Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Extreme Behaviours Defend Against Extreme Anxieties

Young people's worst behaviour always makes a kind of sense

Bewilderingly anti-social or frighteningly self-destructive though it may be, young people’s behaviour always makes a kind of sense. Underneath the violence, the swearing, the total refusal to abide by any rules will be an unconscious need for self-preservation. In effect, the behaviour—however dreadful—will be a defence, protecting the young person from some imagined attack.

This isn’t to condone bad behaviour or excuse young people from punishment. Rather, it’s about trying to understand young people’s behaviour because, until that behaviour is understood and young people feel understandable (not mad, bad or dangerous to know), punishing them may give adults satisfaction but it’ll make little difference to the young people themselves. Until there’s understanding, the defences remain intact - vigilant, bristling, hostile.

Extreme behaviours defend against extreme anxieties. For a young person, “When I feel belittled, I try to act big; when I’m in danger of being humiliated, I humiliate others; when I’m in danger of losing control, I insist on controlling others; when I feel unloved, I look for people to hate….” The fact that any of these behaviours might hurt or damage other people matters little because, to the young person, it feels like a matter of survival, a do-or-die situation. The behaviour seems to be the only solution.

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The way in which we offer our understanding of this matters hugely. Stripping away a young person’s carefully erected defence (“Ha! I reckon you hate people because you feel unloved!”) only makes things worse. The interpretation may be accurate but the manner in which it’s offered is likely to be humiliating for the young person—like being found out. In offering blunt interpretations, we sometimes take revenge on the young person, using our intellectual and verbal power to get our own back.

Instead, an attitude of interested concern seems to be more helpful. “It’s interesting that you hate other people so much. I imagine you must know what it’s like to feel unloved?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, perhaps hating people makes sense? Perhaps hating people makes the horrible feeling go away? Perhaps you find yourself hating other people for not loving you in the ways you’ve needed them to love you.”

“I do hate people!”

“I know you do. And you’ll have your reasons. You won’t hate them because you’re a hateful person. You’ll be hating them because of how you’ve felt.”

“You can say that again!”

Only once the defence has been understood (how it came about, why it’s become so necessary) can young people bear to temper or amend it. And they can bear to do this because they’re no longer being taken at face value.

We agonise about young people’s behaviour: their apparent thoughtlessness, callousness, selfishness. But they’re not the only ones who defend themselves when they’re anxious. Adults are no different. Organisations are no different. Countries are no different. Extreme behaviours always defend against extreme anxieties.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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