Thoughts on adolescents and therapy with them…
In my opinion, teens get a bad rap. Make no mistake, this “rap” is sometimes deserved. But it’s often a rap nevertheless. Their choices are often impulsive, self-centred, dangerous (to themselves or others), defiant, unpredictable, and outlandish. Parents will stress and battle with their teens, struggling to understand how they can be – in their eyes - so frustrating, and sometimes abusive or even cruel. Ironically however, these kids are being…teenagers. In other words, as much as they push parents’ buttons and raise the ire of teachers, relatively speaking and within reason, these kids are doing their job and as such, are often misunderstood.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson considered fostering an identity to be the primary goal an adolescent must master. They find themselves in the awkward middle ground between the dependency of the childhood years, and the independence of adulthood. In turn, while teens no longer consider themselves as so reliant on parents and will often aggressively push away from them, in reality, they are not yet developmentally mature enough to warrant the benefits of full adult freedom in their choice-making. Their “job”, then is to demonstrate to parents and society in general that they don’t require guidance, for subjecting themselves to this influence serves as a reminder of the childhood they have left behind. Perhaps of greatest importance is the drive to individuate from parents during these years in order to become their “own person”, and less so be known as “Mr Smith’s son”, or “Ms Jones’s daughter”. Often, merely listening to parents without opposition is experienced by teens as a loss of identity, of equal importance a loss of agency , and the powerful quest to establish this self-concept compels adolescents to engage in behaviours that are so defiant and outrageous that they harm or hinder themselves while seeking to prove their caregivers wrong.
Point is, while these behaviours are often disrespectful and sometimes even antisocial, my belief is that the teen that engages in them is typically confused, overwhelmed, and even self-loathing.
Of course, parents are predictably applying consequences for these behaviours, and while said consequences are often not only called for but appropriate, they are unknowingly contributing to the “teen problem” when they aren’t being mindful of their adolescent’s experience and mindset, and come to label their teen and associate him/her with their behaviours. In other words, parents often “miss” what their kids are communicating through their behaviours, and wind up treating them in relation to the troubling actions, which is inclined to further contribute to the problem.
My goal is to first “join” or relate to the teen in ways that afford him/her the opportunity to lower their defences, and then to align with them in light of the various pressures or conflicts they are experiencing. While holding them fully responsible for their choices, I seek to help them observe their roles in conflict but also their deeper experience in it – I want them to notice the ways their internal struggles can so easily manifest in misplaced external outcomes that only alienate them further, add to their problem, and keep them from feeling understood in the midst of it. I believe that in providing this “safe place” to come to more in touch with their feelings and the message their behaviours are communicating, they can be empowered to make better choices for future.