3. Becoming an Individual
Teenagers have a natural impulse to try to separate themselves from their parents and their backgrounds. A good critical thinking foundation can help ease the transition toward individuality and adulthood. Better reasoning can help teenagers cope with their emerging independence and avoid an unthinking rejection of their background.
In adolescence, becoming a unique individual, something more than just your parents’ offspring, is a psychological necessity.
Part of differentiating yourself from the world around you is developing a self-image. It is the only way to avoid fading completely into your surroundings—and ending up in utter conformity, or worse.
Individualization is indispensable to society. In order to sustain itself, society needs diversity. Cultures lacking the social norm of individualization are more fragile. They produce citizens who have identical self-images and behavioral patterns, whereas adapting to change requires diversity, creativity, evolution, and, therefore, critical thinking.
Only very rarely (or not at all) have individuals in these cultures of weak individualization experienced the feelings of crisis and malaise we associate with adolescence. The transition from childhood to adulthood unfolds instead according to so-called “rites of passage.”
Our civilization has undergone a long and profound evolution through philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and politics, leading us to a social norm that rejects the idea that the individual in the family, the social group, or the nation, is like a mere cell in an organ. Indeed, everyone has the right and even the “duty” to be reborn by deviating from their origins.
This is an immense challenge because this act of differentiation, this self-creation, arises at a moment when children are not yet able to achieve this “rebirth” autonomously, as they enter an unknown world without even knowing what it will be like. We call this period “adolescence” or even “kidulthood” when it lasts a long time—a growing phenomenon.
Experiencing society predominantly through school or family simultaneously generates pressure to conform and to individualize. It comes as no surprise that this causes some problems.
The desire to be free and independent generates psychological conflict.
Children have not fully matured intellectually or cognitively when they are confronted with this contradiction. They are, therefore, unable to conceptualize it. This is why, in their behavior and attitudes, children can sometimes bear a closer resemblance to skittish animals than calm self-creators responsible for their own gradual reinvention.
Although unaware of it, children embark upon adolescence through “second-degree” conformity through culture, since adolescence is a societal construct rather than a psycho-behavioral component of puberty.
Paradoxically, children aged 13 to 15 or older may not experience teenage angst at all, thanks to their critical faculties. In fact, if they feel that their life is fulfilling and stable, they will be able to avoid getting sucked into an alternative world by other children their age. Their youth may pass without them having experienced teen crisis. Instead, they construct their identity reflectively and without drama.
This, of course, is not typical. The desire to be free and independent generates psychological conflict. The fear and the anxiety associated with this moment of struggle incites rationalizations, thoughts which retrospectively come to explain dissatisfaction, malaise, and rebellion. Every situation that is not comfortable or does not come off successfully, we tend to attribute to our external environment and other people. Consequently, if things are not going well for us—if we are not happy—we tend to blame it on an unjust world.
Parents of teenagers are very familiar with the result: sweeping criticism of everything teens encounter. To the teenager, everyone sucks: parents, teachers, politicians, journalists, and so on. This reaction can generate conflict, but, as is explained in the next section, it also presents a good opportunity for deepening critical faculties.