How Ambivalence Empowers Teenagers

This is my best friend; I hate this guy so much

My teachers are the best; my teachers are the worst

I can’t wait to go to college; I don’t want to go to college 

I’m pretty; I’m ugly

I’m so sad; I’m so happy

Ambivalence is the Mark of Transition from Children to Adults

We, adults, get often frustrated when communicating with teenagers, because we experience them as inconsistent, self-contradicting, confused, emotionally unstable, etc. This experience has contributed to many stereotypes of (or perhaps more accurately, prejudice against) teenagers as self-absorbed, impulsive, selfish, spoiled, reckless and many more negative values of social behavior. 

In my mind, these perceptions and stereotypes are not only totally wrong but actually harm our ability to engage with the very essential experience of adolescence: ambivalence. 

The word ambivalence has originated from the Latin prefix “ambi” (both, on both sides, around) and the noun “valentia” (strength). It entered our daily lexicon from the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler (1857-1939). Over time, ambivalence has lost much of its early meaning of a psychological syndrome and has become a common way to express a state of mind of indecisiveness. 

We usually do not think about ambivalence only in regard to adolescence. However, there is a special ambivalence during this period. When teenagers are ambivalent, they are not simply unable to make up their mind or heart. On the contrary, ambivalent teenagers give us a first hand report about how they process their profound experience of transition: children turning into adults. 

There are other great transitions in human life. To name a few, we go through our own birth, marriage, the birth of our children, professional milestones, aging and death. However, unlike the other transitions, adolescents experience for quite a long time that they are pulled by two selves: a rising adult and a fading child. Ambivalence is what comes out of the endless need to settle these two selves in one body. We may forget in adulthood the drama of our teenage years. However, the memories of the choices we took or did not take are so powerful that they stick with (and sometimes even haunt) us for the rest of our lives. 

So, if we recognize the positive value of teenagers’ ambivalence, we earn a great opportunity to become positive companions in their process of maturing. And what is the role of ambivalence in this process? It is a complex negotiation with which teenagers create agreement between their internal adult and child. Teenagers constantly invite us to be part of it when they expose us to their own ambivalence. All we need to do is not to push them to make a choice. On the contrary, with much empathy and patience, we need to guide them how to give voice to all the participating sides and how to bring them slowly and gently to an agreement.  

Community Meeting – A Montessori Lesson in Negotiating Ambivalence

The community meeting at Roadstead is a 60-minute long weekly forum in which our students and teachers discuss issues that relate to our school life. The discussion is fully led by the students. Every week, two students sign up to be a moderator and a minute-taker. Students need to ask the moderator for permission to speak. The moderator also takes care that all opinions will be heard and respected. The minute-taker manages the agenda of topics and keeps record of the discussion for the next meeting. Discussions over topics prolong as long as there are differences of opinion. Mutual agreement rather than a majority vote is the only way to conclude a topic, so the students need to work together until they arrive at a consensus. 

It took us a few sessions to discuss a new role in our school cleaning routine. I (Eran, the Head of School) raised this idea that every week one student should volunteer to both verify that all the cleaning jobs are done and assign those who completed their jobs to help others. 

To provide a short context of the discussion, we at Roadstead do not have a professional cleaning service. The students take it for granted that they are in charge of maintaining the cleaning of their environment. They take turns in cleaning the school on daily and weekly bases. This has been our practice since the beginning of the program, so the students accept it as a fact of school life. They sometimes like and sometimes dislike this routine; sometimes they see it as valuable and other times see it as valueless. But they never dispute its actual existence. I assume that it is so because the cleaning task has been part of our program before they joined our school. In this sense, they do not differ from us, adults. We also often tend to take social constructs as given by nature. 

Initially, the students did not like the idea of a new cleaning role. Just the fact that it came from me, an authoritative adult, was enough to look like trouble. The immediate reaction was that the cleaning routine has been going well until now, so there was no reason to interfere with the “normal” order of things. One student disliked what looked like a role of policing and telling on each other. Another student was afraid to offend others by talking to them too aggressively. Yet a third did not want to be babysat by other students. I was actually glad to hear these three negative reactions, because they revealed to me the students’ strong sense of solidarity. 

As things with adolescents usually go, the negative reactions were only the starting point. Once the students voiced them, they started to see attractive aspects in the new role. One student liked the idea of teachers getting out of the way during the cleaning time. That was a strong argument. The students really dislike it when the teachers tend to interfere with moments in which students goof around with each other while cleaning. Our presence requires them to be nonstop on task. 

However, before taking the risk of explicitly supporting the new role, the students wanted to verify that it carried a real opportunity for improving their cleaning experience. They asked us if we would stop being the poopers of their “cleaning parties.” Once we replied that we would love to stop doing it, as long as all the students do their job, the trend completely changed to an approval.

Then came one last question of what if students did not respect the authority of a peer. The students agreed that this would be the only justifiable reason to ask for teacher intervention. With this agreement, we almost arrived at a consensus. It was almost but not a complete consensus, because one student still maintained the argument that this role was unnecessary. That single opposition meant that we still had to remove some obstacles.  

There was one issue with the role’s name. I had originally suggested to call the role “cleaning manager.” All the students shot it down instantly. A student in the role of a manager simply meant crossing the lines to the adults’ camp. I then offered “cleaning moderator.” It received a less hostile reception, but still sounded too similar to the already familiar role of community meeting moderator. The students finally agreed on a “cleaning helper,” which sounded to everyone as more egalitarian than authoritative. The students also decided to attach this role to one of the existing cleaning roles. This act guaranteed that the cleaning helper would not stand above the other cleaning roles. 

The final question was if the students would get stuck with the new role from now on even if they ended up not liking it. One student offered a two weeks trial. I suggested trying for the rest of the school year and then evaluating whether to continue in the next school year (the discussion took place in March-April). After a bit more of a discussion, we finally formed the following formula: we will give the cleaning helper a try for the next four weeks and then decide again whether to continue with the trial period until the end of the school year. The sole opposing student was still not in favor of the new role, but agreed to give it a try.

At this point the community meeting moderator declared a consensus and the minute-taker put the decision on file. 

The Life Skill of Seeing the Gray Picture

The psychologist Dr. Kathleen Fox sees adolescent ambivalence as a way to reduce the anxiety of the transition from childhood to adulthood.

“When the adolescent vacillates between contrasting feelings, attitudes and behaviors toward persons, objects and goals, he allows himself the ‘psychological moratorium’ he needs to get from where he came to where he is going.” 

In the case of the community meeting, I could sense this sort of ambivalence in the students’ initial negative reception of the new role. They had to first reject my idea, because it came as an outside power that pushed them too much toward the adult side. Before considering the potential benefits of this push, they had to ensure that it did not mean losing their existing child privileges.  

The psychologist Dr. Carl E Pickhardt goes beyond self-defense against pushy adults. His view captures the constructive power of adolescent ambivalence.

“I believe the older through adolescence a young person grows, the greater cause for ambivalence they will have. This is partly the result of finding independent life experience increasingly mixed. With rewards come risks, with benefits come costs, with gains comes losses, with certainties come uncertainties, with choices come consequences, with advantages come disadvantages, and with good opportunities come bad possibilities.

Adolescent ambivalence is not to be discouraged or stopped; it is to be accepted and utilized. It allows a young person to consider life’s complexity, using this recognition in more grown-up decisions they must increasingly make.”

Building on these two psychological views, I see our work of Montessori high school educators as supporting our students’ process of slow and gentle growth out of the child’s view of the world as made of black-and-white choices. The weekly community meetings are one example in which the students at Roadstead have an opportunity to discover the more complex picture of reality which is mostly gray. With many more such opportunities and over the course of their high school years, our students develop the important adult skill of how to make sense of this complexity and how to build from it self-fulfilling roles, both as individuals and as members of society.