As shown in these case illustrations, antiheroes may be useful clinically as a vehicle for addressing adolescent struggles with separation and identity development. Specifically, antiheroes may provide an additional window to the soul of the adolescent. Based on the adolescent's passion for what the antihero represents, discussions of antiheroes may serve as a projection device for clinicians and parents. Antiheroes may also facilitate discussion of complex issues, since the adolescent describes reactions to the antihero that in reality reflect the adolescent's own worries and concerns.
While the adolescent may experience anxiety caused by separation/individuation fears, parents may also feel anxious in that they fear losing control over their child, fear criticism from other parents, and perhaps most important, fear their child will abandon their values and instead emulate the antihero du jour. The adult's familiar psychological defense system may be challenged in these circumstances. Parental regression to authoritarianism or denial manifesting as avoidance or neglect may emerge, causing the parents to overlook the underlying needs of the separating adolescent. Even small tensions may become too much to bear when both the adolescent and parent cannot harness their own anxieties, and then both may rely on more primitive defenses that undermine efforts toward constructive negotiation. While disconnection and avoidance of anxiety-provoking interactions occur, perhaps facilitating adolescent separation, this scenario does not allow parents to model or provide the adolescent with useful responses to employ as coping skills.
The clinical opportunity available amid these parent-adolescent conflicts is to examine optimal coping skills to navigate this complicated separation/individuation process with parents and adolescents. The adolescent's interests in icons, even antiheroes, provide important channels of communication and cues. If these are recognized in a developmental context, adults can attune and assist the adolescent in separating while minimizing their own distress. Clinical opportunities for both adolescents and parents are outlined in Table 2.
Negative impacts of the antihero on the adolescent, based on observed behavior or suspicion of impending harm to the adolescent or others, warrant attention by the clinician. The function served by the antihero can inform the clinician as to which interventions are most likely to benefit the patient and family members. Functional assessments usually involve the identification of the settings or context in which the adolescent's troublesome behaviors occur.16 In addition, functional assessments examine the antecedents leading to the inappropriate behavior and the consequences of these behaviors.
For example, an adolescent may frighten parents and teachers by dressing like a particular icon. This behavior may occur only at school, or everywhere, and may have emerged after the adolescent was not accepted for a sports team or school musical group, or simply following rejection by peers. The consequences of this behavior may include formation of bonds with similar peers, expanding a group of accepting peers, and the added pressures of increased conflicts with parents that the new peers may bring.
For some adolescents, role-modeling an antihero may serve as a behavior that emerges in response to disappointed or disapproving adults and peers. Moreover, the antihero remains available to the adolescent through the media for ongoing direction about what to wear and how to act. Yet the adolescent can never fully identify with the antihero, so this costume can ultimately be discarded; that is, since the adolescent did not create this persona, it resides with the antihero when the adolescent is ready to abandon it. What is harder for the adolescent to abandon is the circle of peers who may similarly be identified by their interest in an antihero.
Ultimately, antiheroes and what they represent suffer the fate of other antithetical ideas in society: they become somehow assimilated into the current adolescent culture. To continue as antiheroes, these characters have to rebel against their socially acknowledged role. This does not mean antiheroes necessarily sell out, but instead that antiheroes provoke a response from mainstream society, which most often adjusts to them. To this end, it is helpful to remind parents that the values of antiheroes are reflections of the prevailing culture as much as they are reactions to the values of the prevailing culture. Every era has its heroes and villains, and most past villains are eventually understood in the context of more mainstream ideals.
Adolescents often need help in negotiating the sometimes turbulent trail toward adulthood. Adults can be an invaluable support to adolescents by preparing (beyond protecting) them to contend with the media barrage to which they are currently exposed. Adults can promote understanding of adolescent developmental issues through thoughtful examination of adolescent choices in music, media, and pop culture icons--including antiheroes. Adults who deal with adolescents may set goals to model tolerance of adolescents' individual choices while setting guidelines for behavior that demonstrate the basic values that are important to adults and to successful societal integration. Media pop culture icons and antiheroes present clinicians and adults with the opportunity to work through critical developmental challenges with adolescents by using sometimes distressing images to address struggles leading to individuation and autonomy.