I learned, from my experience as a teacher and director, that there are at least four dimensions of adolescence.
The length of time, which seems to never end, and which triggers continuous reflections on the final outcome of psychological and personal character. If it is true that the man qualifies and defines himself as he rises from falls, during the adolescence phase, which is a continuous tumble, there is not even time to get up that you immediately fall back again. A continuous elasticity of events that seems to never end, and that produces significant relationship issues, both in the family and in the school.
The beginning and, even more, the end of adolescence are always difficult to be defined. I would identify this period between the first and third year of high school, not so much from the biological point of view, but rather from the point of view of behaviour and gender.
The width of feelings and adolescent moods: irritability, susceptibility, the need for affection but, at the same time, the need to keep the distance from one’s parents, who have become very intrusive.
“Parents do not understand me, what do they know about me?”
In fact, what does the teenager know about himself and therefore how can another person, even under the guise of mum or dad, understand who he is, what he feels, what is he going through?
The depth of friendship and family relationships. In this period we trust friends, classmates. It is the period when you spend time with friends and you make the first valuable comparisons with lives different from your own. You begin to build critical judgment and seek your identity outside of your family circle. We take the first decisions influenced by the gang, such as the decision to smoke, to go to clubs, to come home very late. It is in the depth of the relationship among friends – which exceeds the depth of the relationship with the parents – that the first conflicts happen.
Parents waiting for a sign of confirmation from their children and children who ask for less attention and more understanding of their needs. Parents who are struggling to notice changes in their children and children who continue to change without being fully aware of it.
Finally, there is the fourth dimension of adolescence, which, to some extent, expands all the previous ones up to elevate them to the new: the dimension of identity. This identity is built on a characterising attitude of adolescence: provocation.
In this definition of identity that passes through provocation, the risk for parents is to fall into the trap of an angry and instinctive reaction. Conversely, a healthy detachment and the deep search for the good of one’s child could be the right approach to the solution of the conflict.
Massimiliano was thirteen, he was in his third year of middle school, a year in which students sit State exams for the first time in their school career.
Massimiliano was a continuous restlessness. He had specifically picked on a teacher. His favorite sport was provoking her, in order to make her tell him all the worst she could. Above all, he had a wild imagination for the kind of provocations to employ: from the polite insult, to the spit on her shoe, to the rubber pulled from his desk to the teacher’s one, to the chewing gum placed under the teacher’s desk, to the game of chain reaction. This game consisted, starting from the back of the class, in touching the hand of the nearest mate with one hand, until, desk after desk, it reached the first-row female companion who got a caress and had to guess where the first touch had started.
The game was quiet enough, harmless, until the caress remained a caress; when, however, it was the turn of Massimiliano, constantly at the forefront for his explosive behavior, the caress became a loud slap that made his companions laugh and the unfortunate classmate who got slapped started crying. Yes, often they were girls. The crying in class started the wave of indignation by the teachers, who told me how difficult the lessons became with Massimiliano. He had already collected the third suspension of the year with compulsory attendance. After being interviewed several times by the principal, Massimiliano was entrusted to the head of school. Patiently, we talked for about an hour, before I let him return to his classes with the communication of the punishment given by the class council.
His mother was now at the third interview with the undersigned and every time, after apologising, he listened to me, petrified in front of the umpteenth rude behaviour of Massimiliano. For some time now, the meetings used to be only about the punishments to be assigned. True, Massimiliano was suffering from his parents’ current separation, but his reactions seemed excessive.
At the last meeting his mother asked me: “Professor Casonato, how can the school help me?”
I had a flicker of thought and asked her: “Madam, do you trust me?” Without hesitation, she told me: “Yes, Professor, of course. Tell me!”
“I have a solution in mind”.
In our school there was a teacher who had, over time, developed a particular sensitivity for rebellious, difficult boys. I summoned her and asked her if she was ready to accept a complex challenge faced at school: Massimiliano’s challenge. We immediately evaluated the teacher’s commitments and, having verified the possibility of a meeting with the boy twice a week, with the excuse of taking tutoring for his eighth grade examinations, we convinced him to accept.
It was the winning move: the teacher immediately understood that Massimiliano needed to be encouraged when he acted well, and helped in reflection every time he acted instinctively, moved by a role that had been given him by the class: that of the provocateur, who could no longer be taken from him.
It was April when the teacher began her intervention, it was July when she finished it, right after the exams.
Actually a few weeks after the start of the “motivational repetitions” by Stefania, the teacher I had chosen for this difficult task, I happened to find Massimiliano in the corridor and I asked him how he was doing. He answered me with a silent smile. I did not understand. However, I saw all the boys coming out of a room where there had been the course for the scooter license and he was in the corridor because the prof had dismissed him. “Massimiliano, Massimiliano … how are you doing with Stefania?” I asked, ignoring the episode just happened. “I like her, thank you for what you are doing for me,” he replied with a slight note of regret.
The boy’s words provoked me a sudden lump in my throat: I felt that he had finally found someone who did not want to judge him for his behaviour, she just loved him. Stefania asked him, however, to take on a more responsible behaviour and to leave the role of provocateur.
The longitudinal dimension of time is what I put into play when I see the guys like Massimiliano: today I see you like this, but you are much more than this. As you grow up you will learn the value of responsibility that you don’t get yet, because you are still forming your identity. In this delicate phase of transition, you need someone who believes in you, who trusts you, who gives you confidence in spite of everything.
I always hope I can offer the guys someone who keeps on believing in them despite everything. It helps a lot to think that there is the time dimension to take into consideration in projecting them further, when they will be adults.
Meanwhile, the lateral dimension of the emotional management of the boy’s situations and moods cannot be ignored. It must be governed, it must be managed. I learned that there is only one way to guide the mood of a very provocative teenager: to welcome him, to listen to him, to love him and to dialogue with him in such a way that he feels understood. Then you can take the next step of responsibility.
This gives us access to the third dimension of the boy, the relational dimension, in which he sees only his friends, but he needs to feel the presence of his parents. The important thing, therefore, is to give value to his friendships, respecting them but also challenging them, if they see these encourage provocative behaviours. The father and the mother who welcome, listen and love their son have all the authority to help him in choosing friendships. Without impositions, but clearly clarifying the point of view.
Consequently, in building his identity, the boy feels free to act, safe in the family and ready to face the situations of life, the school, friends without the need to act provocatively.
Massimiliano passed the admission to the exam just borderline, but the unexpected change of attitude during the last month of school was seen by the class council as a determining factor for his admission to the examinations of eighth grade. The outcome of the examination was ‘sufficient’, not much, but it was all his own, no teacher had given him anything.
In July his mother came to talk to me and with tears in her eyes she told me:
“I will never stop thanking you, you saved my son! When, during that April meeting you looked me in the eyes and asked me if I trusted you, I understood that you had found the solution. Instinct of a mother. You, Prof. Casonato, found the solution, and what a solution! Stefania was the wonderful teacher who changed my son, our family has changed, and in one month only!”
I called Stefania to find out which miracle she had worked on and she simply told me that she had observed the boy’s behaviour at home, where she went to do her tutoring, and had noticed some mistakes of the parents in the normal daily management of life. The family acquired more serenity, once corrected these oversights and inattention.
Stefania then did a great job with Massimiliano on loving himself, on the fact that he is a good boy indeed, but that sometimes the good boy inside him does not want to come out because he is a prisoner of the image that others have made of him, making him no more free to choose.
Yes, because behind the provocative behaviour lies, in reality, the idea that others have made about us and that we continue to defend in order to have social consideration at least by someone.
To help the boy grow, it is useful to get him out of the trap of the social identity in which he is stuck and proceed, together with him, towards the reconstruction of the fourth dimension, the one that gives him the depth, that gives him the character values on which to grow: his authentic identity.
On this dimension the family, the school, the society, the friends have a fundamental responsibility: to collaborate in order to help the youngsters to become good people and good citizens.
Some time later I got to know that Massimiliano had begun to go out with bad companies. In March, before Stefania’s intervention, he joined a party at his older friends’ house, where there was cocaine and alcohol.
In June Massimiliano told these ‘friends’ that he no longer cared about that kind of fun. He was looking for something that would make him happier. And he found it in his family and his inner balance. His identity turned to finding the good about himself and others. He regularly attends a local high school with sufficient results.
He, on a couple of occasions, returned to our school. He stayed outside and looked at the school entrance. I saw him from afar one day while I was returning from the afternoon lunch. He was there, outside the door of the school, looking for some known faces or some friends. I arrived in front of him and greeted him. A smile full of gratitude cheered his face. We intensely looked at each other. We exchanged a few words suited to the occasion, and then everyone moved on, to different directions, but with a unique certainty in our hearts: that meeting between us changed our lives. And now, we can face the future with more confidence.
Head of GSO School