I am deeply grateful to Pia Mellody for her excellent work in identifying and describing the healthy attributes of the human person.
The world is getting bigger for teens as they embark on the monumental task of exploring their identity, discovering whom they are and becoming a member of a wider society. They need the help and support of the adults in their lives as they traverse this journey.
Your affirmation, nurturing, and direction provide a firmer foundation as teenagers move away while they stay close. From the teen’s perspective, “If I know you are there, and that you have my back, I can move out into the world and figure out who I am”.
Providing support on the journey is easier when familiar with the terrain of the land known as adolescence. Teens take another run at the developmental stages. Remember when they were toddlers and began to discover they were separate beings? While we sometimes think of it as “the terrible twos”, it really is a wonderful thing as the child realizes, “Hey, you want me to do one thing, and I want to do something else. I’m different than you!” It is the beginning of self-care and independence. True, there’s a road to hoe ahead. Nonetheless … whew! We do not want them to be dependent throughout their lifespan.
What are some of the peaks and valleys that make up the land of adolescence? They are suffering from a severe case of comparisonitis as they assess their skills, achievements and sense of value related to what they see others doing. If they come up short, their sense of self-esteem plummets.
They are pushing for autonomy. They have moved out of the child phase of “what can you do for me?” and are currently in the adolescent phase of “let me do it myself” before getting to the adult stage of “what can I do for you?”
They are plagued by a time warp problem. They cannot link events together to form a comprehensive view of their own history. It is difficult for them to see that because they didn’t study they got a bad grade. Or that because they missed curfew, they cannot use the car next weekend. While it may befuddle us that they are blind to the consequences, this time warp phenomenon is a defense mechanism. If they connected these events, they would experience more guilt, shame and anger than they could manage.
Teens are very egocentric and see themselves as more important than they really are. It helps to remember that it requires an incredible amount of energy, self-focus and ability to change to become an adult. Remember, they are moving from dependency, to independence, with the final destination of interdependence.
Teens believe they are invulnerable, and that nothing bad can happen to them. They take risks thinking they will not get caught. They take drugs thinking they will not become addicted. They think they can stay out late and not get mugged. They pull the fire alarm and are surprised when they get in trouble.
Their friends become vitally important as a source of support and security. Acceptance in a group and a “best friend” contribute significantly to their sense of competency and confidence. At the same time, they are more sensitive and vulnerable to peer humiliation. To protect against disapproval they choose friends who are similar. Think of it more as a coping strategy rather than not being able to think for themselves.
At times teens can be very dependent, and at other times absolutely rebellious. Sometimes cooperative, while other times confused about the rules and testing them to the hilt. They will at times be unreasonable and illogical, while other times surprisingly sensible. Sometimes they seem so mature … and other times amazingly immature.
This inconsistency is normal … chaotic … but normal. In part it has to do with the uneven rate of brain development. During adolescence, the part of the brain that can think logically develops faster than the part of the brain that regulates emotion.
What are some attributes of emotional health and resiliency and what role can adults play to coax their installation in the younger generation?
Let’s begin with the relationship with self. The truth is that everyone on the planet has inherent worth. No one earns this inherent worth, so it cannot be lost. It cannot be made more or less than what it is. Everybody has the same amount of inherent worth. We differ in every other respect; our appearance, strengths, weaknesses, intelligence, likes and dislikes. But in terms of the inherent dignity, value and worth of the human person, we are all alike. No one is worth more or worth less than anyone else. This is the truth. We either remember it, or forget it. But it is the unchanging truth.
For most of us, as we get socialized into our families, communities, and peer groups, we start to forget the truth of our inherent worth and come to believe that our worth is determined by external things. Some people look to their performance as an indication of their worth. Others come to believe their worth is determined by how they look, the clothes they wear or how much money they have. Some people think their worth is dictated by what others think of them. While all of these things can be either pleasant or unpleasant, they are fleeting. They are external and not an indication of the truth of our inherent worth. It helps to remember that inherent worth cannot be raised by strengths or lowered by weaknesses. Those who do not apply the concept of internally based self-esteem to themselves will try to obtain a sense of value through the affirmations of others or by comparing themselves to others. Teens are notorious for this.
When based upon externals rather than being connected to the truth of inherent value, the sense of worth slides up and down. Sometimes teens will look around and find that they got the best grade in the class, or played a phenomenal soccer game, drive the spiffiest car or are the most popular (today). This could be the makings for a great day. However, potential doom is always lurking around the corner. Next week someone else might play a better game. For the teen who wasn’t invited to the “cool party”, did not make it to National History Day, or missed the easy catch in center field, misery is certain as their sense of external value drains away.
Sometimes to cope with the instability of externally based self-esteem teens will imagine that they are better than others so they raise their sense of worth. While there may be some transitory benefits when a teen sits on their grandiose perch of excellence in some outer source of value, it doesn’t feel good to others to be looked down upon. The pain of grandiosity shows up in relationships. Getting up every day and facing the world for teens who believe they are worth less than others is painful. We can help teens appreciate their strengths rather than using them to feel better than others. We can help them have compassion for their weaknesses. When teens remember their worth, they have an easier time seeing the inherent worth of others.
Being in a healthy relationship with self paves the way for healthy relationships with others. This brings us to the second attribute of emotional health and resiliency for teens; boundaries. There are two components of a healthy boundary system. The first is that a boundary offers protection from harmful words, emotions and ideas that could be directed toward the teenager. When their protective boundary is in good working order, teens are able to better keep themselves from being a victim. The second component of a boundary system is containment. With an up and running containment boundary, teens are more likely to be considerate of others and aware of the words, actions and energy they send out into the world. A boundary is different than a wall. A wall does a great job of offering protection, yet there is no way to be connected through a wall. When a teen is walled off, they are not listening to what is important to others and they are not telling others what is important to them. On the other hand, without a boundary at all, there is more than enough connection, but no protection. When a teen is all open and vulnerable, they are very reactive to what others are thinking and feeling, and often feel blamed. They also have a ready-fire-aim approach to interaction. Everything that pops in their mind quickly comes out their mouth without being filtered.
Launching into adulthood requires that teens start to know how they tick, tock and trigger. We humans are multifaceted creatures. Mind, body, emotion and behavior all weave together in the whole of our being (and doing).
When we see, hear, or experience something, the data goes into our brains where we assign it meaning. Think of it as an automatic thought. The manner in which we experience something happens inside our head. This produces an emotion. Along with the thought, emotions are the “go juice” for our behavior, which has consequences. It is important for teens to know and practice the human capacity to think about our thinking. The automatic thought is just the beginning. A different thought (hopefully a more realistic one) can produce a different emotion, fueling more adaptive behavior with better results.
Often teens will have a sense of impending doom, but not know how to stop the dominos from falling. If they can identify the thought fueling the discomfort, they have an opportunity to turn the tide.
The transition from automatic to intentional thinking takes a lot of effort, knowledge and skill. You can help by teaching them to own their own thoughts, emotions and behavior. They’re watching you, and taking in what they see. Model it by not blaming others for your thoughts, emotions and behavior. Secondly, allow them to share their thoughts and emotions. Remember, you don’t have to agree with their perspective to acknowledge that they have it. It helps to have an attitude of curiosity rather than control. When you have this attitude of curiosity, it helps the teen identify their thoughts and feelings. The more they do this, the healthier and more resilient they become. You can also help by not putting teens in situations where they have to stuff their emotions. Emotions don’t tend to change by stuffing. Instead they brew and either erupt in a fury, or leak out sideways. A more resilient approach is to acknowledge the emotion and identify the thought that created it.
All of this helps teens internalize a value system, so they can operate from the inside out rather than the outside in. Young children focus on following the rules to avoid getting in trouble or trying to win approval. During adolescence, we want our teens to internalize the values we have tried to transmit. Sometimes that process is messy as they test out what works for them and experience the consequences of experimenting with different ways of doing things. Hopefully the pain leads to growth and the internalization of healthy values.
We all have a desire to be seen, heard and known. It is affirming to teens when the adults in their lives notice and tune into their emotions. While being on the other side of an angry teen can be uncomfortable. It can help to know that anger is almost always a secondary emotion that covers up fear or pain. The helplessness and vulnerability that come along with fear and pain can be intolerable. So anger comes in on the heels as a more powerful emotion, and teens feel strong rather than weak. Rather than going toe to toe with the anger, be curious and try to connect with the underlying emotion.
Remember the acronym WAIT (why am I talking). Often, teens don’t care what we know until they know that we care. We can show we care by listening. Adults have a better developed ability for delayed gratification. Listen first. Teens will be able to listen to our point of view more easily if they have first shared their perspective and know that it has been heard.
Remembering inherent worth; developing a healthy boundary system; understanding the connection between thought, emotions, behavior and results. It is all part of creating balance, health and resiliency.
You can help the teens in your lives shore up the ability to remember their inherent worth in three ways. First, as you esteem yourself. They are listening when you demean yourself. Secondly, as you esteem your colleagues, spouse and friends. They are watching the ways in which you interact and talk about others. Thirdly, how you esteem them. Your attitude – what is going on between your ears – matters more than you might think. It helps to have an attitude of: “I take joy in your very existence”. Thoughts like this leak out in a way that affirms their being. It conveys to them that you see them, hear them and know them. You can affirm their doing by appreciating their accomplishments. However, remember that their doing neither adds to nor diminishes their inherent worth. Nonetheless, it needs to be noticed and encouraged. You also can help by correcting them so they can improve their doing. Teens need to correct their doing for growth and capability. Provide corrections in a supportive manner. Making mistakes is part of the growth process. This is where it really pays off to have made a distinction between their being and doing. It helps to make praise as specific as criticism.
It is also important to be aware of how serious depressive illness can be for teenagers. Depression is an illness, not a weakness. More than just feeling down in the dumps, it is pervasive, intense and attacks the mind and body at the same time. It differs from stress and sadness in that it is associated with an imbalance of chemicals in the brain that control mood, sleep and appetite.
When people think of depression, what often comes to mind is sadness, tears and a sense of being constantly burdened. However, two often overlooked signs of depression; especially in teenagers; are irritability and agitation. Because low energy and impaired concentration get in the way of completing tasks and follow through on projects, depression can interfere with work, school, friends/family life and responsibilities. Changes in energy, sleep pattern and appetite can be a warning sign. Concentration, decision making and organizational skills deteriorate. Memory suffers; even someone with a good memory has trouble recalling information, particularly if it was recently learned. Quite a liability for a high school student. Not only is thought process altered by depression, but thought content is changed as well. Suddenly, the world is seen through gloomy glasses. They feel like a loser, in an unfair world, dreading a miserable future.
Each of these changes … physical, emotional and social … chips away at a teenager’s sense of well being.
Be aware of the signs of suicide. While some signs of suicidality are obvious (like a person saying they want to die), other signs may be more subtle. Giving away valued possessions, preparing a will, or making amends. Knowing someone who has committed suicide increases the likelihood as does a family history of severe depression or suicide. Usually it is not so much that the depressed person wants to die. They just want the pain to end, and they have trouble seeing other paths out of the misery.
If a teenager talks about suicide, take it seriously. Most who commit suicide are not in treatment at the time of their death. Often with treatment, suicidal thoughts will disappear.
While miserable, the good news is that depression is very treatable. The causes of depression are varied and include biochemistry, environmental, behavioral, emotional and social components. So, the approach to recovery needs to be multi-faceted as well.
One way therapy tries to break the cycle of distress is at the point of thought. Another place to try and break the cycle is through behavior.
When teens try to control things they can’t, they tend to become angry or anxious when they realize things aren’t happening in the way they want. Perhaps trying to get their parents to put in a swimming pool, buy a cabin, and a fancy sports car … like everybody else. They may also take responsibility for things outside their control. Perhaps needing for everybody to like them all the time. This adds to their distress.
Relaxation strategies help decrease anxiety and get out of the limbic system brain function of fight/flight/freeze, so frontal lobe thinking can happen.
Another therapeutic component is to ensure basic emotional needs are being met. These needs include having a source of nurturing and affirmation; a place to belong and have a sense of connection and being a part of something; a sense of making a meaningful contribution; a way to have success experiences and a sense of competency.
We can also take a look at the way the teen is relating to others … family, school, friends … intervention here can play a role in breaking the cycle.
Some parts of therapy are extremely pragmatic and focus on problem solving – helping the teen think; “Here’s where I am, here’s my goal, is what I am doing heading me in the right direction? If not, what can I do to get pointed in the right direction and unstuck?”
As you aim to be present to, support, care for and offer guidance to the teens in your life, remember that you are human, imperfect and fallible. The human condition is messy. We could stray off the path, and may make bad calls. To keep moving ahead, it helps to debrief after a mistake so we learn from it and don’t fall into despair.
What was I thinking when I did this? What did I expect to happen? What exactly went wrong? How did my mistake affect people around me? What can I do now to repair this mistake? If I’m ever in this situation again, what will I do differently? What have I learned? This is an important attitude for us to have about ourselves, as well as an important attitude to have toward our teens. Again, teens will pick this up by watching how we treat ourselves, our peers, our spouses, and them. Being able to accept ourselves as imperfect … albeit well meaning … humans … is one of the most lofty and productive goals to be sought during these brief, guiding, enforcing, and care giving years. The teenagers in your life don’t need you to be perfect … because, as human beings, they themselves will never be perfect either.
You help them when you model for them how to make the most of their strengths, come to grips with their limitations, and manage their humanness to become the best they can be.
by Catherine Mollner