Inside the World of 21st Century Teens
by Ron Taffel
For decades before and after World War II, children all over the United States hung out, had slumber parties, made crank phone calls, and played sports unsupervised. They didn’t need the help of adults to set up play dates or hand out certificates of participation. As we know all too well by now, we no longer live in that world. What’s less apparent is that, despite the appearance of greater parental involvement and psychological sophistication, most adults are just as clueless about the “second family” of their children’s peer group and adolescent pop culture as they ever were.
A fundamental psychological shift further separates the experience of today’s children from that of previous generations. Decades ago, most kids carried parents around inside, whether they wanted to or not. Through endless channels, parents constituted a deeply felt, internal presence, however neurotic and oppressive it might sometimes have been. But what I encounter again and again in my practice is the startling reality that many parents have become psychically extruded from the inner lives of their children. While helicopter dads and soccer moms have become more and more adept at managing the logistical challenges of 20th-century family life, they’re often too frenetically busy to exert an emotionally magnetic presence in the internal landscape of a child’s world.
Increasingly, kids feel the fabric of connection tearing. From an early age, they’ve learned that most of the time they spend with their families could best be described by the old movie line “Hello, I must be going!” They “get” that life with mom or dad is a series of transitions, interrupted conversations, and moments hurried along so that the next activity can go on as planned.
But obvious overscheduling and invisible disconnection from parents is only part of what’s changed. While at first glance, 21st-century adolescents appear impossibly cool–cooler than we could have ever been ourselves–teens today are running hot. They’re not just hormonally hot, but hot with cultural forces that have redefined the nature of their consciousness and experience of selfhood. Millennium kids live in a context that spawns fragmentation, what I call a “divided-self” experience: cool and often cruel on the surface, they hide surprisingly healthy passions beneath.
The Fast and the Furious
Most of the kids I see are buried under a crazy quilt of digital connections every single moment of every single night. A typical evening can be spent on the computer engaging in five online discussions at once, talking on a cell phone while waiting those interminable nanoseconds for a response, listening to a burned CD, with a TV on in the background, and, naturally, focusing on homework at the same time.
“Hey mom, don’t get all unhinged, can’t you see I’m doing my work!!!” yells 12-year-old John, looking very cool as he effortlessly moves from one screen to another. But talk to John the next day and he’s depleted by his conversations of the night before. Trying to return every instant message, he’s gotten into several arguments with friends that’ll need to be tackled throughout the schoolday. It happened so fast, John doesn’t really know what hit him.
Thirteen-year-old Dawn says to me: “We were hanging out in the schoolyard. All of a sudden, Perry started screaming at me. She said I was obviously bi,’ my best friend is a man-whore,’ and, anyway, how could anyone want to be friends with a slut like me?”
“Did anything go on just before, between you?” I ask.
“No. It came out of nowhere. But this is what happens all the time. Don’t you know that, Dr. Taffel?”
I do know. Every day in my practice, I hear about such sudden bursts of unmediated anger or acting out. While parents do logistical somersaults on the margins of connection, their children surf down the slopes of media-stimulated consciousness, habitually split off from their own feelings. When emotions do cross the divide into awareness, the experience is often jarring and white hot. With a hundred friends bumping into each other on MySpace or e-mailing each other on AIM, all of a sudden, some spaghetti of interpersonal energy sticks to the wall and splatters everyone around.
Listen to the dialogue between 21st-century kids and you can’t help but be affected by split-second shifts from cool-sounding inanities–“wazzup, g2g, lol”–to hair-raising accusations and eruptions of raw bile, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Self-regulation or even an awareness of their easily triggered emotions isn’t the strong suit of a “just do it” generation outfitted with cool fiber-circuitry that transmits instantaneous heat.
Sex and the Great Divide
Sex play is another way that 21st-century kids experience the divide with their deeper emotions. Casual sex is no longer reserved for “bad” girls and boys. Elementary and middle-school kids show me astonishingly graphic text messages every day. In city and suburban neighborhoods, middle-school “cum parties” are a weekend occurrence, the meaning of which needs no explanation. “Rainbow contests,” however, might require clarification: girls wear different color lip gloss, and the boy who ends up with the most colors on his penis is declared the winner. “HJ” is a commonly used elementary and middle-school term for hand-job, which is replacing quaint bumping and grinding on the dance floor. Same-sex permutations–with girls experimenting with the “L word” (for teen boys, homophobia is more rampant than I’ve ever seen)–are becoming a common rite of passage, again with no relationship necessary. Sexual encounters are frequently recorded and blogged, making a once-intimate experience into mass-marketed public property.
As disconcerting as all this may be, the combination of impulsiveness and emotional flatness with which many 21st-century kids express their sexuality makes a great deal of sense. Girls feel freer to be casually active if they can avoid removing their clothes and publicly revealing a far-from-thin-enough body. Commitment-shy kids loaded down with anxieties about “safe sex” flock to instant action that requires no clumsy, time-consuming protection. And the increased use of SSRIs among teens may inadvertently disconnect sexual drive from passion, just as it does with many adults. Regardless of exact cause, the result is the same: more teens doing more kinds of sex at earlier ages, but without the deep-down, desperate yearning we often equate with adolescence.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hundreds of parents have told me how their teenagers go to sleep: they need mom or dad lying by their sides or they stay online under the sheets, with cell phones nestled on their chests or watching TV with a buddy miles away. “It seems like my kids have no ability to amuse themselves, even for a few moments,” says one discouraged parent after another.
Kids are divided not only from their emotions (until they’re engulfed by them), they’re often split off from their internal fantasy lives. Imagination mediates and regulates emotional experience. But why should 21st-century children even need an internal world of self-soothing or self-stimulating fantasies? After all, from the second they get up until late in the evening, kids have an endless stream of readymade, fantasy-rich, interactive images to play with.
This is one of the simple but unarticulated reasons that many parents have such trouble getting 21st-century kids to go to bed at night. From the moment kids put down their heads, they don’t know what to do with themselves. They’re bored. This is the first time all day that they’ve had to endure a moment without external stimulation to fill their minds and fuel their fantasies
The End of History
Some years ago, after gazing at far too many blank faces, I stopped asking children in initial interviews: “So where do your parents and grandparents come from?” I don’t know why I hung on for so long, except that decades ago, my supervisors had instilled in me the belief that drawing a genogram was a sacred rite of the consulting room.
Parents aren’t just far off in the sense of harried daily connection. They’re far away in terms of their own children’s knowing any deep background about them. Knowledge of family history caused a lot of heat between previous generations. Many of us vehemently disagreed with our parents politically. We heard endless oral histories of their adventures (“Please, not that story again!!!”). And we may have expended enormous energy trying to get away from their oppressive authority or dysfunction. But there was at least a nascent understanding of who they were and where they came from; for better or worse, their life struggles had historical depth.
Except for that random first- or second-grade assignment to “interview” parents, most kids haven’t got a clue as to their roots, and parents are so used to their own historical irrelevance they hardly even notice. Generally, kids have no more interest in the history of their family than they seem to have in the history of the world, if declining scores in this academic area are an accurate indicator. The distant past is yesterday or last week, especially for teens. This gives kids little understanding of who they are from a longitudinal perspective, making it more difficult for them to maintain a coherent sense of self within the moment-to-moment shape-shifting that’s so natural to them today.
Ask kids what their parents do for a living and they’ll most likely mention job titles they don’t understand. The majority of kids today haven’t got the foggiest idea of what their parents do that enables them to afford the iPod, mp3 player, and cell phone their children so crave. This isn’t because 21st-century kids are craven and selfish. It’s a superficiality fostered by the abstractions of modern living, as well as by the misguided attempts of many enlightened parents, at all ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, not to burden their children with knowledge about what’s required to earn a living. Instilling deep gratitude for the efforts made by the adults who provide for them has been sacrificed to a widespread fear of inflicting pathological guilt on children–the great bugaboo of modern-day parenting. This leaves children disconnected not only from their parents’ common work struggles, but also from the perseverance and determination that daily survival requires.
The Loss of Passion
It’s sometimes been almost unbearable for me to realize how scary it is for many kids to reach down and connect to an idiosyncratic passion that might separate them from the crowd. With a constant eye on pop culture, kids of all ages are “scared straight” into cultivating a veneer–to dress right, get the right stuff, and become voracious consumers. They’re seduced into worshipping physical perfection; to create at all costs, a flawless body “to die for.” They’re slowly intimidated out of talking about internal experience, which would be soothing, and instead dispense the hollow wisdom or cruel wit of mass-market psychobabble. They’re increasingly bullied by national legislation to measure up on standardized tests, from preschool through high school, often without understanding the material and without acquiring a love of learning.
The real teen secrets I learn about in therapy aren’t about sex, drugs, or rock ‘n’ roll, which are often already “blogged” in cyberspace. They’re about nonpop-culture passions: secret journals, drawings, and art that no one has seen, or a stash of fantasy stories.
The kid culture itself has defined passion–to be enthusiastic about some activity or topic–as uncool. Kids with idiosyncratic passions are widely portrayed as geeks, and are rarely found in the popular crowd. The Johnson Institute followed thousands of children and found that they tend to give up personal interests during the transition between elementary and middle school. Kid-cool is often a facade hiding interests left behind–passion that can’t be expressed.
When looked at in this way, some of teens’ most troubling behaviors become more understandable. What do kids do in the often persecutory, competitive world of the 21st century as a result of being divided from themselves? Well, they demand from insecure parents endless supplies, with a sense of entitlement so unmodulated, it can be breathtaking. They diss and humiliate without much warning or empathic care for their impact on the other. They try to break through to internal numbness with the heat of binge-drinking–10 drinks (“pregaming” as it’s called) aren’t unusual before the evening begins. They push their estranged body-as-commodity to raging excess: starving, purging, and criticizing themselves mercilessly. They cut–carving up an arm or leg while expressing an anger so submerged it isn’t even felt. They gleefully submit to tattoos: imagination and internal imagery writ large for the world to see. They pierce–a searing penetration toward the inside core that simultaneously makes a hard-edged statement of cool to the ever-watchful eye of the peer group and the pop culture.
Strategies for Breaking Through
Our job as helping professionals, then, is daunting but within our reach. It’s to feel the passion beneath the cool, to recognize how split off 21st-century kids are from themselves, and to understand that therapy with adolescents needs to change fundamentally. We may not have the power to alter the techno-pop culture that defines so much of teen experience today, but by focusing treatment squarely on how to engage adolescents in a vital relationship, we can make an enormous difference in their lives.
If we can truly connect with the children we work with, the impact can be infectious, spreading outside the office and helping to heal the inner divide that keeps them cut off from themselves and others. To engage these 21st-century kids, though, we must go far beyond what we were officially trained to do and move closer to what we secretly say and do, often beyond the gaze of supervisors and even our colleagues.
Working with teens is difficult enough, but we’re too often our own worst enemies in the treatment room. For starters, the blandly modulated tone of therapist-speak is destined to make even the most well-meaning practitioner shrink into a tiny speck on the multiplex screen of an adolescent’s mind. To put it bluntly, most models make us way too boring to be noticed by a generation in love with special effects, let alone remembered once they leave our offices. With adolescents, the “edge of relatedness,” as psychoanalyst Darlene Ehrenberg calls it–the place where two people feel and touch each other emotionally–must be particularly edgy for them to even register your presence.
Our training too often works against this, smoothing out our edges, inhibiting our genuine reactions to the outrageous stories we hear from teens every day in our practice. For instance, Peter is planning a date in an abandoned garage with a complete stranger he met in cyberspace. Theo, who’s 10, is teased relentlessly for being “gay.” Louis and friends regularly smoke pot in the bathroom at his middle school, next to kids who purge themselves as a group activity.
It would seem impossible not to react to descriptions of such activities with a full range of feelings: outrage, sadness, shock, fear, relief, and so on. Yet, most of us are constrained by our training from expressing edgy feelings to clients. To stay three-dimensional and get kids’ attention, however, you must go against those invisible constraints and in a responsible way–using your own beliefs, style, and words–respond in a fashion your teen client absolutely can’t miss. Anything less is just static in a gigahertz, high-tech world. For most of us, learning to respond in a real manner to today’s teens means engaging first in a quick, internal dialogue between what we feel like saying and the voice of our therapy training.
When Peter first told me about his online dating scheme to meet someone in an abandoned garage, I yelled (silently berating myself for worrying too much), “Are you out of your mind?!” To Louis, who smoked up in his middle school, I instinctively commented (though not without hesitating several moments), “Are you trying to drive me insane?” To Ernie, who told me that he really liked a girl and that every adult he knew had warned him that high school relationships are doomed, I said in a hushed voice (all the while concerned about the intensity of this message), “With all my heart, I believe there’s a chance for you and Chloe to make it. It really is possible.”
The words aren’t unusual; it’s the strength of the emotions they carry that’s important. But regardless of differing approaches, we consistently flatten our feelings because we consider them unprofessional or nontherapeutic. Yet, in every one of these situations, I finally got kids to hear me.
Sometimes words, no matter how dramatic, aren’t enough, though. In this hyperkinetic world, physical movement loosens lips and is often necessary to get kids’ attention. Again, treatment constraints make this easier to say than do–most of us are “participant-observers,” stuck on our own clinical thrones.
It took me almost two decades to get up from my chair and out of the constricting habits of my practice. I was working with a withdrawn, young adolescent girl, Lisa, who mumbled the few words she said. Failing in school, she was diagnosed as ADD, oppositional, and selectively mute. Partly to prevent myself from going mad, I suggested that we walk around the room a bit, just to shake things up a little. I thought maybe our stuck psychical positions might be loosened by a physical change.
Lisa liked the idea, and I found myself trailing behind her with my notebook. She’d mumble and I’d yell, “What? What did you say?” The more I yelled as I walked behind her, the more she began to laugh and yell back at me. This ambling approach to therapy made a far greater impression on me than on Lisa, who took to it naturally, as have dozens of other kids with whom I now move about the office, as if we are on a psychological road trip.
Many times I’ve gotten across my feelings by leaving the consulting room–another therapy taboo. When Brian repeatedly told me, with a grin on his face, about prank-calling older people, I said: “Brian, you seem unable to think about the effect you’re having on these people. You know what? This sickens me a little; I have to take a break from you for a minute.” When I returned a few minutes later, Brian was finally willing to talk about the mean way he often treated his parents and friends.
Humor, a therapeutic tool mostly unexplored in clinical training, can provide a lightning bolt of connection to sophisticated 21st-century teens. Given the endless menu of cartoon comedy– The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park –and the everyday banter of adolescent life, it’s a wonder that we do not get how necessary this is to create engagement that leads somewhere. Fourteen-year-old Adam came to his therapy session with a glum look. Rudderless much of the time and an aficionado of nonstop television, he looked even flatter than usual, and with good reason–he’d just returned from the doctor, who’d said that one testicle was enlarged. Fearing the worst, we proceeded aimlessly through the session until I wondered out loud ( Should a therapist be joking about this, I thought? ) whether an enlarged testicle might require a change in his TV-viewing habits. Maybe he’d need to switch to a new kind of couch, with a cutout section so he’d feel more comfortable. Instead of getting angry, Adam seized on this and began to speculate that he might soon require a wheelbarrow to move through the wide hallways of his suburban school, or even might need to call ahead to announce his arrival. I joined in and we were off to the races, with Adam jumping up and down, doing improv about how everyday living might be affected by this new challenge–routines that had us both rolling on the floor.
The crisis passed, thankfully with no health consequences, but the stand-up part of our sessions became a connecting ritual–a means for Adam to start expressing his feelings about his lack of popularity at school and discomfort at home. While discussing serious issues, we continued to make each other laugh, and the pleasure he got from his hysterical impersonations of celebrities and everyone in his life, including me, ultimately led him to seek out roles in his town’s theater group–no small step for a coarse, pop-obsessed adolescent. Adam still needed to learn the boundary between humor and empathy, especially with friends and parents, but the jokes that punctuated our sessions helped break through his emotional divide.
The sanctity of session length is another artificial encumbrance that works against kids’ ability to hear. Teen consciousness is so fragmented that it’s simply grandiose to believe they remember a thing we say even two minutes after our most “important” pronouncements. So, if you’re trying to make a point you don’t want to get lost, why stick to the sacrosanct 45- to 50-minute session? As long as we fill out insurance and agency forms accurately, charge less, or make up the lost time, there’s nothing inviolate about the “treatment hour.” Especially with teens, cutting the session short to let a comment sink in or lengthening it to let a situation play out, helps grab their attention.
Aiden, a 16-year-old, was stuck on the notion that his girlfriend had to give him oral sex. If she didn’t, it meant she really didn’t care about him. More important, he was not getting what he thought every other guy was getting, casually or from girlfriends. “If she’s not going to give me head, I’ll break up with her!” he kept saying. He simply couldn’t get past this thought, and his already damaged self-esteem was plummeting.
I let Aiden know that, although I understood, his wish was the exact opposite of what was involved in becoming a man. The debate became very heated, but I wasn’t worried about the fireworks. I wanted one message to get through: that Aiden needed to go for an entire weekend without turning oral sex into a huge fight with his girlfriend.
Every aspect of creating engagement described here became part of this session–I was emotionally expressive about my beliefs, we moved around the room a lot as we talked, I left twice to get my bearings, we yelled at each other, and we joked around. Finally, I moved closer, sat on the floor, and spoke to Aiden very, very quietly. At last, he seemed to “get” how this artificial pressure was impacting him and his girlfriend. I immediately stopped the session. I didn’t want this hard-won insight to be buried by the next inevitable distraction.
Instead of finishing the session, we scheduled a 15-minute meeting before the weekend, so we could discuss the importance of this decision again. To my surprise, I found out at the brief follow-up that Aiden had just talked to his father about sex for the first time ever, initiating an essential adult connection that helped him navigate the high-risk teen choices that came up every day for years.
The Fascination of Boring Detail
Creating genuine engagement with teens often requires paying attention to exactly the kind of mindless detail we’ve been taught to think of as “avoidance.” But in work with adolescents, the nitty-gritty nonsense of everyday life is the most direct pathway to a meaningful connection. “I can’t believe you’re interested in this stuff,” one teen after another remarks to me. Even though I’ve learned the clinical value of the most seemingly trivial conversation, it took every bit of faith in this viewpoint to stick with the following interaction.
Amanda, a 14-year-old told me, “I just hung out this weekend. Maggie snuck out in this really cool black tank top. Her parents haven’t seen it. And Alice wore these new pants, like around her hips, with a big belt.”
Restraining myself from moving toward significant issues, I said, “What about you? What did you wear?”
“I had on these new shoes. I have them on today. You wanna see them?”
I fought my impatience with this clinical dead-end as Amanda displayed her new shoes, pointing out their various features–color, the height of the heel, the special laces.
Far from being the neutral observer, I reacted to each aspect she remarked on, ending with the shallowest observation I could muster, “It sounds like you guys wanted to look pretty good.”
“Yeah, there’s this new girl,” Amanda responded. “Kelly. She’s a real bitch. All the guys like her.”
Instead of asking, “How do you feel about this new girl?” I remained just as deeply grounded in the superficial, replying, “Oh. Who else was there?”
Amanda mentioned a few of the boys.
Reigning myself in from the inevitable therapeutic query about feelings, I stooped to: “So what was everybody else wearing?”
To my surprise, Amanda perked up even more and said, “Well just about everybody had on stuff that showed off their tattoos and piercings, because that’s what Kelly’s into. She’s got a few that her parents don’t even have a clue about. Her mom knows about her belly-button ring, but Kelly’s also got her nipple pierced.”
Now I was in a real clinical dilemma: I could barely resist the temptation to explore the therapeutic gold of mother-daughter relationships, secrets, etc. But I held firm and stuck to the trivial, asking, “So where did you guys go?”
We continued on this road to nowhere, discussing the mall, its new stores, and which tattoos Amanda thought were the best. Spurred on by my unflagging interest in the details most adults shut off, Amanda unexpectedly opened up about a serious decision. “Well, there’s one tattoo I was thinking of. I’d get it on my hip. It’s really small and my mom would never see it, because, even if I was wearing a thong, it couldn’t really be seen.”
I veered once again from inquiring about thoughts or feelings and instead asked Amanda to describe the tattoo.
All of a sudden the discussion, which I’d certainly have kept a secret from that imaginary supervisor on my shoulder, took a turn. Amanda said, “But just when I was about to do it, I got in a fight with Maggie. She said I was being a poser, and I was getting a tattoo just because Kelly is now the queen and I’m trying to be like her.” Amanda then added, “The big thing is she had her tongue pierced.”
Finally, my first traditional therapeutic response: “Do you think that’s a good idea, this tongue piercing?”
Amanda was then eager to talk. “Well, she can do it, but I’m scared. For her, it’s all about hooking up. The boys really like it. But I’m just not ready for that, I don’t think, so I’m just going to go for the tattoo instead.”
We were now engaged at a very different level. In a not-so-subtle nod to her motivation I asked, “Are you going for the tattoo to look better, so you can find someone to hook up with, or to pose? Maybe Maggie was right. What’s the tattoo for?”
“I don’t know,” Amanda sadly replied. “I have to think about what Maggie said. I don’t know if I’m just doing it so Kelly will let me in. She’s got everybody else . . . it feels like I don’t have the friends I used to.”
“You’re right,” I responded, genuinely moved. “Who don’t you have anymore? Who’s gone?”
The talk had moved from the truly trivial–malls, clothes, and shoes–to tattoos, hooking up, connections with other kids, and all the way to issues of abandonment and betrayal. It turned out that what was really disturbing Amanda was the friends she’d lost. Over the next two weeks, the core of our work became everyone who’d moved into a tight circle around Kelly, leaving Amanda behind. Our discussions then began to center on her losses in general, and the decisions she needed to make about how to stay true to herself.
We need to challenge another barrier to engagement, opening the walls of therapy to the superficialities of teen life–e-mails, video games, music, magazines, photographs, and television. If dreams were the royal road to the unconscious according to Freud, pop culture pursuits are the road to the split-off inner world of today’s teens. By inviting their interests into therapy, you create a theme for sessions and set the stage for the development of real engagement that can lead to passion and depth.
Juliet was 14 when I first met her. She was dealing with an affective/anxiety disorder. Being physically magnetic and haughtily cool, she was a lightning rod for her small-town teen drama and gossip. At the same time, she was angrily fixated on the popularity pecking order; enough so that she “delicately” cut herself to alleviate her emptiness and despondency.
After I encouraged her to do so several times, Juliet arrived with printouts of recent e-mail arguments. It was clear to me at once how well she was able to express herself in writing. As we pored over these e-mails, I reacted to the style as well as the content of her communications, and writing became a theme of our relationship. Against my better clinical judgment, we read articles from pop magazines. Soon I learned that these stories reminded Juliet of her friends’ secret issues, as well as her own. Then, she began bringing in her friends to meet me; secondhand written descriptions had turned into three-dimensional people about whom I could now truly engage.
As writing moved from a hidden to a central pursuit, Juliet joined the school newspaper, focusing on real-life adolescent issues “that adults had better face.” She didn’t immediately become a model teenager; she went through years of frightening ups and downs as she learned how to regulate her sharply shifting moods. But throughout the bumpy process, writing became the vehicle for containing her emotions and expressing her previously buried, true self.
Another incorrect notion that ties up clinicians and parents is that unconditional love means accepting everything teens say, or their self-esteem will suffer a profound injury. Quite the contrary, healing engagement requires that teens emerge from their self-centered world and learn what it means to empathize with adults. Although this is a reversal from the mantra of post-World War II childrearing and treatment, decades ago, psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott stated that empathy toward adults (moving beyond blame of one parents) was a sign of maturity.
The psychological establishment has recognized Winnicott’s wisdom, but mostly in a horizontal direction. Schools focus on peer-to-peer empathy–a major component of anti-bully programs and social-emotional modules. However, they still largely ignore the idea of empathy toward therapists or parents. Seeing the adults around them as alien, two-dimensional beings without feelings leaves kids feeling mean and out of control, oblivious to the hurtful impact of their words and actions. The therapeutic relationship is an opportunity to create empathic engagement, which is also a means for teens to recognize their own buried humanity and passion.
Sixteen-year-old Mike’s “me-first” behavior got him into trouble every day, reaching a climax as graduation from middle school increased his usual self-preoccupation. He wanted the celebration to be held in his home. His mother initially agreed, but as the day got closer, she started freaking out about having so many people in her small house. She began talking about renting a cheap space in a nearby community center–which infuriated Mike because he was afraid his friends wouldn’t think it was cool enough.
In our meeting, I told Mike that I agreed with his mother. Not unexpectedly, he howled about the unfairness of it all.
But then I shifted the focus, surprising myself by saying, “I want you to understand what graduation felt like from my side.”
Mike considered this a violation of 21st-century teen rights. “What about my side. You’re not getting it!”
I responded with unexpected intensity, “I do understand. I was so self-conscious about how I looked to my friends that I didn’t even want pictures taken at my graduation. But I lost that one, just like you’re going to lose this one, too.”
Mike responded: “That’s totally different. You can rip up pictures afterwards. I’ll have these memories my whole life.”
“Look,” I insisted, “I want you to try to see it from my perspective; what it felt like for me.” And here’s where I really moved away from the training I still hold sacred: “Hey, it’s never just about your feelings. In here, mine count, too!”
Around and around we went for the entire session. But the focus was now entirely different; we’d made a drastic U-turn, so Mike might empathize with me and how self-conscious I’d felt as an adolescent. After we parted, I was filled with doubt about this change of therapeutic direction. A couple of days later, I received a surprising call from Mike’s mother. “I don’t know what you did,” she said, “but for the first time, Mike let me explain how frightened I was; that I just couldn’t handle this party at home. He didn’t agree to the other location, but at least he tried to hear me.”
No wave of emotional intelligence swept over Mike; we continued to struggle as I worked to get him to treat me and others more empathically. But this episode created a beginning awareness that he wasn’t the absolute the center of the world and was the start of his slow crawl out of the loser-outcast group.
My father died when I was 22–still an adolescent in today’s terms. His passing was so sudden that I went cold, so numb I didn’t shed a tear. One night several months after his death, I dreamt about him. “Ronnie,” he said to me, “do you remember when I sculpted circus animals for you?” He reached out with his hand, tenderly giving me the soft clay it held. I could see his heart in his eyes, and I touched his face. I woke up in tears, and continued to cry every morning for months after.
The next day, I bought some clay and began sculpting. Two months later, I fell in love for the first time, with a girl who mysteriously came over to me offering a sip from a container of milk. The sudden connection I experienced in that dream and the burst of creativity that followed were no accident. It’s also no accident that the vast majority of kids I engage in the ways I’ve described here fall in love for the first time or discover an enduring passion.
Engagement is the essence of what we must create in therapy. These fragmented times call for nothing less than consulting rooms filled with life. Although overcoming the constraints in our treatment approaches isn’t a simple matter, it’s clear to me that no treatment model–whether psychodynamic, systemic, cognitive, dialectic-behavioral, or goal directed–can long ignore the human engagement our kids so desperately need.
We can help adolescents to heal. Without even knowing it, super-cool 21st-century teens are waiting to discover the genuine heat of their own inner lives–yearning to feel the heart and passion just beyond the divide.
Ron Taffel, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York. He’s author of Breaking Through to Teens: Psychotherapy for the New Adolescence and The Second Family: How Adolescent Power Is Challenging the American Family . Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this article may be e-mailed to email@example.com