People who need people

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Mrs Karen Belbin, School Counsellor

With so much media attention devoted to teenagers’ use of technology, it is reassuring for parents and educators to know that face to face is still the dominant, and preferred, relationship for teens. At a recent (12 March 2014) ‘Provocations’ session, when the School invited experts in different fields to speak with staff and provoke deep thinking on a variety of topics, Ms Roberta Thompson, PhD Candidate at Griffith University, presented ‘Capturing the hidden and unofficial work of young teen girls’ online participation’. Roberta explained that today’s teenagers experience no online/offline divide in their lives. Technology is embedded in their minds so deeply that it has become natural for them to use whatever medium is available (face-to-face, the Internet, mobile) simultaneously and continually. They live in a ‘multiple world-networked participatory culture’: a new and unfathomable space to most adults.

What is surprising — and what this article will take as its focus — is that Roberta’s research shows that face-to-face contact is still teenagers’ preferred mode of relating. Other studies (Rideout, 2012) confirm that face-to-face communication beat face-to-screen as the preferred type of interaction in teenagers aged 13 to 17 years. We see this at school after every holiday and weekend, when girls run excitedly towards each other, to look and talk with each other — even when they have been in constant virtual contact. There is clearly something important occurring when they are with each other, face to face.


Developmental theorists (such as Bowlby, Winnicott, Ainsworth and Fonaghy) have long known that relating by looking and being physically held, are essential for infants’ healthy physical and emotional development. They note that personality development is influenced by our earliest relationships with others. These relationships help us make sense of our experiences, and through them, we learn about ourselves, about other people, and the wider world.

When babies come into the world, they stir up feelings in the adults who are there to care for them. Infants communicate emotionally through their relationship with their parents.  The way the adult contains and manages these stirred-up feelings helps the infant make sense of their own feelings.  Feelings, even frightening ones, begin to feel comprehensible and manageable to the infant. Even in infancy, there seems to be some inherent sense that the communication that occurs within a relationship with an immanent other, will help to alleviate distress.

As development progresses, infants become toddlers, and wider social experiences become possible. Playing is vital for young children to continue to learn about themselves and others. Relationships with others provide a link for the child between the parent and the outside world. Through play, toddlers begin to negotiate their needs in a world where other children also have a claim on the adults around them, and therefore a claim on the wider world. Tantrums and upsets express deep passions. How they are responded to and managed assists the toddler to gain more information about herself and others; in this way, social development continues through all stages of growth and development.


Early experiences of feeling separate from parents can stir up powerful emotions in toddlers not unlike the emotions sometimes present during the teenage years, an emotionally ‘vibrant’ time, when feelings run high. The adolescent state of mind requires others to be very emotionally involved — the adolescent process is relational. Experts in adolescent emotional development such as Waddle, Fraiberg and Anderson note that the healthy development of the teenager’s internal world also requires the nurturing and care that occurs within a relationship with another person. Like the babies they once were, adolescents project powerful feelings into the adults around them, giving parents and teachers little opportunity not to be involved.

Projecting their uncomfortable or unmanageable feelings into others allows the adolescent to feel a little distance from the feeling. Of equal importance for the developing adolescent mind, this gives the adolescent the chance to observe, from a safe distance, how the other person manages feelings that felt unbearable and unmanageable to her. In this way, projection of feelings is a precious and valuable learning experience for the adolescent. Parents and teachers who pay close attention to adolescent projections also learn valuable and helpful information about them: information that assists adults to understand the adolescent’s emotional struggles and needs.

Teens also manage their conflicting feelings by seeing the adults in their lives — usually their parents and/or teachers — as either wonderful or awful rather than the painfully ordinary mix of both.  Ambivalence towards parents assists the teenager to feel that she will one day have the inner resources to leave her parents and take her place in the world. As group relationships become more important to teenagers, reasonable parents could conceivably believe that their child doesn’t want to talk with them. This is not true. Yearly reports from Mission Australia (2013, p. 16) show overwhelmingly that teenagers value their families highly and like talking with their parents. However, group life does dominate their attention. Experiences with peers can help a teen to find a way to be herself with others who are not family. Group life becomes a way to invest in passionate, connected relationships that don’t take her too far away from the family and allow for feelings of both separateness and belonging. Peer groups support and hold the adolescent while she is immersed in the important tasks of development, with moving away at their core.

During adolescence, the search for a feeling of being understood is dynamic and insistent. Their exuberance; their passion; their physical presence; their capacity to test, to challenge, to seduce and be seduced; and their necessary and natural interest in sex and aggression enable adolescents to experience, and share with us, the whole emotional palette. The human need for relationships that have honesty, truth and trust at their core is more important now than at any other time. They need to be ‘seen’ by others who will engage with them and share responsibility for initiating contact, communicating and caring about the relationship.


Physically being with each other achieves what virtual relationships, despite their many and undeniable benefits, cannot; the deep and personal contact adolescents need at this time. Face-to-face contact is a vehicle through which eyes and faces can convey essential parts of our humanity, and illuminate our own personhood, so we know we are truly being seen. Face-to-face contact is essential, but it may not always appear as positive as this. Adolescents need to have face-offs too. Older adolescents’ need for independence can sometimes lead to confrontation with parents who may feel kept out of their lives, while the adolescent marks out her uniqueness and her differences to them. Parents of adolescents have to find the confidence and patience to keep being there, thinking about their children and talking with them during this time when the noise and rejections of adolescence can feel painful and exhausting.

The family structure changes as children grow older, as do relationships as the family makes room for the emerging adult. The task of the family — to promote development and change — becomes one of managing the transitions, and losses, that come as the adolescent incorporates new possibilities. However desirable and welcome the new things may be, learning to take them on means leaving other things behind. This process of growing emotionally by taking on, and eventually taking in these more mature aspects of the personality, can only occur in the real world, through real relationships with real people.

It is through such relationships that we learn about ourselves and others. Communication that occurs within relationships allows qualities such as goodness, courage, honour, beauty, truth and generosity to be felt and expressed first hand. The reflection back of the other person that occurs in face-to-face relationships is necessary at every stage of development — in infancy, during the teenage years and in adulthood — as an essential part of our continuing humanity. Importantly, it is through our relationships with others that we learn about love, and to love.

Perhaps the last word on relationships should go to the School’s Visiting Philosopher for 2012, Associate Professor John Armstrong, author of Conditions of Love and Love, Life, Goethe — How to be Happy in an Imperfect World. In a Radio National interview (Armstrong, 2006), Armstrong said:

What I’ve been trying to bring out in a number of different books is the centrality of the quality of our relationships to ideas, to people, to things, to works of art, to our own memories, to ourselves. And that quality of relationship really aspires to the condition of love. Love is our name for the highest quality of relationship that we can sustain or we can have.


Victoria Rideout, M.A., VJR Consulting, Inc. (2012). Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives.[PDF]. Retrieved from

Armstrong, J. (2006). The Book Show. Radio National. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (13 August 2006). Retrieved from—how-to-be-happy/3340338#transcript

Mission Australia. (2013). Youth Survey 2013. [PDF]. Retrieved from

Published 2 May 2014