“Our fifteen year old son did a project on newspapers at his school and this introduced him to the tabloid press with page 3 pinups. He has since brought The Sun home on several occasions. This has been difficult as to my surprise my husband has looked at it with him, causing embarrassment to our daughter of 16, especially as the pinups are only a couple of years older than her. I would rather they looked at a magazine full of nudes privately rather than round the breakfast table with the excuse that it is “part of a family newspaper”. However, my husband says he wants our daughter to feel sexuality is freer rather than hidden away and repressed as it was in his home. I am undecided.”
As parents, we have unlocked before us with each new developmental stage of our children some conscious and unconscious memory of our own child selves. Adolescent children in the family inevitably stir up memories and issues of sexuality. Awakened memories are a source of richness and empathy when they help us understand what our child is feeling. But what if those memories are not a source of richness but of distress?
Those who have experienced an adolescence in which sexuality was seen as something shameful that should be hidden away may indeed wish to provide their own adolescent children with a different environment. However, in choosing what seems to be an opposite path you can end up in the same place. Mr and Mrs Y, for example, had failed to see that forcing their teenage daughters to go on topless beaches was as repressive as what they had experienced. It took Mrs Y. time to understand that mocking her daughter for refusing to take off her bikini top mirrored exactly her own mother’s mocking laugh when she was an adolescent shyly wearing her first low-cut evening dress.
Mr U. finds it hard to see that his teenage daughter is similarly oppressed by his public looking at a young girl only a few years older than her within the context of a domestic scene. Is he finding his daughter’s sexual growth threatening so that publicly undressing her counterpart carries something punitive and controlling towards her (that is also hostile to his wife) or is he trying to make a public statement that he has no hidden sexual phantasies? Whatever Mr U.’s feelings, there is no doubt that it is hard to be the parent of an adolescent.
Psychoanalyst Dr. Michael Feldman describes the complex issues involved in any action a parent takes (reference below). For example, a father might sit his daughter on his knee knowing that it might stimulate her belief that they have an alliance against the mother. However, not to take her on his knee because of that can make the daughter feel rejected and perhaps give evidence of his unease about the situation, confirming, in a different way, the child’s rivalrous phantasies. Dr. Feldman shows how there is no way a parent can behave which will not stimulate aggressive or sexual phantasies but that if the father and mother are able to strive to develop the more mature aspects of their relationship they will understand the dilemma of what their daughter needs and not have to either deny or act out impulses from any member of the family.
To help their children through this important stage Mr and Mrs U need to be as united as they can. Sexual issues that get stirred up in adolescence can be so powerful that a parent sometimes breaks away from adulthood in order to identify with an excluded child. For example, Mrs B as an adolescent found it so intolerable that her parents liked talking to each other, that as a mother she gave all her time to her children. If her husband wanted any private discussion with her she immediately identified with the excluded children and could not bear it. The children, knowing they had been given the power to break up any parental communication, grew more disturbed. Only when the couple were helped to see in treatment how their behaviour, aimed at enriching their children, only deprived them, could positive change happen.
What about the son? At a time of physical and emotional change the newspaper project presented him with a girl who could be looked at and possessed by him in shared phantasy with his father. At issue here is not sexual curiosity or delight in physical beauty but the nature of that shared look. Is he sharing because he is worried his father will otherwise be angry he is growing up or is he, on the other hand, provocatively taunting his father with his new-found feelings? Similarly, what mixture of phantasies are behind a teenage girl displaying herself in this way?
The fact that a family paper contains a topless pin-up means that the issue of sexuality is quite literally “ on the table”. Its popularity owes something to the desire of families to deal publicly with a difficult subject. Sadly, however, dealing so literally with a complex issue provides no resolution at all and in fact creates further problems. Beverly Loughlin, former convenor of the Tavistock Clinic Child Sexual Abuse Workshop puts it, “Children, for all their attacks on it, want the primal scene to be private. When parental sexuality is not private it is disturbing”. Equally, when adolescent sexuality is not private it is similarly disturbing to the family. Privacy necessarily involves exclusion and that is difficult to come to terms with.
“The Oedipus Complex Today”, ed. John Steiner, Karnac Books, 1989 ś 7.(Includes chapter by Dr.Feldman).
“Marriage Inside Out”, Janet Mattinson & Christopher Clulow, Penguin, ś 4.99p.