents are dated. He often finds school much more difficult, because he no longer has respect for his teachers. All old ideas are wrong for him, and these are rejected compulsively. This tendency to question their elders’ views can be exasperating. But it’s not always destructive, and challenging too-rigid points of view extremely healthy and often leads to progress in human relations. But when it is compulsive, it may be dangerous to the individual and to society.

forming gangs and clubs is another trait of the adolescent. This may be constructive, for it represents a desire to be with others of similar interests. But here, too, are the compulsive elements of a group in flux. It may lead to destructiveness, contempt for others, a lordly feeling of superiority, or gang delinquency. The adolescent is trying to re-establish himself, so he makes group identifications as well as individual ones. Fads in clothes, or in dancing, are typical attempts of the adolescent to establish a group pattern which will distinguish his group from all previous ones.

In this way he indicates to his elders that he, too, has distinction and originality. He is the younger generation, and usually makes no bones about stating this fact proudly. Again, it must be emphasized that there are constructive possibilities in these adolescent strivings, even though it may arise from conflict within the child, and even though they prove trying to his elders. The adolescent wants no intrusion into his thoughts and passions. This desire for privacy indicates growth, and also uncertainty. However, adults should try not to intrude, since the child is doing the only healthy thing — attempting to work out his own destiny.

This does not mean that the adults should not make themselves available if advice is wished for, nor does it mean that every individual can work out his problems alone. But unless there are severe neurotic symptoms, the adolescent should have thinking-time, either alone or with his chosen companions.

The maturing of the sexual functions at this time has led some to overemphasize the part they play in the adolescent. But sexual function does not determine the character of the individual; instead, the total personality determines the character of the sexual functions. Anatomical and physical changes do occur at this time, but they are not the crucial factors of adolescence. Of course, many of the problems the child encounters at this time have to do with sex. Masturbation, disgust at menstruation, disturbance at the need to engage in petting parties, and so on; and many of the complaints parents make about their children are in the field of sex. However, we should not be taken in by the appearance of things, but must search for the deeper meaning of what seems to be in the sphere of sex.

Take, for example, the case of a sixteen-year-old boy who was accused of a sexual assault on a girl. Investigation revealed that the assault was not sexual, but he confessed that he beat her. She had encouraged the advances of other boys, at the same time leading him to believe that he was the one and only. He was a shy boy, with a profound feeling of worthlessness, and yet his fantasies revealed his feelings of greatness, his need for perfection, and his contempt for others. This girl, with her own neurotic need to conquer all boys, deliberately set out to attract this one, and then continued on to the next. His association with her counteracted his feelings of worthlessness, and bolstered up his feelings of superiority. Although other boys warned him of the girl’s character, he refused to believe them, partly because of his contempt for them. When he could no longer ignore the fact that she was no longer his girl, he lured her to a lonely spot, and blacked her eyes. This was not a love-crazy boy; he was not dominated by misdirected sexual energies; his assault was a result of his hurt pride — a pride which covered a seething mass of anxiety and hostility and self-contempt. Sex as such played only a small part.

Or what about masturbation? Is that merely, as it appears on the surface, a way to rid oneself of sexual energy? It may be nothing more than a healthy individual exploring to discover how his body functions, or it may have other motives. Take, for example, the way it serves a detached person. His satisfactions come from solitary activities, such as reading, daydreaming, and masturbation. He seems to rely on himself for gratification. He comes to live largely in imagination, with the result that he builds up an idealized image which is quite different from his real self. Living in imagination leads to greater and greater detachment from other people, and also from himself. This alienation from self carries with it a decrease of feeling, to the point where the person is emotionally dead. Masturbation, with its vigorous stimulation, and its culmination in something vital, reassures the individual that something in him is alive. The psychological aspect of masturbation, which is most prominent in adolescents, the so-called guilt which accompanies it.

What happens in the person who is not compulsively driven to masturbate, but is normally exploring his bodily functions? He has heard from his parents, usually by innuendo, that this is not a healthy or correct thing to do. He has learned from the surreptitious discussions of his friends that this is something that one does not allow parents to know about. He has been allowed to learn from a variety of sources — many of them culturally determined — that masturbation is wrong. But he’s done it, and at this time, when he is in a bewildering period, when his values are being revised, and when his whole concept of self is being tested and remodeled, he is confronted with a conflict. In a highly personal way, he has derived satisfaction from the experience.

On the other hand, who is he to say that he has not done something nasty or even harmful? It would take a very secure person not to develop some feelings of fear and guilt, and self-contempt. The adolescent has had an opportunity to develop basic anxiety and hostility, and he tends to externalize his hostility to his parents. So if the parents prohibit masturbation, the child may consciously or unconsciously attempt to thwart them, and thus a pattern of compulsive masturbation might be started. The emergence of sex forces the adolescent to realize that a whole area of anonymity will have to be abandoned. A little girl must accept or reject her role as a girl, and her brother must deal with his role as a boy. The sexual impulses are constant reminders of the whole system which must be adopted. We must recognize that culturally, there are differences along sexual lines. Maleness is a symbol of strength, responsibility, aggressiveness, dominance. Femaleness is identified with dependence, compliance, camel-like acceptance of burdens.

In spite of the appearance of a well-integrated family unit, mother may have hidden resentments over the lack of gratification she has from her lot. The discerning child can see that the promises of freedom are less in being a woman than in being a man. Perhaps she also knows some women who seem to have avoided the drudgery of housework, but they seem forlorn and unfulfilled — freedom and independence seem to be a man’s lot. Added to that, she has learned that menstruation is a periodic nuisance, and that child-bearing painful and unrewarding. Becoming a functioning woman doesn’t seem like a happy future to her.

With this outlook, at the time when the ferment of adolescence is shaking the foundations of her self-identification, it is possible that she may repress all feminine qualities, and as a defense, adopt many masculine traits. Marriage is rather late in America, because of economic need and tradition, and this poses an additional problem for the adolescent.

Most fathers of adolescents are in their forties, and mothers are already shading their ages. Another consequence is that there is a high value placed on youth, and what is more important, an extremely low valuation placed on age, and the virtues of experience are diminished. Too often, the man in his forties finds himself checking his accomplishments and, confronted with greater competition, finds that he does not have the security for which he has striven. He begins to lose faith in himself, and respect for himself. In consequence, he is hardly a fit person to represent a value for his son.

This is just as true with the mother. The high value we place on physical appearance, beauty, sexual attractiveness, and so forth, makes the approach of the age of forty look practically like doom for many women. The disturbance in the woman’s relation with herself is reflected in her relationship with her husband. And, with the emphasis she places on sexual attractiveness, she might make her adolescent son the object of her seductiveness. The adolescent girl certainly does not gain from a mother to whom she is a constant reminder of her fading bloom, or a vehicle to compensate for her own inner emptiness.

The case history of an adolescent boy will serve to illustrate the point to be made. Paul’s father had worked hard, but to little avail. In the eyes of his wife, he was a failure. Paul’s mother made no attempt to hide the fact that she considered her husband a poor excuse for a man. She took an office position herself, and used all her money to buy clothes. She constantly spurred Paul on to achievement by pointing to his father as a horrible example. From early adolescence, Paul had to listen to recitals of the qualities which a woman desires in a man. At the same time, he had to hear about how to avoid the wiles of women who would try to enmesh him by seducing him and trapping him into marriage by imposing on his good nature. This unhealthy atmosphere was heightened by the mother’s unconsciously effective appearances around the house in her negligée, and by her request for assistance from Paul in fastening her intimate apparel. It was a confusing situation for Paul, and it is little wonder that he began to see himself as a sexual object — a bed-mate for some girl whom he also had to fend off, lest she have some ulterior designs on him.

While there was some incentive to excel his father in professional activities, for practical reasons, he found this impossible. Instead, he developed his day for all kinds of work: a great feeling of being attractive to women, and, with some degree of poetic justice, a complete and utter contempt for his mother, who could not, of course, compete with his younger conquests. Now, this was not a problem that began in adolescence, despite the fact that at that time, many manifestations became obvious. Nor is it solely a problem that affects sexuality — although it is in this area that many of Paul’s disturbed relationships emerged. Actually, in early childhood, he became a pawn in his parents’ inner conflicts and their attempts to solve them. A consequence of this would inevitably be that he would fail to develop himself as an entity.

Then, in adolescence, he was drawn more actively into the struggle of his parents — a struggle made more severe by their advancing age, and their final recognition of failure. This is what happened to Paul: with a defective feeling of self, and with an inner feeling of weakness and worthlessness, he over-developed the one quality which he believed he had to a superior degree — his erotic attractiveness. He found, however, some of his deficiencies impossible to overcome.

For example, in his circle of acquaintances, moderate success in schoolwork and intentions of entering college were essential, so Paul had to avoid girls from his own highschool, who would know that he had repeated two terms. He sought friends in other parts of the city, then he found that he was too old for girls still in high school, and girls his age were going out with boys in college. So he began to tell people that he was a college sophomore, though he was only in his second term of high school. With one part of himself, he believed that he could have entered college, except for a few bad deals from the teachers. Then came the war, and Paul had to lie again to explain why he was not in service. Actually, he was not old enough, but he had told so many girls that he was eighteen, that he could not avoid the inevitable question. To some, he explained that he was involved in some special draft-exempt research program; to others, he said that he was in the service an discharged for some obscure injury. When the contradictions of his stories caught up with him, he had to leave one group and go on to a new one.

An enormous amount of energy, shrewdness, and alertness went into this game, but it was no game to Paul. He had to feel more and more worthless when he thought of the duplicity in which he was involved. He had to feel himself incompetent. He spent so much of himself maintaining this pose that he could not spend any time on constructive efforts. He fell further behind in his schoolwork, and he made no gains in employment. His only solution was in fantasy. Paul believed, finally, that he did not have to work; that by saying he was a sophomore in college, he actually became one. The degree of alienation from self was phenomenal. He himself was not aware of all these feelings and beliefs; all he knew was that he was constantly oppressed and depressed, was constantly forced to lie, constantly forced to seek new fields to conquer. He wondered why he had so many times broken off with girls whom he had found attractive. Here was a boy torn by inner conflicts, the consequence of parental disturbance, of cultural demands, of his own neurotic pseudo-solutions.

Neurotic adults on whom the adolescent is forced to depend do not help him in developing self-esteem — and these are the very people who believe themselves to be the helpers and guides of the adolescent in his period of uncertainty. Take, for example, a parent or teacher who is driven to feel himself an unchallengeable authority. Few people will admit to themselves that they have this feeling, and most take refuge in a variety of stock expressions, which range from mild reproof to strained tolerance. If the adolescent does not feel contempt for such a person, he may turn on himself and feel that he himself is a mere upstart. If a parent or teacher has an attitude the opposite sex which is determined by his neurotic needs, the effect on the child will be unhealthy.

If a mother is constantly telling her daughter that men are vultures, what chance does the girl have to feel that her swain’s good-night kiss has anything healthy about it? On the other hand, a match-making mother can ruin a girl’s chance of going steady, which is often a reassurance of her worth. One of the most trying experiences an adolescent girl can have is the careful scrutiny to which her mother subjects her boyfriends. The one who is rejected is rejected with all the wiles of an experienced campaigner; the one who is selected is showered with praise, and monopolized to such an extent that the daughter hardly gets a chance to see him alone. And more often than not, the boy sees the snares laid out for him, and daughter fails to get that prom invitation.

Neurotic parents cannot understand the adolescent tendency to become secretive, to gang up and exclude parents from many intimacies. The parent who is more interested in believing himself to be an ideal parent than in actually being one finds himself threatened by doubts, and takes these normal adolescent trends as proof of his own failings. To compensate for his doubts, he may redouble his own efforts to become pals with his child, and so intrude into his secrets. He accomplishes only further alienation, or perhaps he brings out such compliance that the child loses the capability to do any constructive work on his own. Or the child may become vaguely tolerant of his bumbling parent.

There are an infinite number of ways in which quite normal trends in adolescents grate against the neurotic needs of the parents. The consequences for the parents are increased feelings of worthlessness, hurt pride, vindictiveness, hopelessness, and so forth. This is the time when the opiates “he’ll grow out of it,” or “youth will have its fling” begin to sound hollow. This is the time when parents should begin to realize that early neurotic patterns do not change by themselves. It is the beginning of the payoff period, when parents must face the fact that their demands are beyond their child’s realistic possibilities.

The effect on the child of his parents’ reactions to his adolescence is in direct relationship to the more healthy elements he has in his life at this time: his previously developed character, and the other relationships with people which he is able to establish. If these relationships are few and shallow, he will develop in an unhealthy direction. Even if they are many or exceptionally helpful, they cannot make up for what a deep relationship with parents can give. And of course the demanding parent is the greatest loser, for he has cut himself off from a very wonderful experience — that of seeing, participating in, and growing himself, with a very new, vital life.

1Cf. Horney, K. (1945), Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis, Ch. 3, 4, 5; (1950), Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization, Ch. 8, 9, 11 for full-length discussions of these three possibly neurotic tendencies.

2Cf. Kelman, H. (1950), “Guidance of Child Development” (also in this lecture series), concluding paragraph.