Hearing Our Seriously Distressed Adolescents
The distressed adolescent often has feelings of abandonment, emotional detachment, withdrawal, and isolation. These children begin to develop an intense anger directed towards an adult society that they feel has hurt them and does not understand them. Parents need to to learn how to build relationships with these children and this can be accomplished through a process of emotional coaching, of allowing the child to express their feelings without judgment while providing clear guidance, limits, and expectations. It is often inconsistency and lack of clear guidance from parents that further the struggles for these children who then begin to seek guidance from misinformed peers. These children need love, affection, and a non-judgmental atmosphere. If love does not come from a meaningful and sustainable adult relationship then it will take on a new and contorted character where the concept of 'love' cmes from trying to be accepted by peers (even if they be negative ones) as the child will know that they will find a source of non-judgment and will be 'liked' even if it causes their eventual self-destruction. Affection that is not provided by adults who should be responsible, is then replaced by irresponsible sexual activity where the teen not only seeks for pleasure in a world that often provides only hurt, but feels once again that through sex, they can find a sense of acceptance and supposed emotional connection.
Some teens are so hurt and are suffering from the adults in their lives and the chaotic environment in which they dwell, that they turn to 'radical rebellion'. This can be seen with those children who are 'cutters' as well as those into such movements as punk and goth. With cutters, the emotional pain and trauma they have experienced is so intense, that their mental anguish manifests itself physically through the act of cutting. For the goth teen, who dwells in a world of emotional darkness and frequent experiences of despair, once again, this mental anguish displays itself in physical signs through the wearing of dark clothing, dark objects, body piercings and fascination with things associated with death. There are also those teens who involve themselves in gangs as they are seeking a sense of connection with a 'family', even if this 'family' causes them to engage in dangerous behavior. The desire for a connection with someone who they feel will accept them outweighs their thoughts any sense of danger or risk.
Teens are seeking autonomy, but they must be taught by responsible adults that this autonomy they desire also comes with responsibility. Many teens who are distressed feel that they are controlled and are criticized. Rarely, are distressed teens positives and strengths accentuated but teachers, parents, and others frequently focus on the negative. The child enters despair and has no motivation or drive to change because they have been taught by the adults around them the attitude of 'why bother' and the feeling that they are without worth.
Parents and others must stop looking at the child as the 'problem' or try through various means to uncover some 'hidden problem' or try to blame the problem on others. If the parent can be honest and instropective, no matter how difficult and even painful that may be, they will find that there are ways that they can help alleviate the suffering of their child and they may even uncover that there were ways they contibuted to this suffering. This does not mean the parent must wallow in guilt, but rather to recognize the things that must change for the teen and the family to have a more harmonious relationship.
Dan L. Edmunds is a noted therapist and consultant with children and families who ahve experienced trauma and emotional challenges. Edmunds is a doctoral candidate (abd) in Pastoral Community Counseling.
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