Michaela Gloeckler, M.D. on Adolescence interview by Johannes Denger
Issue: Fall 2006, The Teenage Years; Issue #45
Why do young people today need help?
Everyone needs help – especially if they are unable or at least not sufficiently capable of helping themselves. The answer is directed to the current life situation and also the age of the person in question. This also applies to young people. During adolescence there arises over and above the individual needs, the general challenge to the social surroundings to understand this period of life with its specific possibilities as well as its limitations. This is of greatest help to young people.
What are the special challenges for young people during puberty and adolescence, particularly in the area of health?
Amongst all the so-called “life crises” that occur, puberty has a unique position. It is the only “natural” developmental crisis brought about through physical development and shared by all human beings in common. This makes it an archetypal developmental crisis.
The difference between a problem and a crisis is that problems require solutions that can be sought and worked through. Crises, however can be clearly recognized by the fact that there is no solution in sight. With regards to puberty, it looks like this: the feeling for one’s body and the self-awareness that has existed up until now, vanishes. Instead these feelings are more or less chaotically experienced in deep insecurity – the burgeoning “adult” is not there yet. When and how adulthood will be achieved is uncertain. This classic situation of crisis is tied up with particular health challenges for young people during this time. The less supportive the social environment is, and the less trust and non-verbal humorous understanding is brought towards the young person, the more difficult it will be for the adolescent to feel that he or she is going to “make it.” Without the feeling that everything is going to be all right, and that what is happening is “normal,” the various classical crises can develop in the wake of puberty, which may require psychiatric treatment. These physical and psychological disturbances range from depression, anorexia (girls), obesity (boys), aggressive behavior disorders with the tendency towards crime, obsessive/compulsive disorders, contact disturbances (social disorders), concentration problems, sleep disturbances, substance abuse, etc. The fact that a stabile environment, where there is an awareness of potential crisis, often doesn’t exist, and leads to the adolescent feeling of being misunderstood, shunned, and isolated. The situation today is vastly different from how things were experienced, for example, forty years ago. At that time societal norms and standards were such that they upheld and supported social stability. The growing spread of global change and crisis makes it harder and harder for the youth of today to find their own orientation in relation to the development of their identity, perspective and purpose in life.
Why do young people take risks?
There is no other stage in life where the willingness to take risks is as strong as it is during adolescence. In contrast to the boundless curiosity and unconscious willingness to take risks during early childhood, the young person “knows” more or less that what he is risking is a risk. However, because of the identity crisis brought about by the physical and psychological stage of life he is in, he is not bothered by it. It is actually exciting for him to experiment with challenges, risks and extreme sports to test his newly growing physical and psychological potential, which in turn leads to an experience of a newly forming identity.
How do you explain the fact that some teenagers grow stronger through challenge while others break down through similar challenges?
Whether or not one is strengthened or overwhelmed by hindrances, challenges or resistance is a question which is quite independent of the age group we have been referring to. Even infants can be damaged throughout the rest of their biography by an early traumatic experience. Or having to work through and overcome the experience in a constructive manner can later be seen as the pivotal point of a serious, creative and successful biography. In health research one speaks therefore, of different resilient and protective factors through which children and youth are enabled to withstand difficulties or harm without breaking down or being adversely affected, but are able to meet what comes with resilience and resistance. What is also interesting is that the most relevant protective factor is a good human relationship. If one were to research more closely what sort of criteria a relationship must fulfill in order for it to be “good,” then one would find that such relationships are permeated by qualities of honesty, loving understanding, as well as honoring the autonomy and individual dignity of the child. Only those people who feel respected and “accepted” in this way can feel somehow protected, acknowledged and safe even when the outer circumstances may prove to be just the opposite. Here we can also see what can be experienced daily in medicine: health is more infectious than illness.
Can deficiencies in early child development ever be compensated? If so, how?
One has to learn to live with deficiencies; one can work at trying to compensate for them, but it will never be in such a way as if they had never existed. They are a reality in the development of every human being. Just as the above-mentioned protective factors can help to deal with deficiencies and difficulties in a constructive way, yet there is always the point at which the person in question has to become active and involved in compensating. The very best environment cannot support a young person who is not willing to be helped, but instead withdraws. A great deal also depends on whether or not children and young people are of themselves in a position to find a way out of a destructive milieu, and can find and cultivate relationships with people who can offer them the necessary support.
What helped you in your youth?
I have to think about that. What in relationship to what, helped me in my youth? Where were problems? Why didn’t I ever have the feeling in my childhood and youth that there was no problem I could not face? It certainly must stem from the fact that there was nothing that I could not speak about to either my parents or my siblings at home. By this fact alone, I could completely compensate for anything that I suffered as a child or young person. Whatever was “left over” I sorted out myself. In addition, there were few rules and limitations imposed both at home and at school, so that the few that there were, were adhered to and highly respected. If problems arose, they were discussed and agreements were made as to how they could be avoided in the future. My protective factors were definitely those confirmed by research into resilience: honesty in one’s interactions with others, openness for dialogue, and respect for the will of the other person. I have never experienced my will being broken, but instead it was made clear to me why this or that was not possible in what I had done or what I intended to do. I could easily live with this. I was spared in my childhood and youth from non-verbal power games, political/diplomatic agitation and juggling, mobbing, playing one against the other, and so on. I would have found such an environment hard to endure or unendurable.
Dr. Gloeckler, thank you.
Translated from the German by Anne Sproll