Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

Learning How To Be Interesting

For young people, to be boring is to be worthless

“It’s my anger,” says Alice in the most deadpan way. “I get angry a lot so they said to come and see you.”

Another bunch of adults recommending counselling as a cure for anger, I think to myself; another girl given to angry outbursts, though Alice will probably have plenty to be angry about, being a fourteen-year-old girl and therefore expected to be all things to all people. She tells me more but speaks without emphasis, as if her story is of no interest whatsoever, as if she’s bored with herself, bored with her life.

Our need to be interesting is primitive. A baby has to interest its mother in order to survive and most young people will go to extremes to avoid the possibility of being thought of as boring. For them, to be boring is to be worthless. They get interested in themselves when other people get interested in them. Without other people’s interest, the danger is that young people become depressed. They give up, or – in Alice’s case – lash out.

She and I spend a long time talking about her life, about living with her strict, old-fashioned grandmother who – according to Alice - doesn’t understand modern teenagers. Alice’s mother lives miles away and Alice has never met her father. When I ask about this unusual domestic situation, Alice says that she doesn’t know why she lives with her grandmother: she’s never asked. But by the time we meet the following week, she’s asked her grandmother and discovered that it’s because her mother was ill when Alice was born. When I continue to be interested in this most important part of her story, Alice goes away, asks her grandmother again and, returning, tells me that her mother was apparently no good with kids.

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Our therapeutic task will be to get Alice interested in herself and in her story. But that’s going to take time if no one’s been very interested in her until now. Anger might have become Alice’s way of getting noticed, her way of saying that her life doesn’t really make much sense.

I ask about her mother: what she’s like, what she does, what she says….

Alice can’t think of anything to say. “My mum’s let herself go,” she announces finally. “She wears really bad clothes and doesn’t do her hair or anything. I remember one time, I was in a shop with her and it was really embarrassing because everyone was looking!”

Her mother sounds like someone who also struggles to be interested in herself. Oddly, Alice then appears to change the subject, complaining that her grandmother doesn’t understand about make-up. I ask what she means. ‘Make-up’ could be a euphemism for anything.

“She’s never shown me how to put it on. She doesn’t like make-up.”

Disapproving of a girl’s make-up could mean disapproving of her growing up, of her choice of friends, of the boys in her life, of the distant possibility of sex….

“I’ve had to learn how to do make-up myself.”

I say that her make-up today looks good.

“Do you think so?” she says, pleased. “I didn’t really have time to put it on and, because it’s school, they don’t let you wear much.”

“But you put it on anyway….”

“Yeah! I don’t care! They can make me take it off but I’ll still go and put it back on!”

It’s as if she’s started to be interested in herself, at least in how she presents herself. The next time we meet, her hair looks different.

“I’ve had it cut. And they put some colour in it. But I didn’t tell my Gran and I still don’t think she’s even noticed!”

I ask if Alice has people fancying her.

“No!”

“Really?”

“No! I don’t go round with boys if that’s what you mean…. There’s a boy who likes me, though! Well, I think he might like me. I don’t know if he does really.” She and her friend are going to meet this boy on Saturday.

The following week, I ask how it went. Nothing happened because Alice had to go shopping with her grandmother. I ask if she and the boy are planning another meeting. They are.

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

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