CYC-Online 39 APRIL 2002
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Learning to cope with stresses and strains

The first in a two-part series in which Gisela Konopka, one of the best known writers and practitioners in the fields of social work, child development and child care work, reflects in a classic paper on the essence of adolescence and the ways in which adolescents learn to cope with difficulties. See part two here

To discuss the question of coping with stresses and strains of adolescence, I will present:

... and next month:

Concept of adolescence

It seems to me best to let an adolescent talk first before I say anything about that age group. A girl wrote:

I am a bottle sealed with feeling
too deep for anything else.
I am a bottle floating in an eternal ocean of people trying to help.
I am a bottle keeping my fragile contents inside. Always afraid of breaking and exposing me.
I am a bottle frail and afraid of the rock. And afraid of the storm. For if the storm or rocks burst or cracked me, I would sink and become part of the ocean.
I am a person in the people of the world.

This 16-year-old expresses clearly that an adolescent is part of humanity, is a person. This should be self-evident; yet in recent years adolescents have been treated often as if they are a species apart, to be feared or occasionally to be flattered.

The period of adolescence is as significant a period in life for the development of the total personality as are the first years in childhood. It is a time of rebirth.

To me – and this differs from many textbook descriptions of adolescence – this period does not represent only a “pre", a preparation for adulthood, or worse, a “no-man's land" between childhood and adulthood. Adolescents are not “pre-adults", “pre-parents", or “pre-workers", but human beings participating in their particular way in the activities of the world around them. Adolescence is not a passage to somewhere but an important stage in itself, though all stages of human development connect with each other. There is an “adolescenthood". The key experiences of adolescence (which always include stresses and strains) are certain firsts which need to be worked through.

It must be understood that no generalization about human beings ever totally applies to one person and that in working with people, we will have to each time look afresh at the human being with whom we interact. A 15-year-old said this best:

I used to be
a grape in a bunch
and all the other
grapes were the same.
But now I’m an apple, crisp
and fresh, and every
one is different.
My, how life has changed!

Some of the “firsts" I refer to are:

1. Experiencing physical sexual maturity. A phenomenon particular to adolescence that never occurs again in the life of the individual is the process of developing sexual maturation, different from the state of accomplished sexual maturation. Biologically this is a totally new experience. Its significance is due both to its pervasiveness and to the societal expectations surrounding it. It creates in adolescents a great wonderment about themselves and a feeling of having something in common with all human beings. It influences all their relationships with each other, male or female. Entering this part of maturity also stimulates them to a new assessment of the world.

2. Experiencing withdrawal of – and from – adult benevolent protection. Along with the biological maturity attained in adolescence come varying degrees of withdrawal of, and from, the protection generally given to dependent children by parents or substitutes. We know that some young people were never protected, even as children; but, whatever the degree of previous protection, the adolescent is moving out from the family toward interdependence (not independence, but interdependence) in three areas: (a) with his peers, his own generation; (b) with his elders, but on an interacting or questioning level instead of a dependent level: and (c) with younger children, not on a play level but on a beginning-to-care-for-and-nurture level. This process of moving away from dependency creates tensions and emotional conflicts.

3. Consciousness of self in interaction. The development of self and the searching for self starts in childhood. but the intellectual and the emotional consciousness of self in interaction with others is a particular characteristic of adolescence. It is a time when personal meaning is given to new social experiences. What may have been clear and explicable may suddenly become inexplicable. This makes for inner excitement, frightening and yet enjoyable.

4. Re-evaluation of values. Though the formation of values is a lifelong developmental process, it peaks in adolescence. It is related to both thinking and feeling. In our culture, where young people are likely to be exposed to a variety of contradictory values, (and I welcome this) questioning begins even in childhood. But adolescents become more philosophers concerned with “shoulds" and “oughts" and they may be subtle or outspoken about it. Value confrontations are inevitable in this age period. The young, because of their intensity, tend to be uncompromising. They may opt clearly for a thoroughly egalitarian value system, or they may give up and become cynics. They often are “true believers", rigid, and therefore feel deeply hurt when others do not accept their value system.

5. Wanting to be an active participant in society. Adolescents encounter their world with a new intellectual and emotional consciousness. They meet it less as observers who are satisfied with this role, than as participants who actually have a place to fill. I see this wish to participate as a most significant “first" in adolescence. In the old, mostly European, textbooks it appears as the adolescent quality of rebellion, and for years we have considered rebellion an inevitable attribute of adolescence. I think that this is true in authoritarian societies – and we are partially still an authoritarian society – but basically it is not rebellion that characterizes adolescence, but this extraordinary new awakening to the fact that one must develop one’s values, and not only by imitation. This is a terribly hard task and brings with it enormous stress. Another key characteristic of adolescents is their enormous life force. It is an age of extraordinary physical capacity. This is sometimes at variance with the emotional development, and that again makes for great strain. It is an age where the mood swings with utmost intensity from omnipotence to despair. Adolescents can go without sleep for a long time; they run, jump, dance. In one of the Youth Polls done by the Centre for Youth Development and Research in which the subject of health was at issue, it became clear that adolescents define health as “activity and energy". One said, “I think I am healthy when I am able to walk and run and run around all day and not be tired."

Content areas of life significant to adolescence

The major institutions in which adolescents move have begun to be the same all over the world. Cultures change rapidly. For example, the teenage Bedouin, until recently, had to develop predominantly within the extended family and handle stresses within this system. His work environment was static in terms of its tasks, namely herding goats, but it was changing geographically because of the tribe’s nomad existence. The girl had no decisions to make, only to obey. Yet, today, most of the Bedouin teenagers have to deal with a smaller family unit, with school, with a variety of work tasks, and with less nomadic movement. These changes impinge on the girls, too.

Now, discussing institutions, the most significant ones in adolescent life today are: the family, the school, the place of work, and the peer group.

1. The family. It is a myth that North American young people do not care for the family. In every survey the Centre for Youth Development and Research has made, the yearning for close family ties emerges clearly. Even a runaway wrote:

The first night was cold damn cold.
And walking around the avenues,
we would mock the whores.
The big man and his badge
would give us a cold eye.
And without hesitation,
we would flip him a bird.
I wished for my mother,
and I wished for sympathy -
For a warm bed, and not the cold
shipyard or the park swings.
I feel really old for 15,
there just isn’t any place to go.
Mama I miss you – and I just spent my last dollar
for cigarettes.

The major frustration for an adolescent within the family is to suffer the role of an inferior at an age when the wish to be taken seriously, and as an equal, is very intense. Frustrating experiences range from being treated “like a kid" to serious abuse. And additional frustration can result from the youth’s keen awareness of problems between parents.

Younger children suffer deeply from strife between parents, but adolescents often feel that they have to do something about it, that they have to take on the responsibility in the situation. I found again and again a deep resentment of divorce, and at the same time, a feeling that the adolescent should have done something to prevent it. Also, adolescents, unlike younger children, begin to look to the future. Many expressed a wish for starting a family, but also feared it.

2. The school. Some of the same dynamics as in the family apply to the relationship of the adolescent to school. Again, the strong sense of self comes in conflict with possible violation of the vulnerable self-integrity. The youth wants to be seen as an individual as expressed by the wishes: “There should be a one to ten ratio of teachers to students." They should treat young people “like adults, not like two-year-olds, unless students just don’t co-operate. Discuss all material that will be tested. Make every effort to answer all questions. Do best to help each student by keeping classes smaller. Not like we are their slaves or workers and they are the boss."

There are other stresses in school. It is the place where the students expect to learn. Adolescents in their own way begin to evaluate whether they learn what they need, and whether they measure up. They feel strongly injustice and discrimination:

"The teachers are sort of scared of Blacks here. I’m not the kind of person that shows how much I hate them. I just sit back and do mostly what I suppose I’m supposed to do. But teachers are still scared. If I ask a question, some of the teachers just ignore me. And I sit back and I watch this and I feel it."

"Sometimes, I don’t understand what they are saying. The teachers, they talk but when you go up to the desk and ask what they mean, they don’t say nothing."

They just say, “Go on and do it!” They don’t explain. They just say, “Go back to your desk and do it.”

3. The place of work. Many adolescents do work while in school, though others see it as part of the future. We found in our observations a generally quite strong work ethic. Two students expressed themselves: “... looking forward to starting a job because it gives one a sense of responsibility," and “want to work ... because we've trained for it for so long and we’re anxious to start." Contrary to popular assumption, adolescents felt a responsibility for the work they were doing. They frequently regretted not having an opportunity to work on something that would prepare them for a future career. Young people can rarely find work related to special interests. A 16-year-old volunteered to work in the Rape Centre of the Attorney General’s Office and saw this as an opportunity not only for feeling significant at that particular time in her life, but also to find out what her specific interests would be. But a recent study showed that usually adolescents felt frustrated because their jobs had no connection with their interests and were not realistic experiences.

They make us work like people in yester-years, like out of the 18th century. With machinery, the government could accomplish something with more speed, efficiency and effectiveness. Instead, they give you old-time machines to do the work.

4. The peer group. For adolescents it is a most important one. In our culture this world exists within organized institutions and in informal encounters. School is seen by practically all adolescents as the major formal institution where they can find friends. Youth organizations may also provide friends along with very positive experiences.

On midsummer’s eve the moon was high in the sky.
We danced all night in the moon's smiling, gleaming face,
We ran about the park with youngness and freedom,
We sang songs of old and new.

We played on midsummer’s eve as though it were
never to leave us.
The morning soon followed, so we left.
But we will be back on midsummer’s.

But for others, school may mean the unpleasant strain or, for a variety of reasons, painful rejection by one’s peers. The world of peers is really the lifeblood of adolescence. Friendships with both sexes, intensified by growing sexual maturity, are exceedingly important and complex. They demand decision-making about oneself, about others, about the present and the future. Decision-making is written large all through adolescence, and no decisions are more important than those about peer relationships.


Brokering, B. (1978) Requirements for healthy development of adolescent youth: with examples from a Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). Centre for Youth Development and Research, University of Minnesota.

Konopka, G. (1976) Young girls: A portrait of adolescence. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall.

Social Development issues, 4.3. Fall 1980
This article was reprinted with the permission of the author in Child & Youth Care, Vol.15 (5 and 6), May and June 1977.

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