Don't reflexively blame their mothers or fathers. Most of these kids have reasonably responsive, competent parents, who feel as helpless as their kids about how to lessen the grip of this half-crazed pressure. After all, they live their own version of the same bind, stretched to the breaking point by their own impossible work schedules, endless social obligations, and gut-wrenching economic worries. Parents feel hard-pressed to protect and soothe themselves, much less their kids, from external pressures that have essentially colonized the family.
And kids know their parents feel helpless. Many teens have lost faith in the ability of adults to protect them from a culture running off the tracks. Studies repeatedly show that when the unthinkable happened--sadistic bullying, death-defying parties, or schoolyard killings--kids knew something was up, but hadn't approached parents or other adults for guidance. In a vicious circle, the less comfort and trust kids feel at home, the more they gravitate to what I call the second family of the peer group and pop culture to meet their needs for a sense of self-worth and a feeling of connection. But the second family carries its own freight, its own pressures, and its own terrors. Like the culture that shapes it, the second family is a world increasingly gripped by anxiety and flying off the hinges.
The Therapeutic Response
So what's a therapist to do? Does the diagnosis du jour--ADD, AD/HD, PDD, OCD, bipolar disorder--help us, past a certain point? Does any one therapeutic framework or technique, such as cognitive-behavioral, insight-oriented therapies, or EMDR, get at the pervasive anxiety that's as much a cultural issue as a personal problem? Can family therapy make a dent if it incorrectly views the family system as powerful enough to counter the larger social angst?
Living in their parallel universe of overstimulation, endless exposure to disturbing information, and constant change, teens need an ongoing relationship with a grown-up. Therapy is a chance to create exactly those experiences and support those values that are missing in the rudderless, anxiety-driven world that surrounds them. When there's often no follow-through in kids' lives, therapy can offer follow-through. Amidst the chaos at large, the consulting room can be a predictably safe harbor. In a world where adults are seen as two-dimensional figures, a therapist can be a three-dimensional person whose thoughts and feelings command respect and attention.