Herd or hero. Adolescents between individualisation and assimilation

By Mathias Wais, December 2012

In order to find their own individuality, adolescents have crucially to define themselves separately from their family of origin and at the same time integrate themselves into a new grouping, clique or the local scene. Individuality in the community can be successful if the initial adaptation becomes adoption – making it one’s own. That includes perceiving the otherness of the other person with interest. Mathias Wais, psychologist from the Advice Centre for Children, Adolescents and Adults in Dortmund, shows how these developmental processes take place and how adults can support them.

© Sven Jungtow

“Excuse me?” Julian was clearly indignant. I had probably gone too far when I said: “No one is normal.” “What are you trying to say? That I’m not normal?” 

No, that is not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to express in the conversation with Julian was this: that everyone has a right to their individuality. But I had clearly formulated the point badly, or at least had hit a sensitive, if not sore spot in Julian. He had come to the Youth Advice Centre for a consultation after he had been bullied for months by a clique in his class at secondary school. He increasingly escaped from that through truancy and drugs. At home he became more and more reclusive. The druggie scene behind the playing fields had become his new “family”. “Sorry. I did not want to upset you. But still: may I ask you a provocative question?” Julian muttered something that sounded like consent. “Why do you want to be normal?” He looked at  me in surprise. “I’m not normal,” he said. Then he stopped short – we both had to laugh. The tension dissipated and now I found myself in a discussion in which the adult defended the right to be an individual and the adolescent the importance of community with its values and norms. We finally agreed that “normal” is if one simply adapts uncritically. “So is adaptation bad?” Julian asked, and added: “That’s it. If you don’t adapt, you get bullied; if you adapt too obviously you’re also bullied.” Every community (family, school class, clique) is unforgiving, but also ambivalent with regard to the individuality of its members. It requires adaptation of its values and norms. That is no different in the druggie clique or the family. On the other hand it sometimes stimulates individuality or at least difference: the son should be “normal”, fit into the world of values of his family or origin, but he is also supposed to become, let us say, an outstanding sportsman and to that extent not “normal”. Conversely the individuality is also ambivalent with regard to the community. The individual needs the community for protection and as confirmation; but he or she also wants to define himself or herself in contrast to it in so far as he or she wants to be an individual. What takes priority?

The individual or the community?

In his “basic sociological law” (which was formulated in connection with his threefolding endeavours and thus belongs into a larger context) Rudolf Steiner very aptly also describes the theme of adolescence: “In early cultural conditions, humanity strives to create social groupings in which the interests of the individual are sacrificed for the interests of the whole; subsequent development leads to the liberation of the individual from the interests of the group and to the free development of the needs and forces of the individual.” There is probably no other biographical phase in which the tension between the individual and society expressed in these words is experienced so clearly and fiercely as in adolescence.

Separation and knowing what I am not

In childhood, the question of our own individuality as an object of our consciousness does not exist. Our own person is naturally embedded in the family and secure in it. Everyone is normal. Uncle Herbert might on occasion behave a bit oddly but that is in addition to his normality. With puberty, the question “Who am I?” as the object of our consciousness appears for the first time. And, as we know, less as the subject of considered reflection than as a vehement impulse to seek, develop and, as necessary, also assert our own individuality. That search begins with the gesture of separation, at first from the parents, then from teachers and the values and norms in which we have grown up. Separation is the most elemental gesture of the “I”. Before I know who I am and what I want, I know – vehemently – what I am not and do not want.

So I look away from the family, but towards another “family”: the clique, the local “scene”, the most radical political grouping I can find. One adaptation is replaced by another. And with frequent changes. The search for our own individuality starts with transitory identifications with groups or group norms which are as clearly as possible different from the family of origin. That adolescents search for and display their own being in this rather intense way before they are sure of it is part of our image of young people. But we should not ignore that they seek community, indeed, society for that.

It is easy for us older people to furrow our brows and express concerns about “social” networks like Facebook. After all, the superficiality of such enterprises cannot be overlooked. People collect “friends” like CDs. Take-away friendship. And because no one takes any responsibility for anyone else in such a “community”, into which we are “added” with no more than a mouse click, we worry about the lesson this might teach about community. It is all about being there, not about content or values. Community light. But social development is not that one-dimensional. On the one hand we can see such “social networks” as the expression of a desire for community. On the other hand we also see the following in the Facebook generation:

Julian works as a volunteer in a workshop for people with disabilities during the summer holidays. Alexander goes shopping for the elderly in his district on a Saturday. Joanna regular reads to a blind neighbour. No one asked these young people to do it. Justus is active in the youth group of the local Red Cross. Michaela is a project leader with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). All are on Facebook simply because everyone is on Facebook and anyone who isn’t is a dinosaur.

Coming to grips and taking ownership

What is actually the “learning target” of this developmental phase with its tensions? When are we done with it? Is the adult “done” with the subject of individual versus community when he or she has a job, a family, a home of his or her own? The objective can neither be adapting completely nor recalcitrantly and conspicuously  being ourselves. There is a third way: “The basis of all social life is the interest of one person for another” (Steiner). The mature, but never finished version of the arc of tension between the individual and the community is our interest in the individuality of the other. In other words, the question “Who am I? Who can I be? Who do I want to be?” is answered simply by the opposite question: “Who are you? Who can you be? Who do you want to be?”

It is not necessary to prescribe this to a young person like Julian: we can see that he will get there by himself. Young people have a particular eye for exceptional people or groups of people, for outsiders, the disadvantaged, those who have stumbled, and of course also for the stars. Albert Schweitzer is out as a model. But that Madonna adopts children can be of interest. Young people are quite capable of having a great interest in the individuality of the other person as long as those other people are not their father or mother, Auntie Madge or their teacher. They are seen in their role as representatives of outdated norms (and that is mostly what they are). They are looking for an answer to their question “Who am I?” in exceptional people. After all, our own individuality does not hatch in private (even if one or the other young person, collapsing in front of the PC at home overwhelmed or deeply hurt and misunderstood, hopes so). Individuality develops in a process of acquisition, that is, coming to grips with our own life contexts and those of others.

Acquisition and coming to grips does not mean simply taking on something else, does not mean adaptation or, indeed, submission. Acquisition means: I make my own what I experience and discover. I transform it to make it suitable for me and transform it thereby in general. Acquisition in that sense is a developmental process in the most basic sense. It remains open how individual the result is at the end. There is no definable point at which this development is concluded. Of course the subject dies down in adulthood but that does not mean that it is finished.

The social arises through an interest in the other

Only when we create a space for communication with adolescents can we support them in their search. Our unasked consent or criticism is not what this is about. What it is about is that we as adults initiate the dialogue and maintain it. In that way we live something of what is the target of this phase of biographical development: the social part will only arise in the future through an interest in the otherness of the other person. It will arise less and less out of a harmony of interests, opinions and feelings. Interest in the otherness of the other person is more than and something different from tolerance. I do not need to be tolerant towards a young person whose screaming music gets on my nerves. But I have to develop an interest in what this kind of music means to him. Such a dialogue, too, lives off asking and listening and not off immediately spouting one’s opinions as an adult or wanting to teach the young person something.

The acquisition process which has been set out also changes the community. The more open it is to that, the more individuality can crystallise. And the more individuality can crystallise, the more the community will be able to transform itself. So let us not deny that young people are prepared to take responsibility for social matters just because they do not feel like carrying the rubbish down. Young people are searching for experiences at the edge, the borderline, challenges; they are searching for the other, for the unusual, in order to form themselves as they come to grips with it. We should help them in their search rather than in the finding of it.

Link: www.beratungsstelle-hesseweg.de

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