Bearing Unbearable Kids
by Franklin Cameron, Psy.D., LPC, CAC III
Every year, a whole new group of kids enter adolescence. Along with the kids come their parents. For some families, this marks a first-time experience. For the young adolescents, this means learning to manage a lot of new and powerful realities. For parents, whove not had an adolescent in the house before, it means adapting themselves, as well as their parenting styles, to accommodate an adolescents energy, which is very different from the energy of children.
In this article Im going to focus primarily on just this energy; more specifically, that loving, passionate, yearning, burning, aggressive energy that makes us the dynamic and complicated human beings we are. How we think about energy, how we manage our own and how we relate to the energy of others, affects every aspect of our lives and is fundamental to how we experience interpersonal relationships.
To illustrate adolescent energy in action, Im going to draw from my experiences as a psychotherapist and substance abuse counselor specializing in working with adolescents. In the three articles that follow, and complete this series of four, I will proceed to take what we contemplate here and apply it to the challenge of being a parent; especially parenting in terms of how children develop and change through the years. Finally, we will imagine what it means to raise children with the intention of giving them one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child. Hopefully, its a gift our parents gave us; namely, the gift of authentically being ourselves.
Early in my career as a therapist, I had the opportunity to work as a substance abuse counselor at an outpatient clinic for adolescents in Colorado. The counselor I was replacing showed me around for a few days, introduced me to the kids who were already in treatment, then abruptly left for good. His departure was perfunctory but understandable. Working with adolescents had not been a good fit for him. He hadnt accomplished as much as he had hoped. I was new and enthusiastic. I not only hoped to pick up where he had left off, but to provide meaningful treatment to the kids he bequeathed to me.
A big part of substance abuse counseling is running therapy groups. As the new counselor, I inherited a couple of on-going groups. One of these consisted of eight teenage males. The group they were in was called a precontemplation group. Precontemplation refers to how people think about their drug use. If users still think drugs are fine and not a problem (even as their grades in school continue to plummet and theyre on the verge of getting kicked out of their homes), they would be said to be precontemplative; that is, theyre not yet ready to contemplate the negative aspects of their drug use.
Most counselors would agree that precontemplation groups are the most difficult to manage. As defiance and self-justification is often the order of the day, they require a lot of skill and can really test the emotional resources of a counselor. My first meeting with this group was conducted with the old counselor in attendance. All said and done, it went quite smoothly. The following week, however, I was on my own.
As chance would have it, the group room was being repainted, so we all squeezed into my office, which was just big enough to accommodate everyone. Squeezed, however, was the operative word. I turned off the overhead fluorescent light and turned on a couple table lamps. Consequently, the room had a warm, homey glow. I began the meeting with a welcoming ritual that involved checking in with each member and finding out how his week went. As we went around the circle, the kids were definitely less agreeable than they had been the week before. I sensed that testing the new counselor was high on the evenings agenda. A lot of whispering and side conversations erupted like small fires. One kid said he had no interest in checking in, while another kid absently began thumping his thumb on the arm of his chair.
At once, another kid started thumping; then, another. Soon, they were all thumping. The room was filled with a veritable rondo of thumping thumbs. The question I asked myself was: Now what am I supposed to do?!
To flip into the authoritarian model and demand they stop, show them who was boss (hopefully, me), was one solution. And its probably what the kids expected. In the aftermath of such a power play, even if the adult wins, the price will be high. You might get kids to grudgingly listen to information about drugs, or read printed material out loud. But it usually does not follow that kids will warmly and with high interest enter into discussions about things personal to themselves after the counselor has overtly pulled rank and put them in their subordinate places.
What many people dont understand about the purpose of drug treatment is right here: It is not to override and repudiate peoples power of choice. It is to awaken in them a real and very personal desire to change their lives for the better.
Meanwhile, the thumping was getting even louder. I remembered one of the many theories I had studied about child development. In the middle of a crisis, ones thought processes begin to blur. But one thing this theory said jumped out at me: Kids need to know that they are bearable. To find this out, they will actively test an environment that seeks to contain them to make sure it is strong enough to bear them without breaking. My office felt like a container on the verge of exploding. I recalled another psychologists observations about how important it is for a therapist to be authentic. I authentically found the situation unbearable. I quickly put all those impressions together and selected my therapeutic intervention. (Its one Ive never forgotten.)
You guys are unbearable! I wailed (it wasnt hard to sound authentic).
The thumping dipped in volume. The boys looked hurt and puzzled.
I dont mean bad or terrible, I quickly explained. But, you put out such powerful energy, each one of you. It can be kind of hard to bear.
The boys looked surprised, maybe even intrigued. The thumping stopped.
I bet you hear that a lot, I said quietly
The kids seemed interested. A few nodded eagerly. We do! they answered.
I bet you tend to blow apart whatever environment youre in.
You, Mitch, I said, pointing to one of the boys. How do you blow your environment apart. Whats your unique style of doing that?
Mitch enthusiastically began detailing how he did it. The other boys listened. I asked one of them to paraphrase what Mitch had said until Mitch felt he had been accurately heardthereby giving both boys the experience of two-way communication, and the other boys the chance to observe it.
Then I asked another boy the same question: Whats your unique style for blowing your environment apart? It was hard for the others to hold back and not tell their stories at once, but with a little coaching they managed to contain themselves. (One of the other payoffs of an environment that can bear us is that it also teaches us how to bear ourselves.) Gradually, we made our way around the circle.
After each boy had spoken and experienced being accurately heard and understood by the group, I explained about environments that can bear us. I used the word container. I told how this room is a container, but that a container is much more than just a place. Like a nest for eagles or a house for humans, the physical setting is important. But its the people in the container who do the real bearing. Bearing is an attitude, a way of being and behaving. People who can bear you are letting you experience how its okay to be yourself. You wont break them. Eventually, you stop testing them and being outrageous because you know its truetheyre sturdy enough to withstand your energy.
The boys were listening attentively. Now we were ready to form a group. I chose my next words carefully.
If the job of a good container is to bear us, I said, then, I cant imagine any people better able to bear each other than the people in this room. Because only you guys have the strength and power to bear so much strength and power. So, welcome, each of you, to this group.
Kids in a group that is imbued with the ability to contain itself cease to set themselves against the group leader. Every member holds the idea that each is there to help bear and support the others. Bear their energy and emotions. Support them in bringing forth their truth as they see it.
Something very interesting starts to emerge then. I can only describe it as a quality of being. In such a group, everyone can relax and breathe and just be. And what is the best thing to be? I personally believe the answer to that is oneself. Did the boys continue to argue and go off task and have to be brought back? You bet they did. But something was different. They were bearable. Were they convinced of it? Not yet. However, they were now in a situation where they could start learning it.
I wish I could say that all the kids in this group sailed off into a drug-free sunset, and quickly landed on the shores of a successful and productive adolescence. Counseling can be a lot like parenting. Parents of more than one child quickly discover that a parenting style that worked for one kid does not necessarily work for the other. Within a couple more group meetings it became clear that a few of the boys were not ready for group therapy. One of these boys said, I have so many problems of my own, how can I sit and listen to the problems of others? Two other boys echoed the sentiment. I heard what they said. They needed more one-on-one time. I took them out of the group and put them into individual and/or family therapy where they could experience a more personal and intimate container that would specifically address their needs.
One of the gifts of a good container could therefore be said to be this: In it, a kids real needs and wants jump forward dramatically. When kids start to authentically reveal who they are, an alert counselor can meet the gesture by creating treatment plans that accurately address their needs, and not subject the kids to more loss and disappointment by having to bluster and fight against an environment that keeps failing them.
There are a couple directions in which we could go from here. In my work with adolescents I stress the Reality Principle very strongly. One of the great tasks of adolescents is to learn how to accurately meet and respond to the demands of reality versus what they may want in the moment. However, its also been my experience that something very important has to happen in our developmental process as human beings before we can do this with any kind of personal integrity.
In Hope for Kids Who Go Wrong, well explore what that something might be, and how an awareness of it can be useful not only to counselors, but to parents and teachers, as well.
© 2002 by Franklin Cameron. All Rights Reserved.