Navigating the Turbulence of Adolescence


By: James P. Krehbiel

Life can be difficult, particularly for adolescents. Many young people navigate the turbulent years of adolescence and emerge into adulthood reasonably unscathed. Too many youngsters, however, feel stuck, confused and alienated. To complicate matters, they don't feel like they have the inner resources to climb out of the mire. These youngsters are socially and emotionally "at-risk". They may suffer from such painful symptoms as anxiety, depression or anger, and all of the self-destructive behavior patterns which follow. Often, a vicious cycle of frustration and failure begins.

Many parents, in an honest attempt to help their adolescent from emotionally drowning, seek professional therapy. They put a great deal of faith in professional clinicians to find a way out for their child. However, many of these parents begin to recognize that solving the problem is more complex than they had initially realized. It has been my clinical experience that some parents who bring their youngster for counseling perceive their child as being solely responsible for the problem. Once the issue gets too hot to handle, Mom or Dad may proceed in bringing their resistant child to counseling with hopes of getting the needed cure.

In many cases, however, the "fix" is not forthcoming. The parents feel like they have wasted a lot of time and money. The adults feel betrayed by the counseling process and the adolescent feels angry and defective for being pushed into treatment. Somewhere, something has gone awry.

We can gain some insight if we look at things through the eyes of the adolescent. The child is usually reluctantly brought by the parent into counseling as what I call the "identified patient." The youngster anxiously waits as the parents lay out the problem with the therapist with remarks such as, "I don't know what's happening to my child lately, but he's not his old self. He doesn't listen to me anymore, has been getting failing grades, acts out at school, and stays in his room all the time." Such characterizations at the onset of therapy by the parents may intensify feelings of incompetence on the part of the child. Such a pattern at the beginning of therapy sets up a dynamic of resistance and leaves the potential for a positive therapeutic outcome in jeopardy.

What many parents fail to realize is that the adolescent's problem serves as a metaphor for what is happening within the family system. Unknowingly, a youngster may become oppositional or depressed as a way of attempting to soothe the psychic pain experienced by his family. In many cases the youngster represents, in a symbolic fashion, something that is amiss at home. On some level, the child's behavioral problems represent an effort to focus attention away from the unstable dynamics within his family. In such cases it represents a courageous attempt by the teen to minimize home-related problems. Eventually the problems become too troublesome for the child and he proceeds to sacrifice himself for the good of the family. Many times youngsters go into counseling with the hope (or illusion) that therapy will aid in healing the entire family system.

In my clinical experience, I have found that the troubled adolescent is more likely to find emotional healing if the parents are actively involved in the counseling process. In such cases where other family members are involved in counseling, the adolescent's prognosis for change tends to improve. The adolescent's problems serve as a catalyst for stimulating psychological growth for the total family structure. With parental involvement, the teen begins to feel more competent, as other family members take the risk to explore difficult family issues. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to treatment. Those who espouse "brief therapy" as a band aid for all counseling situations involving adolescents are mistaken. Grieving, soothing and nurturing take time, and only under the best of therapeutic conditions can successful outcomes be realized for today's teens.

James P. Krehbiel is an author, contributing writer for familyresource.com, and a cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached throughout his website at krehbielcounseling.com.

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