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It is ironic that at the same time that adolescents are routinely facing new, and potentially dangerous, situations parents are frequently counseled to separate themselves and to give their children "space." The traditional theory that adolescence is a time of separation fails to adequately acknowledge the potentially dangerous situations daffy confronting adolescents. In an environment where adolescents frequently have only the most tenuous connections to other adults, if parents are encouraged to "let go," adolescents are cut adrift from their elders and deprived of a context in which to engage in their decision making. At the very time that family and community would be most important, adolescents are in effect abandoned, in the name of autonomy, with the blessing of many therapists.
There is evidence that recent literature recognizes that this stance is overly simplistic, and certainly feminist therapy literature emphasizes the importance of development "in the context of self-in-relationship," challenging "the view that psychological development invariably progresses in the direction of greater autonomy" Dutton-Douglas & Walker, 1988, p. 7). We contend that all adolescents need to develop themselves in relation to others and that encouragement toward autonomy must be modified by recognition of the need for relationship and the very real dangers faced by adolescents. Interviews we have conducted indicated that the developmental and feminist literature is widely ignored on the "front lines," in school counselors' offices and in doctors' and many therapists' offices, where the emphasis remains on "letting go."
Parents who have strict standards or who try to stay actively involved in problem solving with their adolescents are often made to feel that they are rigid and controlling or that they have their own separation anxieties. For example, therapists Carter and McGoldrick (1989) wrote that families of adolescents who "become derailed at this stage may be rather closed to new values and threatened by them and they are frequently stuck in an earlier view of their children. They may try to control every aspect of their lives at a time when, developmentally, this is impossible to do successfully" (p. 18). Clearly, as the adolescent develops he or she is brought into contact with "new values and ideals," but therapists need to view familial "derailment" at this stage as not necessarily an unwillingness to move on but rather as a kind of desperate attempt on the part of parents to keep their children safe.
The transition to adulthood is also made more difficult because we lack clear transitional social milestones that mark "rites of passage" to adulthood (Hurrelman, 1994) at the same time that modern society has prolonged this transition. Further, at the same time that childhood and adolescence have become more clearly demarcated as life stages, interaction with adults and taking part in the adult world has decreased, helping to create the youth culture (Rutter & Smith, 1995). Given the rapid nature of these historical changes and the dangers being confronted by adolescents, parents face a situation in which they often feel there are no guidelines that apply and that their own experiences growing up are of little help to them. It may be that family therapy is experiencing a similar "cultural lag" in that the nature of the problems being confronted has far outdistanced the solutions being proposed.
Thus, although social context is often acknowledged in the literature as important and a "system level" stressor (e.g., Carter & McGoldrick, 1989), it often does not appear to be integrated into the therapeutic work done with adolescents and their parents. Acknowledging that "if we look at parents without considering the complex contents in which they operate" (S. Stem & Smith, 1995, p. 722), it is still incredibly difficult to know just how to integrate this knowledge into interventions in actual practice. For example, in an issue of The Family Therapy Networker (Fall 1996) that was devoted to the problems that parents face in contemporary society, critical issues were acknowledged, yet the messages often ended up reinforcing parental responsibility and individualized solutions. While criticizing work requirements that resulted in parental shortage of time and destructive elements of youth culture, the solutions were said to be therapy that enabled parents to really "hear" their adolescents and the setting aside of special times for "hanging out." Although perhaps not intended, the message to parents was that the only way to avoid serious problems in the family was to be a super parent, skilled at work, at juggling multiple roles, skilled at listening, at discipline, and at both letting go and staying involved. In spite of serious acknowledgment of the societal stresses endured by families, there clearly remains the widespread unspoken belief that it is the parent's responsibility to provide a "haven in the heartless world."
Paradoxically, the consequence of this is that parents are simultaneously held to be more powerful and less powerful than they are in reality. The burden on them is to be everything and to provide everything for their adolescents at the same time that almost no supports are provided to them. To the degree that public policy has a family orientation it is almost entirely focused on the needs of infancy and early childhood; there is virtually no recognition of the needs of parents raising adolescents. The need for flexible work hours becomes a nonissue at the time when adolescents are facing their greatest risk (Carnegie Council on Children, 1995); public discussion centers almost entirely on parents with young children, yet adolescence is clearly the time when children are most likely to have free, unsupervised time, given school schedules and parental work responsibilities.
Reflection Exercise #12
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