Giving Adolescents Balanced Help with Adversity

Helping the teenager focus both on the problem and solution sides of unhappiness

Posted May 27, 2013

When a significant adversity occurs in an adolescent's life, like a painful rejection (a romantic break up, for example) or like a disappointing failure (not succeeding in a tryout, for example) helping the young person recover and move on is something parents are often called upon to do.

To give this help requires supporting the expression and understanding of the problem, and encouraging the planning and implimenting of a solution. This can be a delicate mix to manage because it's easy to dwell on unhappiness caused by the problem and not strategize a solution, and it's easy to rush to a solution and not learn from a painful problem.

So the jilted teenager may become so immersed in unhappiness and immobilized by sorrow that he is unable to think about steps for moving on. And the teenager who failed to be selected may want to immediately audition for something new without taking time to understand some painful truths about how sense of entitlement and lack of effort cost her the competition.

The job of parents in these situations is to help the adolescent give sufficient time to both problem and solution to enable a full recovery from the hard experience that occurred. In a sense, this is like what I try to do in counseling, and it is always a balancing act: how much to focus on the painful problem with people, how much to focus on the productive solution, and how to honor this mix.

Just like parenting the unhappy adolescent, so for counseling with clients: the question is: where to begin? The order generally is first to help the person understand the problem, how it came to be and how it hurts, and then develop steps toward a solution for making an improvement. For parent or counselor, this isn't easy.

Personal history takes a longer time to understand than to unfold. It has to be pieced together after the fact, and so assembling a sensible and responsible understanding of what happened can take a while. As for finding a workable solution, that is often a trial error process, attempting one strategy and then another until a corrective course is found.

It's easy to get stuck on the problem and the solution side. From counseling, consider the common unhappiness caused by parental divorce. There may be the parent, for example, who is left with the kids by a spouse who has abandoned marriage for another partner. The parent left may be suffering from feelings of betrayal and rejection, as well as stress from assuming single parent responsibility. Children, now in adolescence, may be troubled by their sense of grief and grievance at the breach of parenting commitment to family and to them.

Stuck on the solution side, there is the adolescent who has acted very sullen since the divorce, but protests against the need for any help, exclaiming: “I don’t need to talk! It happened, it’s over, case closed! I just want to stop thinking about it! I want to get on with my life, not look back!” Determined to find a coping solution in forgetfulness, he refuses to focus on the problem because that is painful to do. However, now unacknowledged grief and grievance can hold him hostage to this painful past.

Stuck on the problem side, there is the parent, who is still furiously hurt at how the other parent could just walk out of almost twenty years of marriage, abandoning the adolescent kids, and only wants to rage at the divorce and at the ex: “How could I be treated this way! It isn’t fair or right! They’ve got happiness to enjoy, and I’ve got nothing but misery!” Focusing so resentfully on the problem that no attention is given to matters of improvement, there is little possibility for relief. Dwelling on pain only deepens the pain and makes it hard to entertain the solution question: “What can I do to make my future happier than the present?”

The point is this: whether as parent or counselor, teaching a young person to honor both sides of coping with adversity -- the problem side and the solution side -- is really helpful to do. Understanding the problem has a lot to teach about how life feels and happens, and crafting a solution develops skills for improving life experience. I believe parents can teach their adolescent that recovery from adversity takes both a problem and a solution focus. 

Problem focus tends to feel more negative because it is concerned with examining what seems wrong or painful. Problem focus

• expains what happened,

• inventories how one feels,

• And draws lessons to be learned.

Solution focus tends to feel more positive because it is concerned with what can be done to resolve what’s wrong and create improvement. Solution focus

• plans for what is wanted,

• strategizes for how to get there,

• And sets in motion actions to make life better.

What is the best mix of focus? I don’t know exactly, but what I have seen counseling teenagers is this. Talking a problem to death in pursuit of perfect insight or thorough analysis doesn’t bring a better future to life. It only entraps young people in endless re-examination and re-iteration of their unhappiness that gets in the way of formulating and taking corrective action.

When the problem has been defined and discussed enough so that sufficient (not complete) understanding is developed, a full and fair hearning being given, then it’s time to move off the problem and into solution mode so life can proceed in a more satisfying way.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESENCE (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and College Readiness