Let’s be honest – when has a parent or teacher of an adolescent not been confronted with a struggle to connect with the young person in their life? Or had the thought that this teenager wants nothing more than to be somewhere else other than with them? Or had to deal with an acting-out behavior that can be described as insensitive, defiant or destructive?
Put the shoe on the other foot. What adolescent doesn’t struggle with their identity at some point along the way, whether they admit it or not? Impulse control, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, academic issues, poor motivation and communication difficulties; these are common struggles for the modern teenager.
There are degrees to all this, levels of intensity and consequence, however for the most part these situations represent universal qualities of the adolescent experience.
For some adolescents and their families, they need extra help understanding the difficult life processes they are going through – the physical, emotional and social changes they are experiencing; a fluctuating sense of identity that they can struggle to recognize within themselves.
Helping a teenager and his/her family better cope with these challenging life processes can begin by empowering a teen to connect to his own feelings, thoughts, and actions and then owning his vision of himself as a developing person with a bright future and, more importantly, a vibrant present.
How does therapy help this? Here is one therapist’s perspective (mine).
· Safety – A teenager will want to know the therapist is on their side and the therapist should be. However, how do they trust that? And what does that mean? The first thing he needs to hear is that he is not a “problem” to be fixed. A teen may have particular challenges, his behavior may lead to negative consequences however it doesn’t mean that he has poor character or that he is not capable of finding his way.
· Empathy – She has feelings that can be intense and it is okay to feel them and it is okay to not know how to communicate them. It is easy to confuse perception with reality – “I feel this way so it must be true” – and this is normal. Permitting a full range of expression and sometimes letting the teenager set the tone in therapy can be very empowering. Being empathetic, modeling it for him or her is a way to build trust and enable defenses to come down and feelings to be expressed.
· Effective Communication – What is it? And what gets in the way? These two questions are not mutually exclusive. For teens, it is often a need for validation of their experience that drives how they communicate. Providing a platform for communicating their experience, frustrations, fixations, hopes, dreams can sometimes be enough to enable effective problem-solving. Being an effective conduit and buffer for frustrated parents whose teenager has “tuned them out” can often help messages get through. Supporting this paradigm helps overcome fear and mistrust when it is done in the name of problem-solving. Communicating effectively does not have to be about communicating perfectly. This idea can be hard for many adolescents who want to “control the message” about how their peers and family need to see them.
· Tolerance for anxiety – Inhibiting impulses to act out and take risks is often hard for teens because it demands that they tolerate anxiety; anxiety about feelings such as anger, sadness, shame, sexual desire. This anxiety can manifest in a range of behavior from mild aggression to spacing out, to experimentation with sex, drugs and alcohol.
Sense of safety and trust, empathy, effective communication, tolerance of anxiety; where can greater proficiency in these areas make a difference?
· Self-Esteem issues – So much of teen identity is wrapped up in the image that a teen believes others have of him or herself. Developing some facility to understand their processes on a deeper level, where their strengths are and what their goals mean to them can connect a teen to a more secure sense of identity, one not hinged solely on status among peers.
· Academic Pressure – There can be a great deal of anxiety and fear or failing to live up to expectations and what it all means for the future. Teaching teens (and their parents!) to keep focused on the present, what’s in front of them and what’s manageable today can help everyone stay keen to what it’s all supposed to be about anyway; learning for learning’s sake and a foundation for education and training later in life.
· Peer pressure – Keeping safe and shame-free pathways open for teens to talk about the pressures others put on them or that they put on themselves to fit in, use drugs or alcohol, or adopt other risky behaviors.
· Social Media – A mild distraction on good days, an overwhelming obsession on others. Therapy can help find the balance between staying connected to peers on one hand and learning to resist the distraction of constant communication on the other.
· Apathy and Boredom – A symptom of disconnection from the younger part of the self that loved to play. For teens, keeping them connected to the playfulness of being creative, inventive, critical-minded can open up doorways into their innate interests, passions, and pursuits. Whether it is art, music, sport, academia, enjoying the process of the pursuit and amplifying the critical, questioning, exploring brain can keep adolescents engaged by their own accord.
· Physical health – When the body moves, oxygen flows to the brain and healthy growth continues. Teens need to keep their bodies moving, their blood flowing, their muscles working for the maintenance of physical and mental health. Promoting good diet and exercise habits at this age helps avoid a more costly effort to curb bad habits later in life.
Helping a teen build up these resources is not some cure-all for the trials of the adolescent experience. These years are supposed to be a figuring-out period and a launching pad into early adulthood. Effective therapy can help a teenager stay more aligned with the healthy, developing self that sometimes gets buried under the constraints of social, cultural, and familial pressures.
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