Adolescent Crisis

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The concept of adolescent crisis is not generally found in the vocabulary of psychoanalysis. It was not used by Freud and was not created by any psychoanalyst. In France the concept gained currency following the success of Maurice Debesse's La crise d'originalité juvenile (The crisis of juvenile originality; 1941), which helped spread and popularize the concept. Subsequently, authors interested in adolescence, including psychoanalysts, picked up the term for their own uses, supporting it or criticizing it. The initial ambiguity and lack of precision associated with the term probably contributed to its success, but also turned it into a grab-bag of ideas and the source of considerable misunderstanding. It has been used to refer to the culmination of the developmental process at the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, as well as to the behavioral manifestations and disturbances that so often occur at this age.

Under the heading of "adolescent crisis" and in the guise of the assumed originality of adolescents, the most atypical behavior has been considered "normal" for this age. This atypical behavior is claimed to be the price paid for the crisis, which has been compared to a temporary disorganization when the young adolescent leaves the stable environment of childhood for an as yet uncertain adulthood. Along with this change in environment must be considered the maturation of the drives, quantitative effects that are said to push the adolescent toward temporary anarchic behavior before it is channeled into more stable pursuits. The crisis, understood from its most obvious expression in a range of boisterous behavioral expressions, is said to be a sign of normality. On the contrary, the lack of such drama in adolescence would be a sign of excessive repression and a portent of a disturbed future. The adolescent would face no psychic work in making the transition to adulthood.

An alternate approach, based largely on the North American developmental school, known through the work of Peter Blos and Margaret Mahler, sees adolescence as the culmination of a process of maturation. This developmental approach further suggests that we use the concept of crisis sparingly. It belongs more to a romantic vision of adolescence than to any scientific reality. According to this view, some adolescences would be pathological, but most, the silent majority, would not. Follow-up studies of difficult adolescences, although fragmentary, suggest that the evolution in adolescence is far from being as favorable as claimed. Yet the vast majority of adolescences go unnoticed, without any of the customary clinical or subjective manifestations of an adolescent crisis.

The psychoanalytic approach to the intrapsychic changes associated with puberty has developed in several phases. Three main explanatory models have been proposed, each of which can be seen as a confirmation of the others. The initial model of change was based on the first discoveries in psychoanalysis, those associated with Studies on Hysteria (1895d) and The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a). This model of change enabled the transition from symptoms to representations as a result of the change in the topographical register from the unconscious to the conscious through the lifting of repression. This model characterizes the Freudian approach to adolescence. Action deferred until puberty actualizes and brings into the field of consciousness, more or less disguised, the parameters of infancy and in particular the Oedipus complex, repressed during the latency period. Adolescence becomes a repetition of infancy. The second model of change is based on the displacement of libidinal investment. It was taken up by Anna Freud when she made mourning the central parameter of the process of adolescence. The third model is a structural change of personality.

Freud's view of adolescence is not without ambiguity and seems to alternate between change and continuity, though it leans toward the latter interpretation. Adolescence is essentially defined by its relation to infancy. It represents access to the genital stage and is, in this sense, the culmination of libidinal evolution (Freud, 1905d). Consequently, it clarifies earlier stages and gives deferred meaning to certain infantile experiences that have remained suspended and potentially traumatic until pubertal genital development provides them their fullest expression.

Little has been said concerning the intrapsychic transformations of puberty. In these models, the understanding of adolescence is filtered through the understanding of childhood. The advantage of adolescence lies in its ability retrospectively to clarify childhood through the retroactive effect of the two-stage evolution of human sexuality and to serve as the doorway to adulthood. As a transitional period, it has no density of its own. The changes of adolescence are seen only as the continuation of a process begun at the start of personality development. Adolescence is not so much a crisis as a culmination of what existed embryonically in the infant.

The real change should be sought within obstacles to development, that is, in pathology and what Moses and Eglé Laufer refer to as "breaks in development." For these authors, the adolescent's pubescent body becomes a stand-in for the dangerous incestuous parent. Actualization through transference of this conflict-ridden oedipal bond enables the unconscious or preconscious fantasy that structures this bond to be brought up to date in what the authors refer to as the "central masturbatory fantasy." They assign this fantasy a key role in the adolescent's bond with his objects and his own bodya representative of parental objects. In accordance with Freudian ideas, the fantasy is organized during infancy, but the changes to the body in adolescence are what make it traumatic and capable of provoking reactions of repudiation and the various forms of arrested development that can result from such repudiation.

During the decade since 1995, this conception of adolescence as the fulfillment and repetition of infancy has been modified by authors focusing on the specificity of this stage of life. The process of mourning becomes especially important. Anna Freud was the first to draw attention to the similarity of adolescence, emotional disappointments, and periods of mourning. The adolescent libido must detach itself from the parents so it can focus on new objects, and this results in mourning for the nursing mother and the infant body. During this interval between old and new investments, the unattached libido searches for new objects to invest in and returns to the adolescent ego, where it leads to the narcissistic inflation and grandiose fantasies characteristic of this age. Moroseness, biliousness, moments of uncertainty, even depersonalization and periods of depression are signs of the more or less durable vacuity of libido investment.

Can adolescence be better understood with respect to a past that is repeated or fulfilled, or a future to which it will be subordinated and that will confer subsequent meaning to it? Or should we rather see it as an essential stage in development that can be reduced neither to what came before nor to what will follow? Does adolescence have an identity of its own, such that the nature of the changes that affect it imprint a specific mark on the evolution and destiny of the subject? If so, what is the nature of these changes, and how can they influence the subject's course of development?

The most specific change in adolescence is navigating between the dual tasks of integrating a genitally mature body in society and partaking an autonomy that appears in this period in life. The effects of puberty on the body modify the adolescent's relationship to his drives by giving him, along with a pubescent body, a means to discharge them. The adolescent needs autonomya distance from earlier objects of attachment, the parents. Autonomy in turn challenges the narcissistic assumptions of the subject and serves to reveal the quality of his internal world, the (secure or insecure) character of his attachments, and the ability of his ego to take control of functions that have until then devolved to his parents. The connections between internal and external reality are questioned and thus undergo important changes.

Adolescence thus corresponds to a need for psychic work in the development of every human beinga need that every individual is confronted with and for which every society must provide a solution. Here we see with particular acuity what Freud defined as a drive, namely a need for work by the psyche owing to its bond to the somatic. Indeed, the origin of this excess of psychic work typical of adolescence is the extra somatic development associated with puberty, but with the particular features that deferred action confer upon it. For the adolescent, the image he constructed of himself during childhood vacillates while he awaits a new cultural and symbolic status. Thus, aside from the conflicts of identification and the Oedipus complex, the most profound strata of personality and the self in its initial period of constitution are summoned and tested during adolescence.

There is indeed a crisis of adolescence in the sense that, psychically, the subject will be different after puberty. But this crisis always has a form and conclusion generally conditioned by culture and the familial systems to which each of us belongs. Consequently, an internal crisis of the psyche is consubstantial with the somatic impact puberty has on the psyche and with the psychosocial impact of adolescent autonomy, but the external expression of this crisis largely depends on events that transpired during infancy and on the nature and quality of the current social environment.

The family is capable of promoting or interfering with this process. A kind of resonance often occurs between the midlife crisis that parents experience when their children reach adolescence and the problems faced by the adolescent. Such resonance adds to the confusion between generations and blurs limits on behavior for the adolescent. Similar resonance occurs when the adolescent actualizes the parents' unresolved conflicts with their own parents that they then reenact with their children. Such resonance amplifies conflicts and contributes to the adolescent's feeling of being misunderstood and subject to foreign forces.

External reality appears as a possible mediator capable of reinforcing or weakening the structures of the psychic apparatus. Its essential role is to make the growth of object investments associated with the twofold phenomenon of separation from infantile objects and the resumption of processes of identification narcissistically acceptable. External objects, especially parents, can serve as mediators for internal objects, their concrete attitudes helping to correct whatever is terrifying or constricting in the internal objects, and thus helping to nuance and humanize the superego and ego ideal. They can also create the conditions for pleasure that can be used and exchanged and that authorizes the adolescent libidinally to reinvest object ties without having to become conscious of the importance of those objects. This resembles the conditions typical of the transitional objects of early childhood, or what some authors prefer to call "transformational objects." Because of their diversity, these external objects, coupled with visual reminders of the difference between the sexes, may strengthen a third function that vacillates and is regression and lack of differentiation.

What is true of parents is also true of the mediator figures provided by society: teachers, social workers, friends, ideologies, and religions. These can be temporary supports, offering adolescents a foothold that preserves their need for investment in a narcissistically acceptable self-image before they discover their own way. As with religion and some ideologies, these supports can also provide the adolescent with an outlet that hides discoveries of infantile fusional needs that subjugate the individual to an undifferentiated totalitarian relation.

If the needs for psychic transformation appear to be inherent in adolescence, the forms assumed by these changes are particularly dependent on how society operates. Thus, in this connection, there is an emphasis the role of the generational crisis and modern forms of revolt against the father. We can also raise questions about the impact of a transition from a society structured around precise operational rules and explicit prohibitions to a more liberal society. This transition favors a transition from an adolescence dominated by the problematic of conflicts associated with prohibitions and their possible transgression to an adulthood dominated by the problematic of fear of dissolution of those ties and of expression of needs of dependence. Prohibitions, though they can lead to revolt, lead to misunderstanding the need of dependence. Freedom, together with the requirements of performance and success, brings to light narcissistic uncertainties and needs for completeness.

Philippe Jeammet

See also: Adolescence.


Debesse, Maurice. (1941). La crise d'originalité juvénile. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900). The interpretation of dreams (Parts 1-2). SE, 4: 1-338; 5: 339-625.

(1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895d [1893-95]). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 1-310.

Jeammet, Philippe. (1994). Adolescence et processus de changement. In Daniel Widlöcher (Ed.), Traité de psychopathologie (pp. 687-726). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Laufer, Moses, and Laufer, M. Eglé. (1984). Adolescence and developmental breakdown: A psychoanalytic view. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Further Reading

Menninger, Walter W. (1988). Introduction: the crises of adolescence and aging. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 52,190-197.