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Adolescence and adopted children
The often frightening and uncertain experiences of psychic and physical disequilibrium in early adolescence are vividly described by a troubled 13 year old, who projected his anxieties into his two friends:
He said that though he was growing it was not a problem for him, but he did have two friends who had problems, because for one of them his bones were growing faster than his muscles and ligaments, and with the other friend it was the other way round; his muscles were growing faster than his bones. One of them was very stiff and the other was very floppy.
Time for this young person was thus very literally ‘out of joint’. The turbulence of this kind of disequilibrium interacts with the loss of certainty in the multiple theatres of adolescent development: becoming more separate from parental figures, relating to the adult sexual body, and the impact of this on family and peer relationships and gendered subjectivity, the development of love and sexual relationships, and cognitive changes are key areas of physical, emotional and psychological transition.
The rise in persecutory anxiety and projective processes in early adolescence (Waddell, 1998) means that it is often the case that anxiety about an adolescent is experienced by others in their system — parents, teachers and other professionals. Thus, prior to working therapeutically with the young person directly, it is important to ascertain who is carrying which anxieties on behalf of whom (Briggs, 2002). This would tend towards a more family/systemic approach to the structure of therapy, in which the family members and professional network are engaged. Secondly, the approach to therapeutic work with young adolescents is somewhat different in method and aim than with younger children, in that a considerable focus is on containing and making sense of the anxieties which are generated by the contradictory pressures of the development towards greater separateness from parental figures, on the one hand, and the need for connectedness with others, which flows from the need for a sense of belonging. Elsewhere, one of us (Briggs, 2002) has discussed the shift in thinking about identity formation, in which more emphasis is now placed on the centrality of relatedness to others. The tendency to project in early adolescence requires another (an ‘object’) to receive and experience the emotions which are felt to be unbearable or alien, and hence ‘spilt off’ into others.
This does not imply that young adolescents should not be seen in individual therapy, but, rather, in setting up post adoptive services, there is a need to take into account the network and the family members as part of the process — as holding some of the adolescents’ emotionality. Taking into account these factors also implies that engagement and relationship with the adolescent in therapy will be of a rather different kind.
Matching and mismatching
It is important that a range of interventions may apply psychoanalytic and attachment understanding. In addition to psychotherapy and therapeutic interventions psycho-educational approaches to enable adoptive carers to increase understanding and empathy for the adoptive child can be based on these assessments. Howe et al. (2001) point out that greater understanding of the meaning of underlying attachment patterns can enhance carers’ capacities and sensitivity to the meaning of the child’s behavior. Hopkins (2000) points out that her understanding of the reasons for the child’s difficult behavior enabled her to maintain a sympathetic stance in the face of great provocation. However, we emphasize that a sympathetic stance is not easily achieved, nor can this understanding prevent at times the breakdown of relationships in substitute care. The effect of underlying models and patterns of relatedness can make these difficulties extensive and even intractable. At the very least, processes of internal change are slow and progress is hard won. The understanding of the effects of underlying patterns of relatedness and the paradoxical illuminating and delimiting effects of these in adoptive families with young adolescents can be illustrated by reference to the patterns of relationships in Helen’s adoptive family.
Online Continuing Education QUESTION 22
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