Discovering the Real Life of Teens

The Key to Translating Youth Culture to Mystified Parents

Ron Taffel

Lauren's mother, Margaret, loathed her 14-year-old daughter's weird new look—hair dyed bright orange, pierced eyebrow, Dracula makeup. But though Lauren looked bizarre and tended to stay out too late, she hadn't ever gotten into any real trouble. She was doing fine in school and seemed pleasant enough at home. Remembering the awful screaming fights with her own parents as a teen during the '60s, Margaret tried hard not to antagonize Lauren and to be understanding.

Her determined empathy seemed to be working. When she asked Lauren in a carefully neutral tone why she wanted to look that way, her daughter laughed goodnaturedly and earnestly tried to explain. Lauren gossiped to Margaret about her friends, described boys she thought were "hot" and even brought kids home to eat and watch TV. In turn, Margaret told Lauren about her own adolescence, and how she had yearned for freedom from rigidly moralistic parents who were suspicious of her every move. Margaret was still a little worried about Lauren's dramatic appearance and her late hours, but she was also proud of being the kind of with-it mother a girl could really talk to about what it was like to be young and exploring life. She thought that as long as the two of them could have such warm, open dialogues together, nothing very bad could happen to Lauren.

Margaret's dreamy vision of mutual trust and openness exploded the day she came home unexpectedly to find her daughter in the bathtub having sex with two boys. Shrieking, she got the boys dressed and out of the house. Then, she confronted her daughter.

Adding insult to injury, Lauren protested that the whole incident had been entirely innocent and her mother's mean-spirited suspicions unwarranted. "You must have been imagining we were having sex because your parents were so strict and you were wild as a kid," she said. "Besides, there were bubbles in the tub--how could you know what was really going on?"

For a brief moment, Margaret nearly fell for it—was it possible she had gotten it wrong? Then, furious anew, she asked, "What do you think I am—a damn fool?"

"Yes," Lauren said flatly.

Shocked and frightened, Margaret called the same day to make her daughter a therapy appointment.

During the first few sessions, I learned several things about Lauren's life that her mother did not know. She told me, for example, that she and her friends often smoked pot together, some of her buddies were heavy drinkers and all engaged actively in sex—mostly oral or anal sex, which kept them, technically, "virgins." Not only did Lauren live much of her life in a world entirely beyond her mother's ken, she lied about it with virtuosity and shamelessness. When I asked Lauren why she couldn't talk to her mother about her life, she sighed and said Margaret just became mysteriously unhinged when she heard "about this stuff," particularly anything to do with her sex life. "My mom freaks out over oral sex—I don't know why," Lauren said to me in a genuinely puzzled tone of voice.

Lauren's story is not unusual. In my own practice and at workshops I present around the country, I hear scores of similar tales about presumably "nice" kids and their responsible, hard-working parents—who seem to live in different solar systems. Experienced counselors and teachers feel stunned and paralyzed, unprepared by their training for dealing with what looks like a completely new brand of adolescent. Like me, they have met children who have vandalized buildings without experiencing any guilt; talked with young teens who have sex in school bathrooms, not caring who walks in on them; and heard about adolescents who break into abandoned warehouses to hold "x-treme" wrestling matches that continue until one of the participants is left unconscious.

This is not to say that every teenager is hawking drugs, engaging in group sex or exploring new forms of violent behavior. Nevertheless, you can virtually guarantee that every teen who hasn't been home-schooled since kindergarten in a house without electricity or mail knows somebody who does. It is also sure as taxes that your teen is not telling you a tenth of what he or she knows, sees or experiences.

As I got to know these kids, it became clear to me not only that their friends sometimes mattered to them more than their parents, but that the world of their peers and the commercial pop culture had virtually overpowered their parents. Now, I believe, it has really become equal to the family of origin for many kids, often more important to them than their blood ties.

Discovering the Real Life of Teens

What I have discovered, after talking with hundreds of teens, is that with their friends, they are almost a different species than when they are in the alien company of adults. Once the code to their behavior is cracked, it becomes clear that they are not at all what they seem to their horrified parents. With one another (and with me, once they begin to trust me), they reveal themselves as different than kids used to be—more sophisticated and capable of behavior that we would have found unthinkable during our own youth--but also the same in important ways—passionate, volatile, self-centered and often angry, mean and vengeful. I have also witnessed hundreds of teens—considered amoral, and contemptuous by adults—become kind, loyal, generous and, yes, even moral when they are with their peers.

When I begin to get to know them, I discover they need what young people have always needed: nurture, appreciation, security, clarity in rules and expectations and a sense of belonging. The tragedy of our times is that most adolescents do not get these basic needs met by adults and do not feel truly "at home" within their own families. If we are alarmed by the state of adolescence today—and I believe we should be—it is not because these kids are lost souls, but because they have given up on us, and drifted out to the second family to find what is missing in their lives. In other words, they need those elusive standards that families and communities are supposed to provide: a realistic, clear-eyed balance between nurturance and expectations.

Kids may be heedless and driven by their own passions, but they are not stupid. For all their swagger, they know they don't know very much about life or how to grow up. Most kids still hunger for relationships with grown-ups, and if they seem to have abandoned adults, it is because adults, pressed to the limit and preoccupied by their own concerns, have shunted them aside.

Therapy for the New Teen

As adults who frequently find themselves mediating between distressed parents and teenagers, therapists are well positioned to bridge the disconnect between the generations. But to do so, I believe we must reinvent the way we work.

I began my own transformation by becoming a part-time anthropologist—a participant-observer in the teen culture—in order to begin building bridges between two worlds that rarely touch. Along the way, I have had to relinquish a number of therapeutic premises that had been part of my professional identity since graduate school.

The staples of traditional psychodynamic and family therapy--propping up an appropriate parental hierarchy, loosening the ties of family enmeshment, establishing more appropriate boundaries between generations and helping children to free themselves from excessive parental control--are now less critical.

Furthermore, it is no longer possible to conduct therapy with adolescents as if all that matters is the quality of the relationship between therapist and client or client family. Even the most powerful therapeutic interventions are not strong enough to heal disconnections between parents and kids if the actual "significant others" in young people's lives are ignored.

Therefore, when young clients come in to see me, I spend at least as much time focusing on their connections with the second family as I do on what is happening at home. I get lists of their friends and do an informal peer genogram to learn about their place in the clan. Additionally, though I see kids alone and with their parents, I increasingly spend more time seeing them with their friends. (It is important for therapists to check with their supervisors, agencies or state licensing authorities before inviting clients' friends into therapy.) Again, if I really want to understand the way they experience their most important relationships, I need to see them with the people who matter most to them--just as I would in family and couples therapy.

Besides accepting and getting to know kids on their own terms, I also try to instill a sense of empathic accountability in them. To do so, I have to dispense with the old therapeutic stance of neutral observer. To counter the online world, where kids can say anything they like without seeing the impact their words have on others, I feel I must act and speak emphatically to avoid becoming another two-dimensional presence in the teen's life. So, I don't act like a "therapist," carefully modulating my responses and being content to "mirror back" and interpret what they say to me. I throw them all I've got. I want them to feel my response, and feel that they have an emotional impact on me.

Fifteen-year-old Bryan, for example, tells me he has been smoking dope in the music room of his school. I don't ask him, "How does that make you feel?" I yell, "My God! That's crazy! What was going on that made you do a dumb thing like that?" Bryan, usually apathetic and uninterested, looks surprised. For the first time, he looks at me as if I were a genuine person; he seems actually to be thinking about what he did. "You're right," he says. "It was dumb." Thus begins a real conversation, as he tells me what happened to him that day, how he felt, what he was thinking.

Kids who have seen hundreds of TV "shrinks" routinely treat real-life therapists like other distant adult-like people they can blow off. Therefore, I insist that they (not one of their parents) call me if they expect to be late for an appointment, or if they can't come. I will not let any tardiness—5, 10, 15 minutes—slip by unremarked. To Michael, who came half an hour late for a Saturday appointment, I let my annoyance show. "Do you know that I broke up my own weekend, and left my own kids, for this appointment?" I asked him. "I make an agreement with you, and I trust you to keep to it. And, frankly, it doesn't make me feel great when you show so little regard for me or my time." Like Brian, Michael seemed deeply surprised that he could have an impact on the way I felt. He actually blushed and stuttered out an apology.

Bridging the Gulf

But it is not enough to create a safe, sane and more controlled facsimile of the second family in the therapy room. Nor is it enough to translate the youth culture to mystified parents. Compared with the old goal of therapy—prying parents and children apart—my fundamental aim now is to bridge the chasm between the generations, to help parents and children connect with each other through genuine empathy and realistic expectations.

If parents want to reclaim a connection with their children, they will have to pay deep and respectful attention to a culture many of them abhor. They will have to listen to (though not necessarily condone) music and become familiar with video games that appall them and talk with their kids in a spirit more curious and open-minded than moralistic and judgmental. After all, you can't intelligently discuss what you don't know. They will, in all likelihood, need to open their houses and themselves to members of the tribe their kids bring home, like little bedraggled stray animals. Many parents I know who have reconnected with their own kids find themselves becoming informal foster parents to teens who are virtual strangers in their own homes.

But there is a lot to be said for getting to know teens as they truly are, even if they aren't exactly the people their parents expected them to be. There are practical advantages: the more knowledge parents have about what their children are doing, the more control and influence they can exert and the more comfortable they will be making legitimate demands; in other words, the better able they will be to balance realistic expectations with genuine empathy. Until we restore this balance so that adolescents feel "held" by the adults who care for them, too many of our teens will continue to call the second family their real home.


This blog is excerpted from "The Wall of Silence," by Ron Taffel. The full version is available in the May/June 2001 issue, New Hope for the "Borderline" Client.

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Topic: Children/Adolescents

Tags: angry teenager | bullying in schools | counseling teenagers | counseling teens | drugs | drugs and alcohol | engaging teens in therapy | kids | raising kids | rapport | Ron Taffel | school | schools | second family | sex | teenage counseling | teenage therapy | teens | therapeutic alliance | therapy for teens | treatment for teens

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