Checklist for parents: Is your Teen in Trouble? Click on this link to find out!
If you are a teen, or the parent or guardian of a teen, you are well aware that teens struggle with many things that are unique to teenage life. Teens face far more challenges in their lives than they did as children, as a general rule. Life all of the sudden got a whole lot more complicated. Everything in a teenagers life changes rapidly. While you try to make new friends as you enter High School, you struggle with issues of wanting to be popular, you want to fit in with your peers - badly. You're dealing with all the awkward changes that are happening in your body, learning to date, learning about your sexuality, your school is far more demanding, you are starting to think about adulthood, but partying or hanging out with friends listening to music is much more fun! Then there are all of those emotional changes. No one seems to get you but other teens, and even then, teens struggle with the idea of other people being able to relate to them at all, including their peers. Teens, for the first time are conscious about the fact that they can think about everything in their lives abstractly. So teens re-evaluate EVERYTHING! This can be both rewarding and frustrating, as a parent or an adult can engage teens in more adult discussions about events in the world, but teens can challenge everything you try to do, believe in, value and uphold as they assert their new found cognitive abilities and test out the limits and boundaries. Breaking away from reliance on adults is key to adolescence. Suddenly, adults are okay, but nerdy, controlling, out of it and in their way!
Adolescence is a critical period for all aspects of their development. Every part of a teenager's experience is in a transitory phase. This is tough! Teens move from childhood into adulthood in just a few years. Their ability to think changes, their bodies change, they struggle with becoming more independent and less reliant upon adults, yet they still need adult guidance and support, even if they reject it every step of the way. Teens are learning about establishing mutual relationships. They explore their bodies, their skills and natural abilities.
Adolescence can be both a fun and a tumultuous time in one's life. This is doubly so for teens who have suffered abuse, neglect or other childhood traumas. It is during adolescence that these traumatic events will raise their ugly heads again, and teens will struggle with the meaning past traumas have on their present and future lives. This is because an adolescent's cognitive and emotional capacities have suddenly developed. Now, for the first time, they can begin to put the past into a larger context. They are able to think about the impact. The reality begins to set in, but, at the same time, their ability to manage all of their feelings, the new found clarity that they have about their lives, is still developing. Teens do not yet have the coping skills to handle the problems of childhood. Thus, they tend to act out, become depressed, may begin to use various ways of avoiding pain, join gangs, etc. They may act out in ways that can have serious, life long consequences for them.
There are several problems that arise for teens. They have not developed the sense of mortality. They haven't quite learned the connection between actions and consequences, although they insist that they know it! A part of being a teenager is to learn to test the limits and come out okay anyways. But, when testing the limits results in irreversible damage, this can impair their development. For example, most adults have experimented with drugs and alcohol as teens. Many adults had their first sexual experience in adolescence. Hopefully, they did not get arrested, become pregnant or catch a serious STD, such as HIV or Hepatitis B. Being able to survive the risks and learning to make choices based upon one's values is critical for adolescents. But if every time you attempted to test the limits, you got caught or experienced serious consequences, you would never learn that you make choices for moral reasons, reasons stemming from your own values, not just because someone says not to do something or because it is "wrong." Moral development during adolescence is one of the most critical aspects of a teen's development, and also one of the least discussed. If the consequences for you testing the world is severe, you learn to fear, you may learn to remain dependent, and you may not learn how to make moral choices, but reactive ones instead. You may learn that your natural need to separate has too high a price. This is significant and can dramatically impair a teen's development, which has huge consequences for adulthood.
Take a moment to think about this. What happens to the boy who contracted HIV in High School? What about the girl who got pregnant? What about the boy who tried to race his friends in the car and ended up killing three people? Or, what about the youth who took so many pills that it caused brain damage. These kids all of the sudden grew up real quick, but when you grow up too fast, you miss critical things along the way. Spend enough time with adults who missed out on their adolescent development and you will see that they have impairments in their adult development - unless they had strong support systems or good counseling.
Even more problematic is the child whose parents were either too strict or too lenient. This has even more consequences for adulthood than teens who have a life change due to a big mistake, such as pregnancy or getting HIV. For youth whose parents did not balance their parenting, these kids are entering adulthood impaired. There is a rule of thumb that is very true for parents. If you are too lenient or too strict, you will pay the price later in your life. Parents who are too strict and controlling of their children rob them of being able to develop their own independence. They are then crippled and will struggle in adulthood with emotional dependency issues, unable to protect themselves or handle the skills required in adult life. As a parent, you may have to rescue this child repeatedly throughout adulthood. On the flip side, parents who allow their children to do as they chose also cripple their kids. These kids don't know where the line is. They will always struggle with a sense of insecurity, independence that isn't real independence, but reactive independence. That is, independence that is a reaction to strong dependency needs. There is a constant sense of a lack of safety, and little awareness of mutuality. This kid may drain you or only seek you out when they need something from you. If you basically are uninvolved with your child, look out! When you are older and need support from your child, you may find that your adult child is no where to be found! You may be left alone and very lonely!
Parenting a teen is difficult, but can also be hugely rewarding. Finding the right balance between setting appropriate limits and boundaries, and being flexible enough to allow a teen to become independent is tricky. But it can be done if you understand what is happening in the teen's development. Teens still need their parents, no matter how much they push them away. They need them to continue to be parents in their lives, not friends or confidants. They need you to be there for them, guide them, discipline them appropriately, and continue to offer support, no matter what they do. However, if you ask any teenager, they will tell you, they are going to ask for help and support from their peers more often than their parents, teachers, counselors, or any other adult. This again has to do with a teen's need to become independent and to develop their own relationship with the world. It doesn't mean they don't need you! And don't expect your teen to be taking care of you - it is their job to be self-centered. Their job is to take from you and push you away, then to blame you when you aren't there when they need you. Things will usually come around, but it takes time and more life experience.
When trouble strikes an adolescent, friends and parents are often not enough to help a teen through difficult times. Many teens benefit from having an adult they can turn to who is just there for them, a professional. School counselors may be helpful, but they often tend to focus on behavioral and academic issues only. For many teens they need more help than what a school counselor is able to provide. Also, because they are resistant to any adult who represents authority over them, a school counselor can be seen more a part of the institution than someone who is there to really help them. This is where a therapist is a real help! A therapist who is specifically trained in working with adolescents can make a huge difference in helping a troubled teen. The therapist can be a supportive adult figure without being seen as another authority figure. The relationship that a teen develops with the therapist is unique. It is focused on the teen, but the relationship is more egalitarian. At the same time, there are clear adult-teen boundaries, that help keep things safe. Once a teen has tested the boundaries of therapy, they usually find that therapy is really helpful to them if they form a good bond with a therapist.
I have spent my entire career working with adolescents with problems. I have worked with some very difficult youth who have major acting out behaviors, severe anger management problems, major depression, suicidal and even with youth who have committed major crimes, such as sexual offenses, crimes against property, and crimes against others. I do have experience with youth in gangs. I also have over 18 years experience in working with teens with sexual and gender identity problems, mental health issues, self-mutilation or suicidal behaviors, substance abuse problems, HIV infected, etc. I have extensive experience with teens who were abused as children, and as teens.
In addition, I don't just rely on talk therapy alone. This can be really tough on teens, especially if things that they are trying to deal with are overwhelming their ability to cope. I use many other techniques to help teens, some of which include, art therapy, the use of puppets (not like children's toys), sandtray therapy - which I find most teens really get into, and music therapy. There are many creative approaches I utilize with teens. I like to keep things moving and am able to help kids cope with some of their most difficult struggles.
If you are a teenage who needs someone to talk to, call me, even if you are not sure you want your folks to know. There are some situations under the law that will allow me to see you without parental consent. I can meet with you to determine if you qualify for this. For parents and other caregivers, contact me if you need assistance with your teen or feel that he/she would benefit from therapy. I have experience with all aspects of teens' lives I can help you and your teen! This is my strongest area of expertise!
Some Helpful Links:
Teen Sexuality and Gender Concerns Teen Issues Teen Line
Teen Crisis Assistance Gay & Lesbian Youth Talk Line
For Teens Who Cut California Youth Crisis Line
Children of the Night National Runaway Switchboard
Travelers Aid Rape Treatment Center Dating Violence
Cycle of Violence Wheel Non-Violence Equity Wheel
The Trevor Project - Teen Suicide Prevention
Just for Parents Helping Children & Teens Cope with Trauma
A Christian Perspective on Gay and Lesbian Teens, Suicide
Skills to Teach Your Child