An Existential View of Adolescent Development

By Fitzgerald, Bill | Adolescence, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

An Existential View of Adolescent Development


Fitzgerald, Bill, Adolescence


The above quote out of Yalom's "Existential Psychotherapy" (1980) is a good summary of the approach one needs when working with others in a therapeutic alliance from an existential perspective. This seems particularly true when working with adolescents. Adolescents often hear from adults that the adult knows best or that they should behave in a certain way, often according to what the adult knows or dictates. Thus, the perspective and experience of the adolescent is often devalued, if appreciated at all.

There are many different approaches to working with and understanding adolescent development. Beginning early on with Erikson's idea of an identity crisis occurring during this period and continuing with more recent theories, many of the theories themselves include assumptions that are imposed on the adolescent by an authoritative external, primarily adult perspective. There is a great deal of merit to this view because in general the adult has the ability to look back on his/her own growth and draw on knowledge that can come only from firsthand experience. But at the same time it is a sure way to put off the naturally oppositional adolescent who is getting directives from numerous adults.

There has been an upsurge in the literature that addresses the uniqueness of adolescents. In part this is done by highlighting the commonalties between adolescent development and existential concepts (Austrian, 2002; Chessik, 1996; Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003; Ellsworth, 1999; Hacker, 1994). Included in much of this literature is the argument that adolescents do have sufficient abilities and wisdom to persevere during this difficult period.

Rooted in the work of early philosophers such as Sartre, Kierkegaard, Hiedegger, and Neitzsche, existentialism came about as an approach to addressing the fundamental questions of man's existence (Corey, 2000; Ellsworth, 1999; Todd & Bohort, 1999). To a large extent, much focus was on the finding of purpose and meaning in one's life. Part of this process was becoming aware of the freedom to choose and the ability to create one's own life. This can be done rather than succumb to the external pressures of conformity and meanings that are thrust upon one by objects or circumstances encountered in the environment (Hacker, 1994).

Adding to the uncertainty that comes along with freedom and responsibility is that it is solely up to the individual in order to create meaning and purpose in life. This uncertainty arises in part because what one sees as being relevant to life's questions is often quite different from what others see (Adamson & Lyxell, 1996). As a result, the individual cannot always rely on others to provide solutions to life's many riddles.

Although there are many different components to existential psychotherapy, and each therapist who subscribes to this discipline may define them uniquely, in the above quote (Yalom 1980) emphasizes that the therapist must appreciate the phenomenology of the patient; that is, the therapist must enter the patient's perceived reality without any presuppositions based on his/her own experiences that may distort this understanding.

Adolescence

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (1993) defines adolescence as "the transitional period between puberty and adulthood in human development, extending mainly over the teen years and terminating legally when the age of majority is reached" (p. 27).

Although a fairly concise definition of this period of development, perhaps more accurate is Austrian's (2002) description of the period in which she describes it by borrowing a line from a book saying that it is "the best of times, the worst of times."

Adolescence can be seen as a time during which the individual must go through a process of rebalancing the old with the new (Kegan, 1982). In emphasizing how difficult this time can be, Oldham (1978) notes that throughout the literature there is concern for any adolescent who does not progress through this time without showing some sort of disruption and turmoil.

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