Although the link between puberty and adolescence is not obligatory (some children with problems do not manifest adolescent crisis at puberty), it is indisputable that adolescence as a process (or crisis) may begin during puberty. The bodily changes experienced can cause a kind of trauma. However, these transformations do not only concern the child, but also modify the vision of the parents and introduce more or less perceptible changes. Among these changes, the most frequent is undoubtedly the end of cuddling and physical manifestations of affection in general. As always, here too the exception confirms the rule. In any case, it is quite difficult to know who (parents or children) are the first to put an end to caresses.
Far from disappearing during adolescence, affectivity takes on new dimensions and exaggeration (love or hate) explains many conflicts to the observer. Parents are often more or less consciously involved in the relationships that introduce the adolescent, as a potential adult, into their life as a couple. The adolescent, on the other hand, and independently of his or her sex, sees how the previous attachment to one of his or her parents(or to both) takes on new tones at the very moment when he or she is forced to look for a partner outside the family circle. You may think that this often occurs naturally but parents who are aware of it will understand that this is not the case for all adolescents, even within the same family.
This can sometimes be the source of some problems, but the question of the limits to be set for adolescents also often arises. In this area, parents cannot be guided by any rules and the lengthening of the adolescent’s dependence multiplies the risks of confrontation. Some colleagues and I have recently fallen into the trap of a weekly women’s magazine. Without knowing whether other people had been interviewed, we were asked the following question: “Do you accept that your son/daughter takes his boyfriend/girlfriend home to sleep? Regardless of theoretical references or clinical experience, men answered “no” and women “maybe” or “it depends”. This was by no means an easy question.
The adolescent, through his questions, his crises and his emotions, makes the parents relive many memories that they thought were forgotten. Talking about them can sometimes be as beneficial as a psychoanalytic interpretation.
This first part, which is more focused on problems of sexuality than the rest, will be dealt with based on affectivity. It will be necessary to understand in this sense the Freudian discovery: the unconscious sexuality has nothing to do with sexology, but with feelings, emotions and also with shame, with modesty. Nevertheless, everything happens as if the force of the law of the prohibition of incest, valid with variations in all societies, exacerbates these feelings instead of suppressing them. This is why family ties can take on a passionate tone, even in the fraternal stage, and lead to painful conflicts. It will be necessary to know to what extent parents can resist and question themselves, but also affirm their principles. At this crucial time, adolescents will need references more than ever. Fortunately, they will find them abroad and they will emerge to ratify those at home. Moreover, this dialectic will allow them to gain confidence, for what can be more comforting than seeing our parents’ message confirmed by a third party?
Puberty manifests itself through a series of physical transformations, the most important of which is the acceleration of growth. For girls, it begins two years earlier than for boys, which justifies the well-known gap between the two sexes for a few months. Secondary (and visible)sexual features appear at the same time: breasts (from 8 to13 years old) in the case of girls; modification of the scrotum and penis (from 10 and a half to 14 and a half years old) in the case of boys; and pubic hair in both sexes. Contrary to popular belief, a girl’s first menstruation does not exactly coincide with her puberty; for boys, there are fewer precise indications to confirm it. In any case, there is a great deal of variability in the age of appearance of these complex phenomena and only exceeding the age range can make us suspect a delay.
In a different register, sexual activity does not always coincide with sexual maturity: it can also precede it, as is the case, for example, with Muria boys and girls,2 who are officially initiated by adults in a common household. Finally, it is not puberty that determines the beginning of mature behavior, but a whole set of factors, including socioeconomic level, social role, the ideology of a society, etc. However, in our society, puberty is experienced as the beginning of adolescence. For this reason, some children look forward to bodily changes, while others fear them. Often, these transformations lead to a psychological crisis known as the crisis of adolescence:
Antonia is 12 years old. Since the age of 5 or 6 years, she, she has been dressed like a boy and has stubbornly refused to let her mother buy her dresses. This year she is in sixth grade and seems to have changed her mind. She spends a lot of time on the phone, has strange mood swings, has become insolent and asks permission to go out on Saturdays with her classmates. She would like to be able to disappear (sic) as easily as her friends do, she is interested in spiritism and in children, especially those with blue eyes and those who are not violent. Her mother is worried because Antonia often talks about suicide. She does not doubt that her daughter has noticed this word because it arouses immediate interest and opens many doors for her that have so far been closed. Antonia undergoes a brief psychotherapy and makes progress at school: “Now my mother notices when I make an effort,” she concludes.
Antonia still lives in a childish world completely alien to that of adults. However, without realizing it, she adopts with her friends behaviors that are similar to those of her parents and she dresses like a child. Nevertheless, her parents still maintain an irrefutable authority, and she even complains when her mother does not punish her too much. It is clear that her behavior is being altered by sensations and feelings that are new to her. Likewise, suicide is a new idea that she associates with new emotions: she is in love and the boy does not love her back. While dialogue exists (she has asked her mother what the word depression means), puberty seems to have introduced a new distance between them. Parents are often surprised by any new behavior, such as breaking down in tears for no apparent reason. However, it could be something completely different:
Gabriela is also 12 years old and suffers from anguish clearly linked to the school. Her parents are surprised when, for example, she refuses to go to a children’s show because she considers herself “too old”. The fact that she is “too old” can have two interpretations: that the show no longer corresponds to her age or that her growth has changed her image of herself. All this, together with abdominal pains without any organic cause, alerts parents, who realize that Gabriela has thus entered the stage of adolescence.
As we can see, these are small signs (which does not mean that they should be ignored) which, in the case of these girls, indicate that they have just begun their puberty. These small signs only affect parental relations to a certain extent (and, in any case, at the beginning). However, the transition to adulthood will introduce modifications that, in a way, will be delicate for the family balance and will occur behind the backs of the parents, who until now had not been aware that their child was a sexual being.
This “forgetting” is unconscious and very useful, as it allows parents to support and allow the development of the child during a long period in which child sexuality will be transformed, both on an affective and biological level, into adult sexuality. This is precisely what pedophiles deny and reject. Child sexuality exists and Freud’s merit is to have discovered it, so now there is no point in denying it again. However, this sexuality has very little to do with adult sexuality. It presents two evident and complementary differences: the absence of consummation and the intensity of imaginary creations. All this, together with the biological periods of maturation, will allow affectivity, that is to say, feelings, to mature first, then to cool down and finally to be reborn at puberty.
The pan-sexualism attributed to psychoanalysis is only an acquired idea. The forgetting (rejection) of child sexuality is therefore necessary. What kind of life would we lead if this unconscious and secret maturation did not exist? Let us take the example of children who are victims of sexual abuse: as they have no (or only very difficult) access to the imagination, their feelings of love are rather monotonous. More generally, during this whole silent period, education takes place, that is to say the transmission from the adult to the child of values which are opposed to immediate satisfaction, whatever that may be.
It goes without saying that education will be based on a fundamental prohibition that of incest. This prohibition is cultural because it is necessary and indispensable for life in society, and its transgression entails damage that varies according to the individual who suffers it. For this reason, parents must observe it. Attitudes considered normal in some families can be experienced as the equivalent of small-scale incest. Thus, talking in front of children about their sexual relations could be considered, in away, as a way of involving them. Talking and saying are words which in this case show the frontiers of authentic communication. Getting naked in front of a pubertal child can also be considered an equivalent of the same kind by a seductive mother, or even the fact, in the case of a father, of having an ambiguous attitude towards his daughter. However, one should not exaggerate either, since the absence of imagined desire between parents and children can be insurmountable, and it would be the last straw if, in our time, even psychoanalysis were puritanical. Therefore, the basic question in this matter deals with the deep meaning that one or another attitude can have. Now, in this area, rigidity can be a sign of an intense desire for transgression, while a healthy attitude can let illusions flow, especially when these are accompanied by a sense of humor. Puberty, that is, genital maturation, calls into question the above balance.
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