One of the more heartbreaking experiences as a therapist is hearing teenagers describe what they believe to be their flaws. I could list them here but there’s simply not enough space. Aspects of personality, physical appearance, athletics, social… tragically there’s no topic off limit for self-criticism.
We tell young people – when you’re faced with a problem in your life, you basically have 5 options1 :
- Figure out how to solve it. Some problems can be solved, so get to work on figuring it out. Want to be a better athlete? Learn what needs to be done to get there. Want more friends? Polish up your social skills. Better grades? Ask for help or consider a tutor. The answer may be out there.
- Change how you feel about it. Many problems are perceived problems. One person’s “problem” may be another person’s “quality”. Sometimes there’s a silver lining to struggle – increased resilience or coping skill for example. A great illustration of this is rejection sensitivity: if we view inevitable rejection experiences (we all have them) as an opportunity to expose ourselves to what is difficult, rejection begins to sting a little less. Developing context and perspective also provides a clearer picture.
- Accept it. What!?! Yes, accept it. Oddly, accepting our “problems” it is necessary to bring about change when possible. And… a quality, meaningful life is possible despite pain and challenges. Not every problem can be solved. At least not yet.
- Stay miserable. Unfortunately, when teens struggle, this is the option they have chosen by default. They may not have had exposure to the first 3 options or may need help getting perspective and choosing a more effective path. This is where we come in. Helping adults and family members are in a unique position to offer young people another way to approach their “problems” and guide them through the process.
- Make things worse. This is the most tragic outcome. Unskilled teens will sometimes try to solve problems and inadvertently make the problems worse. We see this with substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, interpersonal conflicts, and on and on.
Teens are emerging from a difficult year, returning to in-person activities and the challenges of day-to-day life, albeit a but rusty and probably less skilled. Let’s provide our kids, students, athletes, and clients with sensible guidance and support. Our own future depends on it!
~Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C