Fifteen year old Marty sauntered into my consulting room, looked around disdainfully, mumbled a greeting as he looked sideways at me and then slumped onto the coach. At their initial visit with me, mom and dad described Marty as being always angry and oppositional. They were concerned that he is aggressive and unkind to his siblings; in fact, he seems to have little compassion for others in general. They were troubled by what seems to be a sense of entitlement and that he doesn’t take responsibility for things he is required to do at home and at school.
Then there is Julie who is seventeen. She is a quiet, shy and withdrawn teen. She loves reading, does not socialize easily and seems to be content to live in her own world. As you can imagine Julie’s parents worry about her inability to engage with others and her isolation. “We just don’t know why she is like this or how to reach her,’ they told me.
Two teenagers with two very different ways of responding to their world. The question both set of parents asked me was, ‘Is my child just being a teenager? Will this pass or is there a deeper issue that is driving him/her to behave this way?’ These parents wanted to know the answer to this question so that, if necessary, they could help prevent their teenager becoming an unhappy, angry or withdrawn adult. In Julie and Marty’s case, I discovered that the answer to this question is that they are not ‘just being teenagers.’ Instead, they are each using these behaviors to help them avoid the pain and uncertainty caused by not being connected to their own unique and special identity.
Although their behaviors are so different, both Marty and Julie have the same problem. They do not have a strong inner sense of personal identity. Both of these teenagers have unfinished work identifying, Who am I? What do I stand for? How do I feel about myself?
Happy, confident, respectful, responsible teens know who they are and what they stand for. They recognize their strengths and lesser abilities. They have the courage to stand up for their values. These teens are connected to their uniqueness. Marty and Julie are not. Having an underdeveloped self-identity is emotionally painful. Different kids will deal with this pain in different ways – Marty gets angry and belligerent and Julie withdraws.
Unfortunately, too often parents and therapists focus on correcting the outward behavior, trying to make the angry Marty, sweet and kind and responsible and attempting to draw Julie out of her shell. But the anger and the withdrawal is their defense mechanism. It is their way of surviving the emptiness and pain of not being connected to that wonderful person at the center of their being. Trying to change how they behave without getting to the core of the problem is like putting wings on caterpillars. These teens ‘will not be able to fly’ until they first discover for themselves who they are, take ownership of that identity and love and honor it! They need to metamorphose from ‘a caterpillar to a butterfly.’
Why are some teens not connected to a strong sense of self?
There can be a host of reasons for this – here are just a few possibilities;
• They grew up in a home or school environment where they were told what to think. They were seldom asked for an opinion, an idea, or for their thoughts or insights.
• If they did express an opinion it was ignored, disregarded, belittled or disparaged.
• They had an older or younger sibling that was a hard act to follow or that got all the attention.
• Something was happening in the family or at school that made it unsafe for them to speak out as themselves
• They grew up in a culture where children were ‘seen and not heard’.
• They had to be a caretaker for a sibling or a parent in distress and so did not have the time and emotional freedom to develop their own identity.
• They were physically, mentally or sexually abused.
How to help your teen
If you are concerned that your teenage son or daughter may be struggling with their identity, you can:
1. Stop reprimanding them for the behaviors that concern you. The more you speak about this, the more you are reinforcing these behaviors.
2. Begin by changing from confrontational conversations to healing conversations. These are spontaneous conversations you have with them about their positive characteristics. Be sure that you find a way of doing this in a way that does not sound rehearsed or contrived. Perhaps you tell stories about how they were when they were younger, highlighting their wonderful nature and positive attributes.
3. Be present and keep looking for those moments when they say or do something that shows a positive characteristic. Bring this to their attention by thanking them or praising them for this.
4. Tell them, over and over again, that you know that they know how to take responsibility, be kind, reach out to others, be friendly, warm and have fun… Keep telling them that you would so love to see more of that side of them that you know is there.
5. Consider seeking professional help. A skilled coach can help teenagers connect with their unique self in ways that parents often cannot.
Now I would love to hear from you. How have you been able to help your teen find their special inner center?
(Dr. Sandy coaches parents, families and teenagers to behave in ways that reveal how special they are and that builds their emotional, physical and mental health).