By Bronagh Starrs – Adolescent Psychotherapist, and Programme Director MSc Adolescent Psychotherapy DCTC, Dublin
Some only do what they feel like doing. Others only do what they think they ought to do. And then there is the teenager we are perhaps least likely to encounter at the start of therapy, and most hopeful to see at the end – one who has a growing sense of ownership of his life, and interest in his future. To mark the publication of her new book, Adolescent Psychotherapy: A Radical Relational Approach, Bronagh Starrs shares her concept of ‘configuration styles’ – and explains how they can help us find a therapeutic focus.
My curiosity about how adolescents construct and organise experience has led me to identify particular themes and creative adjustments that cluster together. I have named these adolescent configuration styles.
Whilst each adolescent’s style is subtly unique, there are three principal modes of configuration through which his experience and perspective is constructed. I conceive of these as impulsive, inhibitive and directional. Directional implies an adolescent who has a growing sense of ownership of his life and experience. There is self-assurance and composure in his contact style. He takes himself seriously – but not too seriously. He is flexible, relationally attuned, insightful and balanced. He moves purposefully and with vision through his world: he is moving in the right direction.
Typically, the young person recycles constantly between all stages throughout adolescence. However, a considerable number of adolescents referred for psychotherapy have become caught in either an impulsive or inhibitive configuration style.
Having what I call an impulsive configuration style means doing whatever he feels like doing. Provided the adolescent is interested in something or someone, he shows himself to be intensely focused and motivated. But he is prone to boredom, inattention and restlessness unless captivated by an activity. Picture the junior exam student who chooses his game console over a study programme and who demonstrates no interest whatsoever in his future, much to his parents’ chagrin.
This configuration style might become inflexible for the adolescent who has experienced a family life characterised by chaos and disruption: this impulsively shaped environment may have become his internal working model. Or, an adolescent may have creatively adjusted to an experience of trauma through impulse indulgence, artfully avoiding overwhelming feelings of loss and vulnerability.
The feeling world of the impulsively configured adolescent tends to be amplified. Many, for example, are identified as having ‘anger management issues’ or receive a diagnosis of ADHD. Some only feel truly alive when adrenalin is coursing through their veins. Life is a party and the adolescent’s thoughts about the future generally do not stretch beyond the weekend.
The inhibitively configured adolescent, on the other hand, does what he feels he should do. He has a strong sense of duty and typically is described as a very sensible young man. But he lacks spontaneity and frequently expends a great deal of energy overthinking situations, often experiencing himself as a bystander and not fully immersed in his world. He has a propensity to anxiety.
If this becomes a fixed pattern, the adolescent develops a capacity to almost entirely dissociate from his impulses. He becomes preoccupied with certain goals, which have more to do with pleasing others than pleasing himself. His aspiration to be the top student or athlete, or to lose weight, is driven by inadequacy and collides with his tendency towards perfectionism. He learns to deny his tired and hungry body. Where the directional adolescent tries his best, the inhibitively configured adolescent has to be the best. His relentless drive lacks a directional quality and he experiences little enjoyment in life.
For both the impulsively and inhibitively configured adolescent, the struggle has to do with containment. The therapeutic focus with the impulsively configured adolescent is promoting his interest in taking himself more seriously, and supporting him to develop the art of thoughtfully and choicefully relating to his impulses. The therapeutic challenge with the inhibitively configured adolescent is to support him to feel like an adequate and acceptable human being, and not to singularly define himself by ‘external’ identity markers.
I have found the concept of configuration styles useful at multiple levels, as these styles also shape the therapeutic space: the quality of contact and intervention is decidedly different from one to the other. Whatever the young person’s configuration style, the therapist’s primary objective is to facilitate the adolescent’s movement towards increasingly directional lifespace configuration, irrespective of presenting symptom issues.
© Bronagh Starrs 2019
Adolescent Psychotherapy: A Radical Relational Approach by Bronagh Starrs is published by Routledge.