We thought he would grow out of it

April 23, 2017

“We thought he would grow out of it .”

Most consultations with the parents of troubled adolescents start with a lament.

“We thought he/she would grow out of it.”

It is a comment with which we are only too familiar. The hope that he or she will “grow out of it” has a wonderful ring of psychological authenticity, whilst at the same time allowing ourselves the luxury of doing nothing. The problem is, none of us can quite explain why or how teenagers will “grow out of it.” Or, to put it more precisely, we don’t really know why, if left to their own devices, they will stop one kind of aberrant behaviour in favour of a more acceptable one, we just believe that they will.

Most adolescent troubles have a long incubatory history. It is nearly always possible to locate the onset much earlier in their life. As a consequence, this catch-all phrase - we thought they would grow out of it - disguises any number of missed opportunities to intervene and make a difference. These include, “We knew what to do but we couldn’t do it”; “We didn’t know what to do and just buried our heads in the sand and hoped for the best; or, “It wasn’t so bad so we just ignored it.”

Of course it is true that maturational processes can sometimes help the resolve the problem but, in my experience, the disappearance of the troubling behaviour usually means it has almost certainly mutated through time into something possibly less obvious but no less troubling. The whole psychological framework for believing they will “grow out of it” is so flawed, that our adherence to doing nothing is more akin to an act faith. This old mantra is indelibly imprinted on the parental psyche but I suggest we cast it aside and instead ask a different more relevant question, what happens if they do not grow out of it?


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