Adolescence is a highly significant time in the formation of the self. Erik Erikson, in his stage model of development, identifies the challenge of adolescence as the search for a sense of self and personal identity through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs and goals.
It is during adolescence that we grapple with significant existential questions: Who am I, separate from my family / caregivers? To what extent do I wish to be an individual? To what extent do I wish to belong? It is during this time that we individuate from our families and become more independent, at the same time investing significantly in peer relationships.
Erikson suggests that two identities are involved in this stage of development: the sexual and the occupational. Adolescence is a time when we develop our sense of ourselves as sexual beings and perhaps begin to live out that part of our lives. It is also a time when we engage in the question of who and what do I want to be? This can be a time of experimentation as we ‘try on’ different identities to see what feels most fitting.
So what does this mean for young people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences? Because young people in this situation often face adolescence without secure attachments to act as a safe springboard, they can find it harder to navigate the challenges of individuating, of managing impulsivity, of negotiating sexual relationships, forming and maintaining peer relationships, managing strong affect, working out who they want to be in the world and believing they can attain it.
If a stage model of development such as Erik Erikson’s was followed in a strictly linear progression, the picture would be bleak indeed. But what we have known informally for some time – and what new research on neuroplasticity demonstrates scientifically – is that we can learn and change and have formative experiences at later times in life. This is a vital insight when working with those who have experienced trauma, in particular childhood trauma.
We know that reparative relationships in the present can create secure attachments and that an individual can change their attachment style as a result of later experiences. Once again this is about connection. Childhood trauma is about the abuse of, lack of or loss of connection and this impacts directly on how people understand themselves in the world. Positive, connective relationships at a later stage of development can rebuild those foundations.
At Body & Soul the consistency of support is vital to people at this stage of life. We are the parent: predictable, loving, challenging at times, always there. At age 18, most professional support either drops away or the person is transferred to adult services which are unknown and often impersonal. Our ‘cradle to grave’ service means that there aren’t those lurching transitions when people can fall through the cracks, and the transitions which are necessary, such as from Teen Spirit to the Young Adults service, are supported and managed.
Adolescents who did not begin life from a secure, loving, consistent base have the opportunity to rectify this at a later stage of development in the right environment. Creating a positive sense of self, developing one’s own values and ethics, feeling independent and capable and managing emotions and impulsivity – these are all developmental stages associated with adolescence which can be navigated at any stage of life. And therein lies the fundamental hope and belief which is core to our service: our childhood stays with us but that inner child can be nourished and nurtured to grow whatever our chronological age.