Turning Points for Troubled Teens

Although I work mostly with children and families, I see plenty of adult clients in therapy as well. With all of my clients, I spend the early sessions getting to know their stories. And boy, do they have stories. Here are some very brief summaries of a few of the most memorable stories adult clients have told me.

  • Josie was a 51-year-old married mother of four who worked as an immigration attorney. Her first two children were born when she was a teenager and raised with a great deal of help from her single mother while Josie spent several years in and out of rehab for alcohol abuse. She also spent some time in a juvenile detention facility for breaking into cars. In her late 20’s to mid 30’s, Josie got sober, met her husband, finished college, and while in law school, had two more children. When I met her, Josie had not had a drink in 23 years. She came to therapy for help coping with the chronic medical illness of her youngest child. All four of her children were doing well socially, emotionally, and at school/work.
  • Connie was a 35-year-old artist with her own graphic design firm. She and her partner had two daughters they adopted from Vietnam. Connie grew up with abusive, alcoholic parents and was sexually abused by a gymnastics coach for three years before he was arrested after another victim reported her own abuse to police. Connie was a depressed, self-injurious, acting-out teenager who had close to ten psychiatric hospitalizations for suicidal and self-injurious behavior before she graduated from high school. When I met her, she had not self-injured since age 23 when she graduated from art school. Connie came to therapy seeking help with parenting, stating that she had no good role models and wanted to be a good mother to her two girls.
  • Liam was a 26-year-old student at a local community college who was starting a non-profit organization focused on partnering college student mentors with at-risk youth in the inner city. He had been a gifted student until high school when his parents went through a very contentious divorce. During this time, his grades suffered and he became involved in an intense dating relationship. When his girlfriend ended the relationship, he engaged in some stalking and threatening behaviors which led to his expulsion from private school during his senior year. He refused to go to another school and worked odd jobs for several years. At times, he lived in his car. He came to therapy because his girlfriend suggested that he had unresolved issues from his childhood. When I met him, he had earned his GED, started college, become an avid runner and yoga practitioner, and decided to pursue a social work degree so he could help troubled youth.

I hear stories like this frequently. An adult, who appears to be doing well in life for the most part but is suffering from depression or anxiety or dealing with a major life transition, tells me about an adolescence filled with substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, acting-out behavior or worse. What I find truly remarkable about these individuals is their resilience. Despite their terrible early experiences, they did not give up.

Something else is remarkable about their stories. Without exception, each and every individual who shares such a story with me reports two factors that helped them overcome adversity during their adolescence:

  • An adult (or more than one adult) who never gave up on them
  • A turning-point moment

Josie talked at length about how fiercely her mother refused to give up on her. No matter how disrespectfully Josie treated her mother, how badly she behaved, or how much trouble she got into, her mother stood staunchly by her side. Josie’s aha moment occurred when her mother began experiencing stress-related medical problems. Josie felt responsible for much of the stress in her mother’s life and worried what would happen to her and her two school-aged children if her mother became sick or worse. Soon after her mother was put on blood pressure medication, Josie checked herself into an inpatient rehabilitation facility. Upon discharge, she found a job, started taking college classes, and never touched alcohol again.

For Connie, there were two important adults: the mother of her best friend and her high school art teacher. Connie was unsure if either of these women knew what was going on at her house, but both helped to fill the parenting void created by her parents’ addiction. Connie experienced a pretty dramatic turning point which she recalled vividly. On the day before Thanksgiving of her senior year, her art teacher presented her with an application to a local art school and refused to let Connie leave the classroom until she had completed it. Connie remembered feeling angry, scared, and inspired by the teacher’s absolute belief in her ability to succeed. She was accepted to the art school, and her best friend’s mother helped her to navigate the financial aid application and other preparations for college. When I met Connie, she was still close to both of these adults who served as surrogate grandmothers for her children.

Liam was blessed to have a close relationship with an uncle who recognized the toll the divorce was taking on him. At times, the uncle allowed his nephew to live with his family so that Liam could find respite from his parents’ hostile relationship. The moment that Liam decided to turn his life around occurred in a Youth Aid Panel (YAP) hearing. YAP’s are community organizations that offer first-offending youths an alternative to the juvenile justice system. Because Liam had never been in trouble before the inappropriate treatment of his ex-girlfriend, he was given the YAP option. During the hearing, one of the panel members allowed Liam to talk about the stressors in his life that had sent him astray. After hearing his story, the YAP “sentenced” Liam to 500 hours of community service. His uncle, a social worker, helped him find a volunteer position in an emergency shelter to fulfill his community service requirement. Liam believed he had been given a second chance by the YAP and that he had found his calling by working in the shelter.

I share these stories in response to a question from a reader. Here is her question:

As parents, how do we learn to trust again, and not live in fear that children (teens) will continue to make bad, injurious choices? – Lisa

I realize I haven’t answered the exact question Lisa asked. But, the stories above speak to the importance of standing by kids who make those bad, injurious choices. Kids don’t drink or do drugs, engage in acting-out or criminal behavior, self-injure or ponder suicide unless they are struggling. Often, young people engaging in these behaviors only allow parents to see their anger or apathy; anger and apathy mask more painful emotions such as depression, loss, rejection, and disappointment. The challenge as a parent (or parent surrogate) is to trust in the positive trajectory of adolescent brain development and in the healing power of love and acceptance. We are at our parenting best when we love our children unconditionally, support them steadfastly, and create opportunities for turning point moments.

Several excellent books for parents about adolescent development have been published recently. Two of my favorites are Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg and Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel Siegel.

[Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Young Adult and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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