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“It’s normal and healthy for adolescents to face difficulties” says Emil Jackson

Posted: 5th December 2019

a black and white picture of a man in glasses

Emil Jackson is Head of Psychotherapy within the Adolescent and Young Adult Department at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, and he came to speak at Brampton College last week as part of our teenage wellbeing and parenting series of talks. With a background in Child and Adult Psychotherapy, Emil runs workshops focused on understanding and surviving the challenges of adolescence – something many parents recognise the need for.

Emil’s years’ of experience in this field have resulted in an approach to coaching which is hugely supportive of parents, encouraging them to engage positively with the uncertainty, unpredictability and anxiety which today very much go with the territory of parenting adolescents. He spoke both compellingly and compassionately about the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in today’s rapidly-changing world and highlighted the following points in particular:

  • Sometimes parents will have to take an approach that seems profoundly paradoxical, for example letting go of their natural desire to help their child. Emil believes that adolescents will work out who they are and their place in the world through struggling, and that it is normal and healthy for them to face difficulties. Every child has their own journey, there can be massive differences in this journey and the normal range is very wide.
  • Excessive reassurance can be unhelpful at this stage of life. Teenagers want their misery to be understood. It can paradoxically be more reassuring to have their feelings validated and reflected back to them. Not rescuing them can be more containing – can lead to them feeling more understood.
  • There’s the issue of adolescents confusing independence with interdependence. It is common for adolescents to progress developmentally and then regress; due to an acute continued need of protection and support despite the desire for autonomy.  Parents need to learn to both tolerate ‘being on the shelf’ without interpreting it as rejection, but also recognise the times when their child could do with some advice, but won’t ask as they feel they should be independent.
  • The developmental tasks of adolescence include self-identity, self-concept, independence, taking responsibilities for decisions, tolerating disapproval (in order to be ourselves), emotional regulation, managing and re-negotiating relationships; family relationships, peer relationships, sexual relationships, self-care/self-help, managing change and anxiety, adjusting to being in a sexual (adult) body, control over impulses, developing autonomy. Rather a lot!
  • Puberty is now arriving much earlier for many children. Some children are very ill-prepared to occupy an adult body. This can particularly be the case if reaching puberty early.
  • The rate at which states of mind change is at its fastest in early adolescence.
  • There is a natural instinct/interest for testing boundaries in adolescence. Teenagers often wonder what needs to be done in order to reach/overstep a boundary. They also have a propensity for ‘testing’ these boundaries out with their own bodies.
  • Triggers of self-harm in adolescents include hopelessness, isolation, depression, angry feelings, guilty feelings, terror of going mad, generating feelings when numb or disconnected, idea that the action will rid or ‘free’ one from one’s problems, potential blind spots (there can be lack of alignment: maybe things externally are getting better but the young person doesn’t feel better internally. The may wonder – am I going to feel this way forever?)
  • It is important as professionals working with teenagers and young people not to underestimate the protective impact of simply conveying our concerns. Simply saying that we have noticed that the young person seems sad and distressed can make a huge difference to the trajectory of their lives.

Thank you Emile for such a thought-provoking and advice-filled talk.

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