Series Title: Children’s Minds in the Line of Fire
Article Title: How dare you!
Author:            Christine Franckx

The climate crisis infiltrates the adolescent developmental process. It invades their existential questioning and impacts their transgenerational relationships. Over the last few years, we witnessed many forms of ecological activism by adolescents engaging in saving nature, which we now accept as a global emergency. Adolescents cannot do otherwise; they have no choice. Tomorrow is what they are passionately longing for; the future fuels their ideals and plans. At the same time, they have another emergency going on in their internal natural environment, namely their individual puberty crisis which pushes them forwards into an adolescent process towards adulthood.

This concomitance brings adolescents’ minds in the line of fire! They are the most affected because as adolescents they have a particularly sharp understanding of the world situation they are being projected in. Freud, 1930, in Civilization and its Discontents perceived ‘a concern present’, ‘an unhappiness’, ‘a basic anxiety’ related to the fact that ‘humans are now capable of killing each man until the last one, now that they are able to dominate nature’s forces.’ Ninety-two years later, this observation couldn’t be more accurately describing the contemporary societal state.

Adolescence is a unique time in life when understanding the world and testing out its containing capacity go hand in hand. Being able to feel  safely held and eventually identify with the responses their ancestors propose are crucial for a safe passage through this important period. 

The abrupt biological transformation of puberty thrust youngsters forward into a personal psychosocial transformation, a crisis of mental disorganization that opens a totally new perspective. It is an intrapsychic process of gradually giving up an infantile, idealizing image of the world and constructing step-by-step a realistic self-image. This allows adolescents to become  capable young adults who can bring together past and future and take up a place in society. Adolescence is a time ‘in between’ (Gutton, P., Le pubertaire, 2013) the protection of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. It is also a time of heightened sensitivity to what is happening in the outside world, because not only have adolescents grown to be able to understand the facts of life, they are also particularly interested in societal subjects essential for their future adult lives. Today, adolescents‘ minds are caught between the necessity to come to terms with their infantile omnipotence on the one hand and the urgence of saving the planet on the other. There is a risk of becoming trapped in an existential standstill because of a multitude of opposing factors: taking on the role of ‘saving the planet’ may be a challenge for them to balance their libidinal and self-conservative drives in the face of an environmental crisis that affects all of humanity. It also makes their ambivalence towards preceding generations, who are considered guilty of denying and remaining passive towards the accelerated climate changes, very complicated to work through. 

The need for support in reality by an external object to nourish internal object relationships is an indispensable dimension of adolescence in order to enable identifications that are the basis of the internal world. Regarding the climate crisis, adolescents may be facing a complex situation with an increased risk for a fragile constitution of their adult self. Not only are they pessimistic about the uncertain future of the environment, but they may also feel anxiously persecuted by their primary objects who failed to protect them sufficiently. This situation then will impact the development of their ego-functions. 

Consequently, the fight against the destructive forces from the external environment may overlap with and mask the intrapsychic and phantasmatic struggle with early internal objects, which is the primary goal of adolescence. The scientific reality of global warming and its potential consequences for planetary survival may bring adolescents in touch with a fear of breakdown, which according to Winnicott (1974), refers to a catastrophe that has already taken place but remains unresolved intrapsychically. It may cast a shadow over the intimate reality and steal in a way the internal conflictuality of ambivalence from the adolescent, so necessary for growing up and or for recovering from archaic anxieties.

The iconic adolescent, Greta Thunberg addressed the world leaders with the words “How dare you!” and pointed out the catastrophe she felt former generations have created as well as their inability to take joint action and limit the damage. This is the world upside down, instead of adolescents being reprimanded by their parents for irresponsible behavior, young people now remind adults they need to contain their insatiable infantile drives of greedy orality and face the reality of facts.

Greta Thunberg is like Antigone who wants to bring back the order that was violated by the former generation. The climate crisis brings to mind the oedipal myth, according to which the biological parents of Oedipus tried to kill their infant son in the vain hope of being released from the threatening prophecy of one day being murdered by him. Did the former generation sacrifice their future offspring in order to, as Sally Weintrobe (The Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis, 2021) put it, “remain in a bubble of denial and magical omnipotent thinking of rearranging reality with fraudulent arguments”? 

The climate crisis brings on a questioning of intergenerational relationships, of the place of the individual and the group, of the social contract between people, of the value of exploitation and sacrifice, of the importance of collaboration and solidarity. The anger of adolescents reveals the violence they are subjected to in discovering not only the scientific facts of global warming and the disappearance of a high number of animal species, but even more in realizing the incapacity of their parents and grandparents to react appropriately.

In addition to being trapped into unresolved identity conflicts, for some adolescents there could also be a risk  that Saving the Planet might become their primary libidinal goal during the narrow window of adolescence. The intimate scene of puberty could then become displaced onto a commitment within an undifferentiated group of adolescents worldwide for a more noble and idealistic goal then grappling with their own sexuality. Fragile adolescents may run the risk of finding an easy way-out for internal transformations that feel unmanageable to them. Their difficulty in preparing for libidinal satisfaction with an appropriate sexual object may be overlooked as they are heated-up in united  eco-activism (“cool kids against a hot planet”), rather than engage with their own private drives.

The ’How dare you!’ addressed to adults becomes even more meaningful if we consider the psychic harm done to adolescents in not being allowed to live through a creative adolescent process!


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