The French Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Perspective (Part 2)

The French Adolescence: A Psychoanalytic Perspective (Part 2)

Editor’s note: This article is based on a synthesis of two different papers. Both are dedicated to the French youth and the cannabis: the first presentation occurred during the Addiction Science Congress in Tehran (September 2015) while the second took place at Shahid Beheshti University (Tehran, April, 2016). You can read the introduction here, Part 1 here, and Part 3 here. 


The major symptoms

What does the “adolescence” psychologically mean? Specialists generally agree to name this period of life as a “discontinuity”, a “failure”, a “psychotic moment” among the great cycles of life. Basically, the adolescence operates a cleavage (spaltung) between the physical body changes imposed by the pubertal reality – namely the sexual “instinct” –  and the reduced capacity of the psyche still plunged into the childhood, to grasp their scope, their significance. All of this recall of the “primary seduction”: the intrusion of the adult body into the child psyche provokes the reinvestment, not to say the reactivation of the old suffering. The Freudian theory of the trauma in two steps finds its best evidence at the time of the adolescence: it activates the sexual meaning of an old traumatic event, still “on” in the human psyche.

Beside this, the supreme paradox of adolescence is the admission into the adult world of finiteness which means a kind of death but, at the same time, the teenager discovers his ability to give life through his genital sexuality aimed at the reproduction of the species. The commitment – this word even scares teens – into the working adult life constitutes acceptance of the idea of death – to accept to let his/her infancy behind –  which enlightens the multiplication of experiences, that of trials and errors, in order to delay, while using an unconscious strategy, to postpone the entry into the adult life.  

Three needs claimed by the adolescent can be observed: he wants to distinguish themselves of the adults, considering the fact that he has, in his mind, exhausted all parental psychic resources. He wants to test himself in order to regain control over his body, as the pubertal physical reality is experienced as an active principle, a kind of “alien” that he has to fight within himself. As a matter of facts, if the boys will challenge or compete with this “alien”, the girls will more usually try to make an ally from it. This could probably be explained by the different relation of both of them to their Oedipus complex.

Lastly, adolescent will try to integrate and feel “being one” with the peer group: a way to search for new identifications and for new psychic affiliations. The adolescent time meets also with a triple quest: to release one-self of experienced mental suffering by deviating this suffering toward self-inflicted physical pain. Teens explain it: “I do know now whence I am suffering from”. Then, to experience strong sensations in order to feel alive until flirting with the risk of dying and to draw emphatically adults’ attention while waiting, more or less secretly, to be recognised and contained by them. This is what we name the “hidden requests” of the adolescents: any delinquent act requires a response of the environment (Winnicott, 1988). It is important for a teen, as well as for a child, to face a “no” from the parents: the adolescence time will consist in transgressing all kinds of these norms but the parental “no” will help him to distinguish the point, the limit where he starts from to build up his own way.

Among the three major risks at adolescence, the traffic and car accidents are still the first cause of death among the young people with a striking male excess mortality: to possess and to drive a vehicle mean empowerment, autonomy, and appear to be a tangible way to assert his power and to compete with peers. The search for speed records could be easily interpreted as a way to challenge the speed of their own internal bodily changes as well as the car racing signifies the competition with other male virility. As the author observed during his stay in Lebanon and his various trips to Iran, the car is offering an available space for the first sexual manoeuvres which is, due to the tiny social and family network, quite impossible otherwise. This perspective has more value, specially, if the car is the father’s one.

Some teens are frequently seen on their motorcycles or even on their bicycles like cowboys trying to master the power of their savage horses. If they are the second cause of death among teenagers, three out of four suicides are male with rarely rescue possibility due to the proceeding  (firearms and hanging) as suicide attempts are 50 times more than completed suicides, particularly among women: the latter generally use drug poisoning, scarification, phlebotomy. Anorexia should also be included in the morbid attempt of committing suicides. Among risks indicators, one should consider: breaking lines combinations like acted out violence, the use of psychoactive substances, eating disorders, unprotected sex as well as family suicide history, suffered sexual violence, family instability, biographies with family secrets or affiliation (adoption), difficulties to define or assume a sexual orientation, questioning of identity and place. One should notice that since a couple of years, emergency hospitalisations for suicide attempts minors under 15 years have sharply increased.


Jean-Luc Vannier is a French psychoanalyst based in Nice (French Riviera), and is full-time lecturer of psychoanalysis at Nice Sophia-Antipolis University, EDHEC Business School, Ipag Business School. He regularly writes for several French magazines and has his own columns. Jean-Luc is an editorial board member of the Psychreg Journal of Psychology. You can follow him on Twitter @jlv06


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