Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Age of Adolescence and the Adolescent World: An Interview with Erica Komisar

Erica Komisar
Often when we talk about the “good old days” and reminisce about the past, we tend to skip over the turbulent and often troublesome period known as adolescence. There seems to be something about being a “teenager” that apparently brings out the worst in us. We may recall days of anger, angst, emotional turmoil, and misunderstandings from peers and parents, or we remember (or prefer to ignore) being excluded from groups, or we may have clicked with some groups at the expense and exclusion of others.

Although we often find and put our finger on what is commonly known as our vocation during childhood, it is during the time of adolescence that we reignite and reconnect with that specific passion of ours. This happens for a reason. It is during this difficult time period and transition that we connect with our interest with renewed and intense passion because it is a way of dealing with the pain and uncertainty that we experience. Alternatively, it may represent a type of escape and refuge from it all.

In either case and be it as it may, it is a way of ensuring that we do not lose our minds and our fragile eggshell sanity. What saved me back then was the trifecta of BCMM: books, mainly of literature and of philosophy, classical music, and movies. These three “hobbies” of mine still continue to be my existential backbone and the purveyors of happiness even at - or rather especially during - desolate times.

I had the absolute pleasure to talk about these very same issues of despair, desolation, and loneliness, the adversity known as adolescence, with psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert Erica Komisar. Her book Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety is not only a masterful and insightful self-help guide for parents and child adults everywhere, but it is a godsend for me especially now that my son shall be firmly setting foot into this tumultuous period of his - and our - life.

Sorry to start with a piece of sad and unfortunate news: in modern terms and with the advent and age of technology, the age of adolescence has extended its range from age nine to age twenty-five! This growth period is divided into three main phases: the early adolescence of Exploration from nine to thirteen, the middle adolescence of Declaration - formerly known as the main teen years - from fourteen to eighteen, and the late adolescence of Confirmation aka the young adult period from nineteen to twenty-five. It is not until the end of adolescence that the brain has fully and emotionally matured, at least hopefully and theoretically so, but more on this a bit later in my post.

Although adolescence is a critical period of brain growth, it is not the only one, nor is it the first one. The first critical period begins at birth until age three, and it is crucial for emotional regulation and resilience to stress. At this stage, the environment is especially important, and the infant and subsequent toddler remain extremely sensitive to stress. Erica has dedicated her first book Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters to this precise period in which parents, especially mothers, serve as the child’s primary attachment and work as stress buffers.

It is essential and vital for the caregiver to always be there, to be present, and to help to soothe the infant from moment to moment as this would biologically regulate the child’s emotions, lay down the foundations of emotional security as well as create a safe haven and a solid trust in the environment. These are important building blocks for effectively dealing with and regulating stress and for paving the bridge of resilience, all in preparation for later stages during which they would be put to the test, in particular the age of adolescence.

By taking care of your child especially for the first three years of his or her life, by buffering them from too much stress and by not putting them into institutional care and facilities, such as daycares during those critical years of growth and connection, the stress-sensing part of the brain, the amygdala, will become quiet - which is a good thing - and it does not come online. Children growing up without their primary attachment figure or with mothers who - in pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s famous term – are just not “good enough”, or, as in my own case, who are raised by a narcissistic mother, these children will essentially lack an emotionally secure foundation, which could potentially last a lifetime.

Then, the emotional storm of adolescence hits the stage, and this is the second critical period of brain growth where the brain is once again vulnerable and under attack. Even for healthy kids, adolescence is a trauma, but for someone with less emotional security and less ability to regulate their emotions, it is so much harder to get through unscathed.

Not only is this a stressful period on its own, but it is confounded by additional layers of stress, especially during this age of anxiety, which includes economic uncertainty, political and social disruption and upheaval in the fabric of our existence, natural disasters, and climate change alongside the predominantly negative influence of social media, and the unexpected and unheard-of challenges of a pandemic.

Adolescence is a period where, as a parent, we have an incredible impact and influence on our child and immense and undeniable responsibility that comes with it. It certainly does not help that we feel powerless and confused ourselves or that we put and unload extra and unnecessary stress on our children and young adults.

This is also where independence becomes of importance, but many parents misunderstand what this means and what it entails. There can also be cultural pressure, such as Japan’s disturbing and borderline-cruel tradition of sending out three-year-olds on errands in busy urban city centers (I learned this shocking tidbit from the first episode of Apple TV+’s Becoming You, in which the usually lucid Olivia Coleman falsely attributes this traumatic experience to be a show and sign of real independence); on the other hand, there is the equally emotionally misguided cultural practice of parents, particularly fathers that refuse to give hugs and kisses to their children in various parts of the world.

The period of adolescence is important for the psychological developmental process known as separation-individuation. It is a time for a natural and healthy separation of the child from his parents and caregivers. When they were infants, they would learn to take their first steps during the first critical growth period; at this point, adolescents would learn to take their first steps away from their parents to create a little bit of distance between each other. As a result, the adolescent learns to function in the world and gains confidence by being physically and emotionally separated from their parents.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that independence is not binary. Although the adolescent starts to individuate, that is to form his or her own identity, they still count and need parental emotional support and guidance. They may consciously push away their known source of security and support and instead try to depend more on peers and teachers, but it is all part of their existential crisis and the opportunity for personal growth and knowledge. Yet it does not mean by any means that they are, can, and even should be fully sufficient at that age.

As a parent, we still need to be there for them, but we can let them know in clear terms that they can be dependent on us sometimes and still be independent at other times and that it is not an either-or decision. It is not a binary case of one or the other nor of having to stick to independence at the expense of dependence but rather a bit of both, each in their own due time and each as needed and required.

Nonetheless, it does not change the fact that our beloved adolescent offspring will go through a painful period of growth as they start to depend on themselves and during a period of their lives that is full of conflict and filled with many mood changes. All this necessary turmoil can be a tad, or rather a lot, smoother with love and emotional support from their parents. It is essential that our children know and feel that when they need us, we will indeed be there for them.

But let us be accountable and accept responsibility for our own parental actions, missteps, and errors. First off, we ought to be aware of the fact that age does not automatically equal emotional maturity. Put differently, not everyone has developed emotionally to be at their purported physical age, and, in fact, it is quite possible that we got stuck at a specific point of our lives, and even more likely that we may have indeed become stuck and stagnated at the adolescent level.

Many parents have had significant trauma and their pain goes back to adolescence. They may have amnesia about it and may not be able to remember anything or seemingly fail to recall the painful parts. The symptoms go back to their own experience of adolescence, and therapy can help them to not only reflect on where in that development they got trapped and stuck but also how to move past those emotional hurdles and obstacles.

In fact, as Erika mentioned to me, we are meant to move through these stages of development, but we do not always go through them, especially if there is trauma that interrupts it. In this way and manner, therapy opens doors and windows to resolve age-old conflicts that did not get resolved in their own time and that is now carried over unconsciously into one’s current experience and mindset.

Having a child in adolescence may jumpstart development in this area of our own lives, so it is most useful to be aware of and pay attention to specific characteristics of your child that tend to push your own buttons. If something about them continuously upsets you or gets on your nerve, these so-called buttons may represent your own unresolved conflicts that they may have actually learned from you! These are characteristics that we may have passed down to our children in an unconscious manner, and they can be manifested in notable and noteworthy anxiety, depression, paranoia, or harsh self-criticism.

In fact, it is easy to blame social media or others, but it is undeniable that children learn values at home, and they do not come from social media nor from society alone. If material success and high achievement are prioritized in your life, then these superficial aspects and appearances are going to be what your adolescents will also value in their lives. On the other hand, if you value relationships, family, and meaningful work, then that is what you effectively teach to your children.

It is you who teaches them what’s valuable and what’s not; in fact, looking at your children can feel like looking at the mirror. It becomes a problem when you displace and project your own wishes, desires, and frustrations onto them and try to model your children into mini-versions or clones, or idealized versions and extensions of yourself. For instance, you yourself may have failed in school, but you will demand - and obsessionally and unreasonably so - that they demonstrate high achievement in school.

This anxious push by parents will create a lot of anxiety and puts a tremendous amount of pressure on your child. If society and social media emit similar messages, these values can only reinforce the values that came from us initially. If our adolescents are overvaluing superficial and material success, then it may be because we have taught them to do so with our words and actions, consciously or unconsciously.

It is hard to own up and accept one’s failings and shortcomings. But when I see children that are troubled or misbehaving or even bullying others, that often reflects negatively on their home environment, and, in particular their parents. I always found it amusing that Cesar Millan of the show The Dog Whisperer would rarely work on the dogs but would “treat” the dog’s owners. In the same way, we often blame our children for things and issues that we do not want to accept within ourselves. In either case, we are much more responsible for their development than we may think.

This is a sad reality when it comes to the (mis)diagnosis of ADHD. It is overblown, and it is more often a symptom than a disorder. It stems from anxiety and comes from different types of frustrations in our young child’s life. It is tragic that many parents would jump and resort to using medications to treat the symptoms and, in that process, leave the issues unresolved and damage their child’s health and wellbeing.

It is often, as Erika explained because parents prefer the quick and easy solution that ends up causing significant and occasionally irreversible damage to the child’s physical and psychological growth. Instead, caring and mindful parents should take the time and effort to look and analyze the situation and to get to the root of the problem, which is, as in the case of Cesar’s misbehaving dogs because of the caregivers and not necessarily an inherent issue or flaw with the children themselves.

The fact that many people are continuously stuck in adolescence or have not overcome adolescent trauma is not surprising if you look out the window in today’s world. Adolescents are driven by extreme binary ways of seeing the world and of limited ways of thinking due to the lack of development within their brains.

Hence, in the adolescent world, you are either with them or you are against them, you are either in or out, you are either a good or a bad person, and you are either right or wrong. These walking “child adults” just like adolescents, and in some cases even worse than them, lack the ability to take in multiple nuanced perspectives, and they lack overall emotional and cognitive maturity.

They may even embrace activism with a passion but lack the empathy to fully understand and think about the issues. They may sound convincing but there may be a lack of understanding of what is important and essential. Essentially, the outgrowth of entitlement, which comes from deprivation alongside its juvenile expression via harmful trends like Cancel Culture, is often due to a lack of understanding, empathy as well as emotional maturity of the parties involved.

But like adolescents who can outgrow this dark period and get past the tunnel of stress and anxiety, there is hope for all of us, parents and adolescents alike, to come out stronger, and more empathic, more insightful, and more emotionally and spiritually mature and where we can not only see but actually visualize that the future can indeed be different from the present.

I want to thank Erica Komisar for her time, insights, and wonderful work! I also want to thank her publicist Lindsey Mach for arranging this wonderful interview!

To access the full-length interview, which is much more detailed and extensive, please take a look here or have a listen to Arash's World Podcast.

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