Parenting an Adolescent and the Power of Hope

The capacity for hope keeps young people energized by positive possibilities.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

My bias as a psychologist has always been to help the client find grounds for hope as they struggle with whatever problems they are bringing into counseling.

Hope is not about denying whatever negative is going on, but just as gratitude counts blessings for what is given and goes well, hope appreciates the existence of positive possibilities to anticipate, this recognition energizing the will to carry on.

The Power of Hope 

To appreciate the power of hope, let's start with an experience that a dear friend once confided to me. 

This friend was admitted to the hospital for yet one more health emergency that had regularly come to punctuate his life. So there he was in the deep of the night, seated in bed, hunched over his bed table, pondering his ongoing ailments, and wondering if he should try to keep going. 

Lost in gloomy thoughts in his darkened room, suddenly there appeared in the doorway a shadowy figure with the hall light behind it that my friend couldn’t quite make out no matter how hard he stared. 

That’s when he heard the figure’s voice. “What do you have to live for?” it asked.   

My friend had nothing to answer since his thoughts were painfully elsewhere.

“What do you have to live for?” repeated the questioner.

“I don’t know,” answered my friend — because at that time he truly didn’t.

“What do you have to live for?” the question came again, so my friend decided to give it some thought, while the figure patiently waited for a response.

“Well,” said my friend at last, “I would love to see my daughter graduate from high school. I would love to be there for that occasion.”

The figure nodded like it had heard, turned, and then disappeared out the door as mysteriously as it had entered.

Soon after, my friend lay back and fell asleep, only to be awakened in the morning for medical rounds. First came the nurse, and my friend was glad to see a smiling face and greet a brand new day. Then the doctor came in. 

“How are you feeling?” the doctor asked.

My friend startled to attention because he recognized that voice. It belonged to the apparition who had visited him the night before. It was the voice of hope.

That’s the power of Hope. Providing something good in your future to look forward to, it can be a lifeline to survival when hard times occur.

Adolescent Hope is Easily Lost 

Adolescence is a process of developmental change that keeps upsetting and resetting the terms of a young person’s existence on the journey to independence. The coming of age passage is not emotionally easy. Along the way, it entails a great deal of loss because growing up requires constant giving up. Old self-definition, activities, interests, and relationships must be let go for older ones to be established.  

And there is much mistake-based education – learning from the costly errors of unwise and impulsive choices. At such times, it is easy to lose confidence and faith in oneself and in future possibility.  

Monitor Hopefulness

When an adolescent shows signs of losing hope, parents need to show how hope can be recovered. For example, consider how these parents responded to their emotionally devastated teenager:

 “After his girlfriend broke up the relationship, she was his first love, our son seemed inconsolable. Overwhelmed by sadness, he felt he had lost all that mattered to him. And for a while it seemed like he was losing his will to carry on. So while we gave him our emotional support, we also reconnected him to good things in his life, particularly those that lay ahead, to look forward to. We wanted to keep him company in his sadness, but we also wanted to give grounds for hope. We didn’t want him to yield to despondency and maybe do himself harm.”  

Their concern of dire consequences from despair, or utter loss of hope, is not unfounded. As The New York Times recently reported (9/7/19, p. A21): “Across the country, suicide has been on the rise. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide had become the second leading cause of death for people age 10 to 23.” That is the life span of adolescence, as I understand it.   

Hope-Endangering Experiences

Parents need to understand the fragility of hope in adolescent lives. There are common bruising, hope-endangering experiences that frequently occur during the adolescent passage, painful events that parents should be on the watch for. To name a few:

  • Reverses: “Life went against me.”
  • Failures: “I didn’t make the cut.”
  • Rejections: “I got turned down.”
  • Disappointments: “I didn’t get what I worked for.”
  • Loss: “What mattered was taken away.”
  • Stress: “I can’t stand the pressure.”
  • Harassment: “I got pushed around.”
  • Intimidation: “I got threatened.” 
  • Loneliness: “I have no one who cares.”
  • Humiliation: “I got embarrassed.”
  • Discouragement: “I keep messing up.”
  • Exclusion: “I wasn’t invited.”
  • Injury: “I got badly hurt.”
  • Defeat: “I lost the competition.”

When events such as these cause self-worth to take a beating, it can be hard to keep one’s hopes up. From their loyal watch, parents must monitor how their adolescent’s capacity for hope is holding up in response to such painful, albeit common, hardships. 

Take Loss of Hope Seriously

If the young person starts talking or acting in “giving up” or “not mattering” or “why keep trying” or “what’s the matter with me” or “I don’t want to talk about it” terms after one of these adversities, and after several days can’t seem to shake this hopeless state of mind, parents need to alert. 

Now is the time for her or him to talk out with them, or maybe with a counselor, what is emotionally going on to avoid the risk of intensifying unhappiness and self-harmful acting out. Hope can be life-sustaining; loss of hope can be life-threatening.

Like the wise doctor with the downhearted patient mentioned earlier, so with the parent comforting a desolate adolescent. People don't just need help givers in their life; they need hope givers as well.