Falling Through the Cracks: Coming Soon to a Teenager Near You

Sound like any teenager you know?

Posted Jul 29, 2011

For not a small percentage of teenagers, the crack between adolescent dependence and young adult independence is wide enough to drive an entire family through (and make them crazy along the way).

Traversing the psychological terrain between teenage dependence and young adult independence is fraught with anxiety, confusion and fear.  Doing it successfully means letting go of your dependence upon your parents to becoming independent.  The more you need your parents, the less independent and more ashamed you feel.  Such shame begets irritability and that can cause you to snap at them if they say something and snap at them if they say nothing.  That can be very scary to you and chilling to your parents.  Such a "no win" relationship with your parents requires an empathic understanding that goal oriented, project managing type parents find particularly difficult to muster.

Frequently associated with this is a deeply painful and increasingly dark despair. If you think of the word “despair” as “des-pair” and as feeling “unpaired” in a world in which it seems that everyone else is paired with hope vs. hopelessness, help vs. helplessness, meaning vs. meaninglessness, worth vs. worthlessness, a point to living vs. pointlessness, you get an idea of what it is like to feel like these teenagers and young adults who are stuck.

A little pharmacology can relieve some of the symptoms, activity can be a little distracting and mindfulness comes close to bringing a little aliveness, but none of these approaches nor all of them resolve the core suffering in teenagers who feel they just can't make it to the other side and reach young adulthood.

So what is the cure? What hopeless, meaningless, worthless, pointless and useless have in common is “less” as in without hope, help, meaning, worth, a point to go on.  The key to helping these teens is to give them a “with” experience.

A few years ago a patient shared an imaginary story about their childhood that he called, “Piano Story” that captured what being stuck is about and what it needs to be healed.

Every day, seven year old Jed would come home from school and walk into his living room where their baby grand piano was nestled in a corner nearly out of site. And each day for more than an hour, Jed would sit under that piano staring up at the plywood belly and palpating the brass keys as he stared. The piano was an oasis and a haven away from the anger, depression and pain in his family that Jed was unable to tune out. He couldn’t go to his bedroom to do that, because he shared it with an older brother who seemed very unhappy and who on more than a few occasions would take it out on him.

As he would stare at the plywood and feel the coolness of those brass pedals, Jed found relief and even a little comfort. He was on his way to becoming autistic. Jed was looking for something in the plywood and the feel of those pedals beyond an escape from the pain in his family that he couldn’t tune out. But he didn’t know what it was.

Then one day, three months into this ritual turned compulsion, a man in his late thirties came into the living room and noticed Jed under the piano. The man walked slowly over to the piano and slowly bent down to speak to Jed. On this day, Jed didn’t notice the man doing that, because Jed was entranced by a knot in the wood under the piano and focused on its elliptical shape and the different colors. He thought it looked like the Solar System and Jed imagined himself in a spaceship venturing out to explore and far away from the life he was living or more accurately wasn’t living.

The man intuitively knew not to say to Jed, “What are you doing under here?” or “Hey want to go do something?” or even “You look pretty sad, let’s go do something fun?” Instead he smiled in a way where his smile touched his eyes and where this mouth and eyes were like two hands reaching out to Jed at which point he said in just the right exact tone: “Hey there, mind if I join you?”

Hitting the tone exactly right, Jed’s “knotty pine fantasy” was interrupted, but he didn’t startle. Without making eye contact and a little anxious, but not fearful, Jed replied, “Suit yourself.”

The man climbed in under the piano and positioned himself perpendicularly to Jed, with each of them leaning back on the respective walls behind them and with their feet about one foot apart from touching.

This continued for three months with Jed and the man under the piano. Gradually, Jed began to stop staring up into the piano’s wood underbelly and started to glance at the man. Then one day, Jed said to the man, “What are you doing here?”

And in the same smile touching eyes touching Jed and with the perfectly inviting, but non intrusive tone of voice, the man said, “You didn’t look like you should be alone.”

As if caught with his vulnerability showing, Jed abruptly looked away, went silent and grabbed on to the solar system knot in the wood above him with his eyes.

Three months later, Jed had begun glancing more frequently at the man, who never seemed to intrude and seemed very content to just be there with Jed. At that point, Jed asked: “Is this normal?”

The man looked at Jed with that smile and those warm eyes and replied, “Is what normal?”

Jed said, “Every day I get home from school and come and sit under this piano for more than an hour. I just wondered if that is normal for a seven year old kid.”

Again with that same connectedness the man smiled with even more understanding and even more love and said, “It’s not typical.”

Jed didn’t know what to do with that expression of patience, kindness and love and again abruptly looked away, but not before some tears of relief in making human contact got through to him.

Three months later (and a full nine months of gestation with the man patiently sitting with Jed under the piano), Jed found himself looking more intently and with deep curiosity at the man, who seemed very present, unobtrusive and apparently quite content with merely keeping Jed company. Jed steeled himself to ask the question that had been gnawing at him and the answer to which would reveal to Jed whether there was hope for him or if he and his situation were truly hopeless (something he had come to believe with nearly complete certainty). “Do I ever get better?” Jed fired at the man, staring into his eyes with a “don’t b.s. me on this!” challenge.

At that point, the man’s smile widened, his eyes sparkled with a loving, caring and tear laden look as if he’d been waiting for Jed to ask this question for six months. “Absolutely!” the man replied with unwavering certainty and confidence.

Jed narrowed his eyes and leaned into the man’s “cup runneth over with love” eyes and inviting full face. “How do you know that?” Jed said with a “truth or dare” and playing for keeps intensity.

The man paused until he could take in all of Jed’s words and position himself such that Jed would not only feel understood by him, but would “feel felt” by him. And then as if sending a healing beam of warmth to remove all the “lesses” from Jed’s feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, meaninglessness, pointlessness, uselessness the man replied: “Because I’m you and we got out.”

At that point Jed was stunned, transfixed in the man’s gaze and started to cry with the relief of finally discovering the home he had been homesick for. He realized that he actually did belong in this world. He belonged to himself.

And with that Jed and the man came out from under the piano. Jed looked back at the piano with appreciation for the haven it had provided him, but realizing that he no longer needed it now that he had found a home in and with himself.

If the above speaks to you about a teenager you love, how can you go under their piano and join them.

First of all, you need to drop your “human doingness” and “solution mindedness” and “fix things mentality.” To be honest, it never served your child, it served your need to stay in control and to not lose control.

Next you need to pick a calm time to ask your adolescent the following questions and have the following conversation:

  1. “I would like to understand something better, would it be okay if I asked you a question?” That will give them the chance to shift from their usual reactive stance to possibly listening to you. If they push back and say, “No,” calmly say, “That’s okay. It can wait and if it’s not important, we can just let it go." Chances are their need to be in control of their conversations with you will cause them to irritatingly say, “Okay, what is it?”
  2. “How alone do you feel?” They may look at you perplexed especially if they perceive you and needing to do or needing to solve. And being off balance, they may even respond, “What?” At that point just repeat the question, “How alone do you feel?”
  3. After they give their answer, which is likely to be, “Very,” or “Extremely,” respond, “At its worst, how bad does that get for you?”
  4. They may begin to tear up with relief, because your inviting tone is helping them to feel less alone. Allow them to respond in whatever way they choose and say, “And when it’s at its worst, what does it make you want to do?”
  5. Allow them to say things such as, “Give up,” “Quit everything” or even “Kill myself.” Don’t react with anxiety or a solution. If you do they will feel that you just gave them an invitation to open up and then you shut them down.
  6. Instead say, “Look into my eyes,” and then say (as if you were the man in the Piano Story above), “I didn’t know it was so bad, and I apologize for even causing you to feel that I didn’t want to know. Here’s the deal, you are living in hell and as your parent, I can’t allow you to be in hell alone. So we’re going to fix that, but I may need your help since I’m a ‘solvaholic’ and a solution is not what you need right now. I think what you need is to feel less alone. It’s going to get better and I am so sorry for not realizing this sooner."



About the Author

Mark Goulston, M.D., the author of the book Just Listen, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

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