It’s something I believe parents should be sensitive to once their child enters adolescence: expressions of self-dissatisfaction. In counseling, I take them seriously because they are variations of a single damaging statement: “I don’t like how I am or how my life is going.”
Self-dissatisfaction is a common, low-level complaint of self-dislike that is so endemic in adolescence that it is often just dismissed as teenage angst; but what starts as occasional angst can become constant, and what becomes constant angst can end motivating choices of the self-defeating, even self-destructive kind.
What I bothers me about statements of self-dissatisfaction is where they can emotionally lead when they become extreme. Just as sufficient embarrassment can start the adolescent down the road to humiliation to the gates of shame, and sufficient boredom can persuade a young person to impulsively try unwise diversion for the sake of escape, so sufficient self-dissatisfaction can gradually cause significant unhappiness to take hold and, at worst, lead a young person into the murky depths of despondency.
When ignored and allowed to worsen, I believe self-dissatisfaction can be partly reflected in the higher frequency of depression in teenage girls compared to boys, and in the higher frequency of aggressive acting out by teenage boys compared to girls. In both cases, what you often have are young people who wish they were not who and how they are, who feel like they can’t get it together, don’t measure up, don’t fit in, are unable to make things work, and can’t figure out a positive course of action for feeling better.
Anger directed inward or outward can become how a young person may cope with significant dissatisfaction expressed in common statements of grievance like these: "I messed up," "I'm no good," "I failed," "I was mistreated," "It was wrong," "It's unfair," "It's not what I wanted," "It's not what I expected," "It's not what was promised," "It will never get better!" To help their adolescent work through painful feelings that provoke these kinds of complaints, parents need to treat the teenager's anger as an expression of dissatisfaction that really matters, and to give an empathetic listen.
Four sources of self-dissatisfaction I commonly see are rooted in the adolescent process, in the world of peers, in demanding parents, and in the market place. Take them one at a time.
THE ADOLESCENT PROCESS is driven by dissatisfaction. It begins with the separation from childhood around ages 9 – 13 when in words and actions the young person lets it be known that he or she is no longer content to be defined and treated as a just a child any more.
Dissatisfaction breeds the motivation to change, to act more grown up, the young person becoming less tractable when being told what must and must not be done. As he or she resolves to achieve more independence, living on parental terms becomes more difficult to do.
Now parents become more dissatisfied with the passive resistance (delay) and active resistance (argument) with which they must contend when they want the young person to get anything done. So dissatisfaction in the adolescent leads to dissatisfaction in the parents resulting in more dissatisfaction on both sides of the relationship. The mutual admiration society of parent and child often changes to the mutual irritation society of parent and teenager.
THE WORLD OF PEERS has a lot to answer for, with the constant comparison and competition and criticism for not attaining “enough.” Consider some commonly perceived deficiencies that can breed self-dissatisfaction.
Not being knowledgeable enough: “I’m out of it!”
Not being competitive enough: “I’m a loser!”
Not being popular enough: “I’m never invited!”
Not being physically attractive enough: “I hate my body!”
Not being smart enough: “I’m so dumb!”
Not being well-dressed enough: “I’ve got nothing to wear!”
Not being sociable enough: “I never know what to say!”
Not being happy enough: “I’m nothing but problems!”
Not being tough enough: “I can’t stand up for myself!”
Not being nice enough: “I can’t please everyone!”
Not being mature enough: “I look like a kid!”
Not being manly enough: “I’m too small!”
Not being womanly enough: “I’m too fat!”
Add social cruelty (being teased, excluded, bullied, rumored, or ganged up on) in response to complaints of these kinds, and both outer and inner worlds can turn against the adolescent. “No one likes me, and I don’t like myself!”
DEMANDING PARENTS who cannot be satisfied usually inspire dissatisfaction in the adolescent. “Because my parents are never pleased no matter how hard I try or well I do, that’s how I am with myself. Of course, I hate it when they ask if I couldn’t have done better, but part of me always wonders if they’re not right.” That’s the power of parents – whether the teenager likes it or not, what they believe can become internalized. “When my parents second guess my decisions or doubt me, I do too!”
When parents invest in their child, they expect some return, often one that causes them to feel good about themselves. (Witness the extreme investment some parents make in their only child, and the high level of performance they want back.) So when teenage performance falls, when significant misbehavior occurs, or when teenage values run counter to values of their own, parents can feel disappointed and let the young person know. Expression of parental disappointment ("You have really let us down!") is parental dissatisfaction carried to a damaging extreme. When this occurs, it can be heavy going for the adolescent who can feel like he or she has lost loving standing in parental eyes and may never recover positive regard that has been lost.
Adolescent self-disatisfaction makes them particularly sensitive to any form of parental criticism. This is why when parents do not like some aspect of the young person's behavior, they need to be strictly non-evaluative in their response, taking issue with choices, not criticizing the person: "We disagree with the decision you have made, this is why, and this is what we need from you instead."
THE MARKET PLACE is a major source of dissatisfaction. In adolescence, identity becomes attached to fashionable dress, to cool products one owns, and to entertainment one has experienced. But it’s hard to stay ahead of the curve because no matter how much one has or does, there is always more to have or do, and someone you know that has that or has done that already. In addition, what is new and different and better and latest today is old and ordinary and inferior and behind the times tomorrow. So when his daughter complains that she has nothing to wear and the dad complains that she has a closet full of clothes that are her size, neither one is lying. However, what fits the body is not the same as what fits the desirable image of the moment. Like the good customers adolescents are being trained to become, they suffer from chronic material discontent: there is no “enough.”
Teenagers are always running behind the times, and if they can’t catch up are in danger of not fitting in and feeling out of it, of being treated that way by their peers. And of course, there’s no way most adolescents can measure up to the youthful celebrities and models that are glamorized by the media, so most teenagers feel relatively inadequate and self-dissatisfied when making this comparison, as they can’t help but do.
What all this means for parents is that they can’t have an adolescent who is not dissatisfied on multiple counts, but neither can they afford to dismiss dissatisfaction as nothing but normal discontent of the adolescent process because of its potential for significant unhappiness and harm.
What can parents do when they hear repeated statements of self-dissatisfaction from their adolescent?
First, listen for however long the young person wants to vent their complaints because you want to encourage talking out instead of risking acting out. “I am always ready to hear about any discontents or hardships going on.”
Second, do not argue with these negative sentiments because you will appear to oppose their thinking in an effort to change their feelings. And the integrity of their emotional experience must be respected. So empathize instead. “I hear your frustration and unhappiness and I am saddened for you.”
Third, do offer an independent appraisal of their situation because your outside observations of what is of positive value in their life may cause your son or daughter to see themselves or in a more positive light. “When I see how you are conducting your life, here are some of the things I see going well.”
Fourth, if you see affirmative choices that are within the young person’s power to reduce a specific source of dissatisfaction, offer a possible course of action “for what it’s worth.” Sometimes your teenager can’t see a way to turn an experience from bad to better, and as a parent you can. So for example you offer your teenager, who is feeling bad about the physical shape they are in, to join you at the gym a few times a week. “Hey, working out works for me. Maybe it would work for you.”
And fifth, if in your judgment the adolescent’s dissatisfaction is reflected in lowered self-esteem, a more negative attitude, loss of motivation, emotional suffering, and in self-defeating or self-harming behavior, don’t let it go. Get counseling to help turn the dissatisfaction around. “You don’t have to go through this unhappiness alone. With help, you can help yourself feel better.”
I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.
Next week’s entry: How Conflict Can Worsen Parent/Adolescent Communication