Listening to Experience
We must validate and understand the experience of young people in distress.
Posted Jun 13, 2013
I recall working with a young man who had undergone sexual trauma at the age of 4. He lived in a chaotic family with an aggressive, addicted father. There was little positives spoken to this young man. He had an extensive history of psychiatric hospitalizations. What I began to note was that within the hospital setting he was able to 'conform' and was discharged in only a few weeks, but problems would erupt again once sent home leading to further hospitalizations. In one instance, this young man stayed in the home of those outside his family. Though there remained some challenges, he appeared calmer and more able to communicate.
I recall a similar instance with another child. The step-father was abusive both verbally and physically. The mother often because of her own fear would 'cover' for the step-father's actions. The child in one on one settings never created any disturbance.
However, his behaviors in the home were often 'disturbing'. I was pleased that during my work with him he was not hospitalized at any point nor on psychiatric drugs. However, I was aware that he had a prior history of this many times over. In both of these situations, I saw the family dynamics as oppressive and detrimental and tried my best to help the children navigate through the challenges with the system doing little to collaborate in meeting these children's needs.
In light of these two situations, and hearing of others from colleagues, I determined that it was the home, the family dynamics that was the catalyst for making these children 'mad'. When apart from these dynamics, they were able to conform to the rules of the institutions because they were forced to do so. But really what were the psychiatrists accomplishing for them? They merely subdued them with drugs, forced their compliance, and returned them to the same oppressive environment which led to their being hospitalized in the first place. It became evident that the psychiatric establishment could really care less, for each admission added to their coffers. The family was pleased to create a scapegoat rather than addressing the core problem and to have a place to send the 'disturbed child' to so that they could continue in their own self-interest.
I recall two other clients that I collaborated with in therapy. One was an adolescent boy who I will refer to as Alan. Alan was seen by most as an obstinate young man who had completed departed from any sense of reality. His hallucinations had earned him the diagnosis of a psychotic disorder not to mention he frequently displayed aggressive behavior. Reading the charts from before, it painted a monstrosity, but gave little detail to what Alan’s experience might have been. When I first encountered Alan, I did not demand that he speak to me or that he not speak to me. I made no demands. I solely informed him that I was a supportive person who wanted to know him for who he is. This opened the door to intense dialogues. Together we explored questions about life that we both may have never thought much on before. The topics would drift to purpose, impermanence, suffering, the human condition. He related to me the pain of years of abuse, how he felt dehumanized and humiliated by the various people he thought would help him. He told me of his feelings of being alone, of being nothing. This feeling of nothing for him was an end at the time, but really it was the beginning. It was the door for him to question life, to question what he had been taught, to become. He related to me about his hallucinations, and his imaginary friends became mine as well. I asked about their habits, and their words. I noticed that these beings he saw were him at various points in time. As I met each of these beings, I learned something a bit more about the experience of Alan. Gradually as his emotional needs were met and he began to see himself once again as a singular person in the present moment of time and space, these beings began to depart. I saw in Alan the resilient human spirit and I will not forget him.
I was contacted on one occasion to conduct an assessment and consult with a family in regards to their son who was in his early twenties who had been involuntarily committed by his father to a state mental hospital. As I entered the facility, wondered how any in this place could not feel worthless, depressed, and mad. I entered to meet John. He appeared somewhat lethargic because of the cocktail of psychiatric drugs he was being given, but he greeted me warmly and with a smile. John began to immediately speak and told me how he was an African American infant who when he was around two years old was turned white. (John was quite pale in complexion). He then proceeded to tell me about the mind control he felt he was experiencing, that his freedom was taken away, he could no longer think for himself. I asked him who he felt was controlling his mind. His answer did not surprise me- it was his father. I later asked the mother if John’s father was a racist and if John had been abused. The answer was yes to both; the father had been linked to racist organizations. The abuse began around the age of 2. It was clear that John had a powerful message, though surrounded in metaphor. To the person only wanting to categorize behavior and ignore experience, would they have known what John was seeking to communicate? As Laing states, " psychotherapy must remain an obstinate attempt of two people to recover the wholeness of being human through the relationship between them."
The distressed adolescent often has feelings of abandonment, emotional detachment, withdrawal, and isolation. These children begin to develop an intense anger directed towards an adult society that they feel has hurt them and does not understand them. Parents need to learn how to build relationships with these children and this can be accomplished through a process of emotional coaching, of allowing the child to express their feelings without judgment while providing clear guidance, limits, and expectations. It is often inconsistency and lack of clear guidance from parents that further the struggles for these children who then begin to seek guidance from misinformed peers.
These children need love, affection, and a non-judgmental atmosphere. If love does not come from a meaningful and sustainable adult relationship then it will take on a new and contorted character where the concept of 'love' comes from trying to be accepted by peers (even if they be negative ones) as the child will know that they will find a source of non-judgment and will be 'liked' even if it causes their eventual self-destruction. Affection that is not provided by adults, who should be responsible, is then replaced by irresponsible sexual activity where the teen not only seeks for pleasure in a world that often provides only hurt, but feels once again that through sex, they can find a sense of acceptance and supposed emotional connection.
Some teens are so hurt and are suffering from the adults in their lives and the chaotic environment in which they dwell, that they turn to 'radical rebellion'. This can be seen with those children who are 'cutters' as well as those into such movements as punk and goth. With cutters, the emotional pain and trauma they have experienced is so intense, that their mental anguish manifests itself physically through the act of cutting. For the goth teen, who dwells in a world of emotional darkness and frequent experiences of despair, once again, this mental anguish displays itself in physical signs through the wearing of dark clothing, dark objects, body piercings and fascination with things associated with death. There are also those teens who involve themselves in gangs as they are seeking a sense of connection with a 'family', even if this 'family' causes them to engage in dangerous behavior. The desire for a connection with someone who they feel will accept them outweighs their thoughts of any sense of danger or risk.
Teens are seeking autonomy, but they must be taught by responsible adults that this autonomy they desire also comes with responsibility. Many teens who are distressed feel that they are controlled and are criticized. Rarely, are distressed teens positives and strengths accentuated but teachers, parents, and others frequently focus on the negative. The child enters despair and has no motivation or drive to change because they have been taught by the adults around them the attitude of 'why bother' and the feeling that they are without worth.
Parents and others must stop looking at the child as the 'problem' or try through various means to uncover some 'hidden problem' or try to blame the problem on others. If the parent can be honest and introspective, no matter how difficult and even painful that may be, they will find that there are ways that they can help alleviate the suffering of their child and they may even uncover that there were ways they contributed to this suffering. This does not mean the parent must wallow in guilt, but rather to recognize the things that must change for the teen and the family to have a more harmonious relationship.
When children have experienced abuse and abandonment in early childhood, this often becomes a 'seared in' memory and halts emotional development to the point where the trauma occurred. They may be seen to have a more 'infantile' mind. These feelings of abandonment are often furthered by demeaning words and condescending language used with the child. Each times this occurs; the child begins to look at themselves as a 'non-entity'. They experience existential death. The external conflict that children see amongst their parents becomes an internal conflict for them, the internal conflict then manifests itself externally (usually as aggression). The child becomes devoid of trust, and those who draw near often become the persons who this internal conflict is unleashed upon. It is not that the child is devoid of any feeling for the person seeking to connect with them; it is rather that every connection had strings attached or every connection has been severed. The child becomes anxious and afraid of loss, of even losing themselves, if they are to try again to embark on the process of building a trusting relationship. Laing (1969) stated that 'if there is anything the schizoid individual is likely to believe in, it his own destructiveness. He is unable to believe that he can fill his own emptiness without reducing what is there to nothing.' It will be common then for these children to question whether they deserve 'happiness' and many times question if they even 'deserve to exist'. The children who have undergone the trauma of abuse and abandonment lack an identity of their own; they appear as a construct of others and often are conformist. They do what they feel will earn them the praise of others. But in reality this is based on their own fears and their negative perceptions of themselves. These children are prone to be seen as manipulative, but this is because they are seeking to exercise control over some aspect of their lives when prior they had absolutely no control. They strive for ideals they cannot be met. Often their intense desire to control or to engage in certain activities in reality is a crying out for their real desire- to have an actual loving and trusting relationship. But these children do not know how to respond to an outpouring of love. They feel that they do not have a voice, are not heard. It is easier for them to feel hated than engulfed by love, particularly when they have seen love to be about control. They desire autonomy and feel they will lose it in the process of building a true relationship. These children may begin to also de-personalize; they may not be prepared to relate to other persons. They may be perceived as lacking empathy, however this is not that it is not there or could not be there, rather it is their fear that blocks their emotional expression of empathy. These children are often very hurt so they feel they must hurt others.
What do we do? How do we reach such a child? It requires a patient approach. We must allow the child to vent their frustrations. We must share our understanding that we know they are hurt. We must journey with them as they relate their experience of trauma. We do not judge them or withdraw. Even when their emotional expressions may cause us to be afraid, we continue to reach out. We need to be able to forge relationship know matter what and to help the child come to an understanding of life's impermanency, yet we can still strive for happiness now. The trauma is past and does not need to haunt us. We can encourage this child to explore their own sense of self and engage in activities that give them a positive sense of self worth apart from others. Caregivers and others need to make themselves emotionally available, to look at emotional expression as a time for intimacy and teaching. We need to be able to understand the behaviors, even that which are annoying to us, as a means of communication, and when the child is in the 'right space', to communicate with them and help them process those feelings that were behind whatever incident occurred.
We may be prone to drug the child because the behaviors are seen as 'out of control' or 'disturbing', but whereas this may cause the problematic behavior to lessen, we may be making a grave mistake. We may be subduing the very process by which the child is able to release the tension and pain. We may be numbing but not looking at the root cause. Unless we see the behavior, how can we truly know what to do? If we cannot allow the child to express their distress, how will we truly know of their distress?
To be simple, our means of reaching this child is this- to be with them unconditionally.
How do we make sense of the troubled teen? Particularly those who enter the world of addiction, whose family relationships are torn, and who are often seen associating with 'negative' peers? Many will assume that these teens can be easily identified by their style of dress or maybe by their class, but these struggles can be found in many families. Behavior can be seen but not experience. What the child may interpret as their experience may be very different from the parent and vice versa. What may have been gravely traumatic to the child may not have been seen as such by the family. In our society today which causes us immense stress and pressure to survive (if we are poor) or attain more (if we are well to do) has diverted attention away from understanding experience. Society has now sought to medicalize experience where any thoughts and feelings, any part of our human condition need not be understood but numbed by a pill. We are a numb society responding to societal pressures. These pressures become unleashed on our children. A parent may fear that their child will endure hardship that the parent may have endured so the parent seeks to force and coerce the child 'out of love' to achieve and do what the parent desires. The teen in a state of exerting autonomy feels threatened and thus rejects in toto the guidance of the parent and seeks after peers who will understand their experience and their pain.
As I mentioned that we are taught to be a numb society, some teens choose to numb their emotional pain by illicit drugs. This idea has been instilled by our society. The teen may not realize the self destructive course they are taking because they have convinced themselves that they are free. But it is not freedom they possess, for freedom comes with responsibility, rather they have traded one slavery for another. Parents must take the time to understand the world and experience of the teen, to build communication which seeks to understand their desire for autonomy and which respects their experience. An overprotective stance and coercion leads to the breakdown of communication which is vital for any relationship to survive. We often distrust children, we do not allow them the ability to make decisions and when they are poor ones to see the logical consequences. Why is it that adults assume they possess the wisdom when adult society has engaged in numerous conflicts costing many lives? Could children make the right decisions or better decisions if we solely gave them support and listened and journeyed with them rather than seeking to take away their autonomy they so desperately desire?
We all seek to be free. When we seek to create the identity and destiny of the teen, we will fail. They will not be able to develop an identity of their own but will grapple with who they are, meaning, and their purpose. We must allow them to find themselves as we as adults function as coaches in this game of life. We cannot think we can play the game for them or can manipulate the results. When we can become involved with children again in a relationship of trust and respect, then it is possible that what is seen as troublesome behavior will diminish. When the child feels validated, supported, heard, and able to have a voice, they will in turn give the same to the parent. We must be cautious of what we model. If we seek to coerce and manipulate the child to meet our desires as adults, we will have manipulative children. Our methods of communication will be the childs methods. If we focus our time on the mundane, we will find children to do likewise or seek to rebel against this system. Because of the imbalance in power, the child's rebellion is never successful but mostly self destructive but they rarely recognize this. We can restore sanctuary to families, but it is up to each to take ownership and responsibility for creating it.