I hear considerable commentary from teens about feeling outside mainstream society. Many adults believe an adolescent wants to be on the outside and secures this position through everyday acts of rebellion.
We don’t have a formal rite of passage in the American culture for children to use to transition into adulthood. As such, children in the adolescent years have created their own rite of passage. Without a rite of passage there would be no movement, only stagnancy.
Van Gennep (1909) reminded us, “Through such rites society reproduces itself. People are given new statuses without the social structure changing.” (cited in Eriksen, 1995, p.124).
Rites of passage generally consist of the three phases of separation, liminality, and reintegration.
Separation involves an individual’s movement away from a point in the social structure toward something not known. For the adolescent the existing social structure is what has been known as the child, the son or daughter, the student, the one who holds innocence, the one who does not yet understand the permanence of death.
The adolescent must move away from what is known and take the lonely and dangerous journey into the liminal phase.
Liminality involves a breech and positioning of oneself on the edge or margins of society. As Eriksen (1995) explained, “Once the breech is completed, the agent enters a liminal phase, an ambiguous stage where he or she is in a certain sense placed outside society, ‘betwixt and between’ two stable conditions.” (p.125).
For many adolescents the breech may involve angst, anger, anxiety, depression, substance use or abuse, sexual experimentation, sexual promiscuity, and other forms of propelling oneself from what was into an unknown. It is not possible to move from childhood into adulthood without entering some type of unknown. Danger is a part of the unknown. So too is the potential for change.
The adolescent must cast off some of the life events that took place in their childhoods. This is what makes a teenager so great in counseling. They are already engaged in an examination of what was and they are in a holding pattern, before assembling the pieces they need in order to move forward.
Being outside of mainstream society has its risks. There is danger living on the edge in a marginalized state but it is a different danger than the ones previously known.
Liminality is intended to cast off what was.
There is a risk of failing to reintegrate following liminality. Eriksen noted that the individual runs the risk of anomie and social homelessness. Citing Turner (1969), Eriksen sated, “In nearly every society, persons in liminal phases are structurally if not physically invisible in terms of his culture’s standard definitions and classifications.” (p.125).
Adolescents become invisible to their families. You may find yourself no longer recognizing your son or daughter. Suddenly there is anger and even hatred. You say, “I don’t know who he is anymore.” They too no longer recognize you.
Your child is still there, but in the liminal phase until he figures out how to move on to the next phase. There are things you can do to help in this process and things you can do that may make it more difficult.
Reintegration involves moving from the liminal phase and integrating what has been learned or sought and returning to society as a new person. This could take the forms of a new awareness or by bringing a boon back to society.
The adolescent must reformulate her understanding of childhood and come through the twilight into an acceptance of herself and the contributions she can now make with her new knowledge of her self.
Most parents recognize adolescence as a journey. They may not understand what their child is doing while in the ‘betwixt and between’ place of nowhere and everywhere. This is twilight and it is neither light or dark, good or bad, all or none. It is dusk and this is neither darkness nor daylight.
Providing structure to the liminal phase may be helpful to your teen. This structure is not about what they can or can’t do. The structure gives them an opportunity to find ways to cast off what was and to embrace feelings new to them at this age. Earlier in childhood the good-natured part of your child allowed him to get upset only to forget about it in a few moments.
Adolescence is about remembering, childhood may be about forgetting, and adulthood is about integrating all of it.
Eriksen, T.H. (1995) Small places, large issues:An introduction to social and cultural anthropology. Chicago: Pluto Press.
Mongelluzzo, N. (2006) Street Stories of Mexico: A comparative case study of elderly women beggars. UMI 3229548
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Last reviewed: 1 Jan 2012