- Teens, and especially smart teens, are often characterized by their defensiveness.
- This defensiveness serves the function of protecting a teen's budding identity.
- A certain amount of teen defensiveness is a good thing, unless it prevents him or her from getting needed help.
Not so long ago, I had my first coaching session with a young man just out of his teens. He was a living embodiment of the themes we’re discussing: high intelligence, a racing mind, a poignant grandiosity mixed up with massive self-doubt, high confusion about his career path, countless hours online daily, social isolation, a tense relationship with his parents, self-serving self-labeling (“Because of my ADHD, I can’t possibly do what you suggest!”), deep sadness and self-loathing, and a stubborn refusal to let me get in a word edgewise (“I haven’t finished making my point yet!”)
He was in a bad way, which he knew. But like so many smart, fast, verbal, stubbornly self-protective young adults, he had to run his obstacle course his way, tripping and stumbling, doubting his methods, doubting his abilities, and doubting his mental balance, but adamant in his refusal to listen to advice or take seriously how low he had slid. He could feel everyone’s worry; he could feel his own worry; but something in him made him respond to the world with, “I’m in terrible shape but I’m fine, I’m fine!”
We had just that single session, because I’d annoyed him by making observations and suggestions. Usually, I work with coaching clients for a while, most usually for a year or so. Then, typically, we’ll take a break; and often the client will return, having lived more of her life and finding herself again in need of some guidance and support. But with a stubbornly defensive client, one who simultaneously has no answers and all the answers, whose modus operandi is to breathlessly speak without pausing so as to keep the listener at bay, one session is rather the norm.
This is a terrible problem. When a teen is desperately unhappy, sensitive to everything in his environment, bouncing from thought to thought, project to project, and worry to worry, and also adamantly and defensively walled off from help, who and what can help? A very practiced, wise, and warm helper can sometimes help; some great organizing task, like next year’s major cello competition, may help in its way. But to the worried parent, it feels as if not even a mortar shell could penetrate the wall his teen has erected.
What Can Parents Do?
It can prove maddeningly frustrating to see your smart teen so full of doubt, so self-destructive, so down on himself, and, for all that, so stubbornly attached to his own plan and his own counsel. You may know to a certainty that he is not doing well, and you and he may even agree that he is not doing well, but his pressurized pushback is a rock-solid wall through which nothing you might suggest can penetrate.
What can you do? The world of psychiatry, to which your child might prove amenable, will offer one solution and, typically, one solution only: chemicals. A fierce debate rages as to whether those chemicals are ultimately helpful or harmful, whether they are actually medication treating a disorder or ought more properly to be construed as chemicals-with-powerful-effects. Those debates to one side, one thing a worried parent naturally thinks about providing her troubled, stubborn teen is what the mental health establishment is offering.
Then there is psychotherapy, which of course is just and exactly a kind of “expert talk.” It is the quality, warmth, and compassion of the therapist, and not something magical about therapy, that can—and regularly, does—help. A wise, practiced therapist can listen—and listen, and listen—can interject at just the right moment, can dance that brilliant two-step of providing support but also demanding accountability, and can make an actual difference in your child’s life. And, of course, an unfriendly or unskilled therapist may not help at all.
There are other resources, often scarce and/or expensive, from residential programs to mentoring programs to stress-reduction programs to wilderness camps, that may help. What can’t hurt, of course, is your love and compassion and your steady availability, especially when your troubled teen makes some overture. Maybe he finally wants to not only race on, keeping everyone out, but also to listen. Life is a strange enough affair that even one such conversation might make a difference.
What Teens Can Do
It is imperative that you retain your individuality, chart your own course, and remain true to your values and principles. But a defensive stubbornness that rejects all outside help won’t really serve you as you try to make your way in life. It is one thing to be passionately adamant and it is another thing to be defensively stubborn. Those two ways of being inevitably get intertwined and therefore need to get teased apart.
We have many reasons for wanting and needing to defend ourselves from painful truths. Maybe we’ve invested in the fantasy that we love Mary, who sits across from us in biology class, and we want to take her friendliness toward us as a sign that our love is reciprocated. But we know in our heart of hearts that she is friendly toward everyone and is just being everyday friendly toward us. Well, this is where our defenses come marching in. We defend ourselves against that truth, that Mary is just being friendly, so that we can maintain the fantasy that she is attracted to us. We want and need that fantasy, so we wall off the truth.
My hope for you is that you can get familiar with your own defensive nature, see it for what it is and learn how it operates, and come to see how living defensively only seems to serve you. Yes, it may feel good to rationalize away your loneliness, displace your anger about your poor grades onto your parents, repress your truth about your sexual orientation, or proudly and stubbornly deny that you need help. But I think that you are smart enough to understand the downside of such defensiveness. If you would like some homework, you might read up on how defense mechanisms work. It’s a fascinating subject—and a really important one.
This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt.
Sax, Leonard (2015). The Collapse of Parenting. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Gruzewski, Kevin (2020). Therapy Games for Teens. New York, NY: Rockridge Press.
Damour, Lisa (2020). Under Pressure. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.