Self-destructive teenagers are a little like suicide bombers: they express their anger by blowing themselves up. In the process--and not at all by coincidence--they take their parents down with them. Watching their loved child self destruct is a cruel type of torture.
Anger turned inwards is a particularly dangerous form of passive-aggression. When a person cannot express anger directly, most often because the anger is unconscious, the person cannot get over it easily. She is doomed to act out in self-destructive ways, motivated by an anger of which she is not even aware. Teen age self-destructiveness takes many forms: from having a chaotically messy room or refusing to talk to parents, to chronic school failure or getting into trouble with the law.
The key to helping self destructive teenagers is not to diagnose or drug them but to get to the root of their anger, and then do the work to make appropriate changes in the family. For example, fourteen year old Sophie was getting C’s and D’s at school, even though she was very bright. Every day she procrastinated doing her homework until nine or ten at night. Then she did her homework half-heartedly, with the result that she stayed up too late and was barely able to get up for school in the mornings.
Extensive psychological and neurological testing yielded no explanation for Sophie’s poor school performance. Sophie’s parents then tried rewarding her with new clothes and computer games for good grades. Then they started taking away TV time, video game time and finally time with her friends. Nothing helped. Sophie only became more sullen, stubborn, and withdrawn. The educational psychologist they were working with at the time suggested that they try medication to help Sophie focus. Not wanting to go the route of psychotropic medication, and at their wit’s end, Sophie’s parents decided to try family therapy.
After several months of family therapy and individual sessions with Sophie, we were slowly able to unravel the roots of Sophie’s anger. She had always felt that her parents favored her older brothers over her. Sophie's anger and resentment about this had built up over the years—although she had not been consciously aware of her anger until it emerged in therapy.
With Sophie’s consent, I was able to discuss these issues with her parents. They were at first understandably defensive, but eventually they realized that it was true. They had unwittingly favored their sons because Sophie had always been the “perfect” child and they hadn’t needed to worry about her. Their sons, on the other hand, had learning disabilities that required a lot of parental attention.
Sophie's parents were shocked to learn how much the feelings of anger and resentment were motivating their daughter’s school failure. The family and I worked together until Sophie felt that her parents were no longer favoring her brothers. Eventually, she started to feel happier at home and her school performance improved.
Self destructive behavior can take a far worse form than school failure. This was the case with seventeen-year-old Andrew. Andrew’s unconscious rage about his parent’s divorce and his mother's remarriage led to two arrests--one for bringing marijuana to school and another for destroying school property. When Andrew punched a hole through his bedroom wall and later physically assaulted his step father, his parents reluctantly decided to send him to a 4-month therapeutic wilderness program. They felt that this was the only way to keep their son out of jail because they could not keep him under control at home. Because they loved Andrew so dearly, his parents were unable to enforce consequences for his misbehavior.
With the help of intensive individual therapy at the wilderness program and later with family therapy--in which his parents learned to set limits as well as give positive attention for things done right--Andrew was able to improve enough to stay out of trouble and graduate high school.
Parents of self destructive teenagers or young adults should know that their youngster may well be motivated by unconscious feelings of anger and resentment. Only when the roots of the rage are uncovered and dealt with will the teenager be able to get on a more productive path. The therapeutic approach that works best is two-pronged. It involves the therapist working with the teenager to uncover the roots of the anger, and at the same time working with the family to ensure that the teen is getting consistent consequences for misbehavior.This is sometimes a tighrope walk for a therapist because she must keep boundaries. If the therapist has the trust of both the teen and the family, the therapy can work well.
Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.
Marilyn Wedge is the author of Pills are Not For Preschoolers: A Drug-Free approach for Troubled Kids