Children have moments of looking at themselves apart from the established structure. This becomes more pronounced in the teen years. This can become a major source of contention inwardly where the child sees himself in a way that may not meet to the approval of the family structure. The structure where authoritarianism reigns may shun the thought and creative expression of the child leading to repression of independent
thought and action. The child is expected to do those things which protect and preserve the family structure. The structure may be faulty, but nonetheless it is maintained, at times violently so. Being a deviant from the structure can have dire consequences for the child, from within the family structure itself and as a result of the energies wasted in a struggle to change something where they have not been empowered to evoke change. They are left only to comply. Their unhappiness and discontent will be ignored to preserve the ‘integrity of the family structure.”
Often there exists the situation of self fulfilling prophecies within certain structures. What one hears they unfortunately become. If a child is told that he is a certain way, and this becomes a repetitive message, it is likely he will behave in like fashion. The child may repeat the very language he hears, not necessarily knowing its meaning, but knowing it conveys a feeling and can be used as a defense.
There exists at times in families, one who will do all possible to preserve the structure, no matter how dysfunctional it may be. This person often utilizes an authoritarian stance and expects their children to respect them solely for the sake of their presumed authority. Their objective is control, and the independent or creative nature of the child is looked upon as a deficit. The child’s only voice is to be the parental voice, if it is not, punishment will certainly come. This person is many times a person who implies
the idea of ‘do as I say” but not necessarily as they do. This creates despair in the child, leading to states of hopelessness and depression. They may begin to question their sense of self, their own identity. They become anxious, fearful children who appear timid because they dare not speak something which could bring them punishment from the authority in charge of the structure. This learned behavior begins to manifest outside the family structure as well, as these are the children who then become easily swayed by peer influence. These are the children who do not really know themselves so they adopt the traits of those around them, seeking to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging. They are thus always victims of control. Once they branch out from the control of the authoritarian parent, they are bound to be controlled by some other party who will influence their decisions and deprive them of critical thought. They may not realize they are being controlled, thinking they are somehow apart because they belong to a ‘clan’ who dresses this different way or that, but nonetheless they are under the control of something or someone. These children are usually the underachievers. They are not sure of what to strive for, thus they often do not strive at all. They allow life to merely ‘happen’ rather than taking charge themselves.
The overachiever is one bound by feelings of inadequacy and this often takes its roots in the familial structure. It is often in these situations where there exists a force within the family who has defined the rule of what it means to be ‘successful’. There is the constant pressure and drive to have the child to conform to expectations. Those with
this structure in place highly value competitiveness. The siblings are often competing for attention for one another. It is often the only child or the firstborn who is placed in the glorified role. If they meet the expectation, they are heaped with praise, if they do not; they are likely to be cast aside. Once cast aside, or in the worst case, cut off from the family, they often enter into depressed states. They may seek various avenues to mask their feelings of inadequacy. These feelings of inadequacy may impair their future relationships. They may become those always striving for an unreachable ideal, always slightly out of reach. They cannot fully accept themselves in the present moment, but always want to be gaining or achieving more. They become individuals whose level of dissatisfaction can become immense.
There exists in some families as well where the gap between ages of the siblings is significant, and where one sibling may have been seen as having provided a contribution to the family and deemed ‘successful’, and the far younger sibling once reaching the ‘freedom’ of adulthood develops a resentment towards the older sibling and adopts a victim mentality. This then can lead to the younger sibling entering a period of rebellion, rejecting opportunities, and seeking to align himself with those who standards are lower than himself or that of his family. By doing this, the younger sibling can stave off their feelings of inferiority.
There is the public image and the private image. This dichotomy often creates great confusion and distress and can lead the child to questioning of reality and their identity. What is meant by the public image is what the leader(s) of the family structure wish to convey to the outside world, whereas the private image is that dysfunction which lies within that these individuals are wanting to conceal at whatever cost. Familial secrets exist, trust is lacking, and children are guarded about their expression. Children may be lied to and dilemmas between family members masked or suppressed. The real nature of things may be shrouded in confusion and ‘mystery’. Mixed messages may arise, or the members of the family may see themselves placed in ‘damned if you do and damned if
you don’t situations.” Some family members may frustrate themselves in striving for the ‘ideal’ structure which never arrives.
In the dysfunctional structure, as in oppressive societal regimes, there are those who seek rebellion. Rebellion against the structure becomes more pronounced in the stage of adolescence where already the teenager is beginning to exert a greater sense of autonomy and desire to be apart from the familial structure. However, because children lack the resources for which to engage in a rebellion that could be successful, the rebellion is always squashed. What does this leave the child to do? They can do little but endure and await the period where they can break free from the structure that they find oppressive. What is termed ‘conduct’ problems is usually this desire to break free from what the child has perceived as oppressive in their lives. Often without the appropriate guidance and ‘moral compass’ coming from the familial structure, their rebellion turns not just to fighting the familial structure, but the structures outside which also resemble the authority they have found oppressive. This type of rebellion is usually futile and self-destructive. There exists the warring between parents themselves, which cause the children to be placed in the predicament of divided loyalties, not knowing which parent to turn towards. There may exist the opposing styles, one parent who is permissive and one who is the authoritarian. This scenario leads to immense conflict.
In the worst scenarios, the combination of ‘seared in’ memories of trauma, with the dynamics as mentioned above leads to the disintegration of the person. Reality is too painful, and is questionable. Reality is not reliable. As a result, this member of the family seeks to ‘break out’ and develops the behavior that would be termed psychosis. They retreat into their own inner world, their own sense of reality and identity. This too is often a painful journey, but not anymore painful than the experience of the structure they have felt subjected to. Children in some structures are still viewed as ‘property’; therefore they are often enslaved to the faulty structures. Mere compliance does not earn one’s freedom but neither does active rebellion. Cycles exist, once a structure is learned, it is bound for continuation. The child in many instances will perpetuate the structure that they learned once they have their own family to lead. The stresses and trauma of one can often become the stresses and trauma of all, it becomes a collective trauma. The faulty structures within the family dynamics are seen in society as a whole. Therefore, we are all shaped by the society and the family structures in which we have encountered. Thus, concepts of ‘mental illness’ or the ‘unruly child’ all take shape and form by the experience one has in the family and ultimately in society. These are not biological processes, but rather social and political processes.
As Laing states, ” psychotherapy must remain an obstinate attempt of two people to recover the wholeness of being human through the relationship between them.”
The distressed adolescent often has feelings of abandonment, emotional detachment, withdrawal, and isolation. These children begin to develop an intense anger directed towards an adult society that they feel has hurt them and does not understand them. Parents need to learn how to build relationships with these children and this can be accomplished through a process of emotional coaching, of allowing the child to express their feelings without judgment while providing clear guidance, limits, and
expectations. It is often inconsistency and lack of clear guidance from parents that further the struggles for these children who then begin to seek guidance from misinformed peers.
These children need love, affection, and a non-judgmental atmosphere. If love does not come from a meaningful and sustainable adult relationship then it will take on a new and contorted character where the concept of ‘love’ comes from trying to be accepted by peers (even if they be negative ones) as the child will know that they will find a source of non-judgment and will be ‘liked’ even if it causes their eventual self-destruction. Affection that is not provided by adults, who should be responsible, is then replaced by irresponsible sexual activity where the teen not only seeks for pleasure in a world that often provides only hurt, but feels once again that through sex, they can find a sense of acceptance and supposed emotional connection.
Some teens are so hurt and are suffering from the adults in their lives and the chaotic environment in which they dwell, that they turn to ‘radical rebellion’. This can be seen with those children who are ‘cutters’ as well as those into such movements as punk and goth. With cutters, the emotional pain and trauma they have experienced is so intense, that their mental anguish manifests itself physically through the act of cutting. For the goth teen, who dwells in a world of emotional darkness and frequent experiences of despair, once again, this mental anguish displays itself in physical signs through the wearing of dark clothing, dark objects, body piercings and fascination with things associated with death. There are also those teens who involve themselves in gangs as they
are seeking a sense of connection with a ‘family’, even if this ‘family’ causes them to engage in dangerous behavior. The desire for a connection with someone who they feel will accept them outweighs their thoughts of any sense of danger or risk.
Teens are seeking autonomy, but they must be taught by responsible adults that this autonomy they desire also comes with responsibility. Many teens who are distressed feel that they are controlled and are criticized. Rarely, are distressed teens positives and strengths accentuated but teachers, parents, and others frequently focus on the negative. The child enters despair and has no motivation or drive to change because they have been taught by the adults around them the attitude of ‘why bother’ and the feeling that they are without worth.
Parents and others must stop looking at the child as the ‘problem’ or try through various means to uncover some ‘hidden problem’ or try to blame the problem on others. If the parent can be honest and introspective, no matter how difficult and even painful that may be, they will find that there are ways that they can help alleviate the suffering of their child and they may even uncover that there were ways they contributed to this suffering. This does not mean the parent must wallow in guilt, but rather to recognize the things that must change for the teen and the family to have a more harmonious relationship.
When children have experienced abuse and abandonment in early childhood, this often becomes a ‘seared in’ memory and halts emotional development to the point where the trauma occurred. They may be seen to have a more ‘infantile’ mind. These feelings of abandonment are often furthered by demeaning words and condescending language used with the child. Each times this occurs; the child begins to look at themselves as a ‘non-entity’. They experience existential death. The external conflict that children see amongst their parents becomes an internal conflict for them, the internal conflict then manifests itself externally (usually as aggression). The child becomes devoid of trust, and those who draw near often become the persons who this internal conflict is unleashed upon. It is not that the child is devoid of any feeling for the person seeking to connect with them; it is rather that every connection had strings attached or every connection has been severed. The child becomes anxious and afraid of loss, of even losing themselves, if they are to try again to embark on the process of building a trusting relationship. Laing (1969) stated that ‘if there is anything the schizoid individual is likely to believe in, it his own destructiveness. He is unable to believe that he can fill his own emptiness without reducing what is there to nothing.’ It will be common then for these children to question whether they deserve ‘happiness’ and many times question if they even ‘deserve to exist’. The children who have undergone the trauma of abuse and abandonment lack an identity of their own; they appear as a construct of others and often are conformist. They do what they feel will earn them the praise of others. But in reality this is based on their own fears and their negative perceptions of themselves. These children are prone to be seen as manipulative, but this is because they are seeking to exercise control over some aspect of their lives when prior they had absolutely no control. They strive for ideals they cannot be met. Often their intense desire to control or to engage in certain activities in reality is a crying out for their real desire- to have an actual loving and trusting relationship. But these children do not know how to respond to an outpouring of love. They feel that they do not have a voice, are not heard. It is easier for them to feel hated than engulfed by love, particularly when they have seen love to be about control. They desire autonomy and feel they will lose it in the process of building a true relationship. These children may begin to also de-personalize; they may not be prepared to relate to other persons. They may be perceived as lacking empathy, however this is not that it is not there or could not be there, rather it is their fear that blocks their emotional expression of empathy.
These children are often very hurt so they feel they must hurt others.
What do we do? How do we reach such a child? It requires a patient approach. We must allow the child to vent their frustrations. We must share our understanding that we know they are hurt. We must journey with them as they relate their experience of trauma. We do not judge them or withdraw. Even when their emotional expressions may cause us to be afraid, we continue to reach out. We need to be able to forge relationship know matter what and to help the child come to an understanding of life’s impermanency, yet we can still strive for happiness now. The trauma is past and does not need to haunt us. We can encourage this child to explore their own sense of self and engage in activities that give
them a positive sense of self worth apart from others. Caregivers and others need to make themselves emotionally available, to look at emotional expression as a time for intimacy and teaching. We need to be able to understand the behaviors, even that which are annoying to us, as a means of communication, and when the child is in the ‘right space’, to communicate with them and help them process those feelings that were behind whatever incident occurred.
We may be prone to drug the child because the behaviors are seen as ‘out of control’ or ‘disturbing’, but whereas this may cause the problematic behavior to lessen, we may be making a grave mistake. We may be subduing the very process by which the child is able to release the tension and pain. We may be numbing but not looking at the root cause. Unless we see the behavior, how can we truly know what to do? If we cannot allow the child to express their distress, how will we truly know of their distress?
To be simple, our means of reaching this child is this- to be with them unconditionally.
How do we make sense of the troubled teen? Particularly those who enter the world of addiction, whose family relationships are torn, and who are often seen associating with ‘negative’ peers? Many will assume that these teens can be easily identified by their style of dress or maybe by their class, but these struggles can be found in many families. Behavior can be seen but not experience. What the child may interpret as their experience may be very different from the parent and vice versa. What may have been gravely traumatic to the child may not have been seen as such by the family. In our society today which causes us immense stress and pressure to survive (if we are poor) orattain more (if we are well to do) has diverted attention away from understanding experience. Society has now sought to medicalize experience where any thoughts and feelings, any part of our human condition need not be understood but numbed by a pill. We are a numb society responding to societal pressures. These pressures become unleashed on our children. A parent may fear that their child will endure hardship that the parent may have endured so the parent seeks to force and coerce the child ‘out of love’ to achieve and do what the parent desires. The teen in a state of exerting autonomy feels threatened and thus rejects in toto the guidance of the parent and seeks after peers who will understand their experience and their pain.
As I mentioned that we are taught to be a numb society, some teens choose to numb their emotional pain by illicit drugs. This idea has been instilled by our society. The teen may not realize the self destructive course they are taking because they have convinced themselves that they are free. But it is not freedom they possess, for freedom comes with responsibility, rather they have traded one slavery for another. Parents must take the time to understand the world and experience of the teen, to build communication which seeks to understand their desire for autonomy and which respects their experience. An overprotective stance and coercion leads to the breakdown of communication which is vital for any relationship to survive. We often distrust children, we do not allow them the ability to make decisions and when they are poor ones to see the logical consequences. Why is it that adults assume they possess the wisdom when adult society has engaged in numerous conflicts costing many lives? Could children make the right decisions or better
decisions if we solely gave them support and listened and journeyed with them rather than seeking to take away their autonomy they so desperately desire?
We all seek to be free. When we seek to create the identity and destiny of the teen, we will fail. They will not be able to develop an identity of their own but will grapple with who they are, meaning, and their purpose. We must allow them to find themselves as we as adults function as coaches in this game of life. We cannot think we can play the game for them or can manipulate the results. When we can become involved with children again in a relationship of trust and respect, then it is possible that what is seen as troublesome behavior will diminish. When the child feels validated, supported, heard, and able to have a voice, they will in turn give the same to the parent. We must be cautious of what we model. If we seek to coerce and manipulate the child to meet our desires as adults, we will have manipulative children. Our methods of communication will be the children’s methods. If we focus our time on the mundane, we will find children to do likewise or seek to rebel against this system. Because of the imbalance in power, the child’s rebellion is never successful but mostly self destructive but they rarely recognize this. We can restore sanctuary to families, but it is up to each to take ownership and responsibility for creating it.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.