A quick review of developmental rules aids understanding of teenagers’ difficulty at times to trust others and to invest in their own future. That could be about having trouble trusting parents, other adults, peers, and especially intimate partners. Excessive stress, abuse, or trauma causes individuals to get stuck at or to regress to the stage of earlier difficult experiences. The extreme emotional or psychological disruptions that can happen during adolescence can draw a person’s energy and attention away from dealing with or resolving current needs. Skipping or rushing through the trials of adolescence creates stress in of itself that can be dysfunctional and scarring. If the teenager cannot differentiate the current stress from previous stress, he or she cannot differentiate historical anxiety, fear, pain, or hurt from the current challenges… and people. This often sets off a cycle of negative actions, withdrawal, and vengeance that others, especially ones romantic partner finds incomprehensible. “What? What was that about? Why?” The energy or attention of everyone may get drawn exclusively to the current drama or trauma instead of the original stressors that forestalled focus and energy to meet earlier developmental needs. These needs do not go away just because one grows older.
Stuck Without Trust
When an individual acts in an immature manner identifiable as characteristic of a particular age, it may be indicative that he or she experienced major stress, trauma, or abuse at that age. An individual may report or one or more members of a couple or family start bickering like 5 year olds, or collecting allies (unfortunately, usually picking one or more of the children) like a pre-teen, or punishing his or her partner with silence like a disconnected teenager. Such behavior can point to the period of an individual’s childhood when his or her energies were diverted from normal developmental challenges. Age-appropriate developmental challenges- for example, how to negotiate conflict between friends or siblings, may have been diverted because of an alcoholic father who needed to be kept from liquor. Or, there may be a family code of denial of pain, or constant humiliation and physical punishment. The original experience of stress, trauma, or abuse needs makes it hard for him or her to trust in others… to trust in life turning out well.
The developmentally stuck person is playing out, in the hopes of a better outcome the childhood dynamics with his or her current intimate figure: antagonist, lover, friend, colleague, boss, partner, or family member. A teenager may be looking at the other person as continuing an original betrayal, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or rejection. Early experiences may have made him or her hypersensitive to any slight, even unintentional from another person- perhaps especially a romantic partner. There is a drive to develop trust and intimacy but with real apprehension that that can happen for him or her.
18 to 11 in an Instant
Harriet, otherwise very calm and mature changed dramatically when she began to speak of her boyfriend. In an instant, she was no longer the high achieving 18 year old applying to prestigious universities. In a pouty 11 year-old little girl voice, “Well, it’s just that he’s so mean to me!” She had immediately dropped about 7 years of maturity back to her preteens. This was a cue that there was probably a major stress, trauma, or abuse episode or situation that Harriet endured at around that age. And, that it was being evoked and ignited again in her relationship with her boyfriend. As Harriet began to expound on what her boyfriend does or did, the reality is that the facts don’t matter. What is important is what her facts symbolize, especially how they symbolize an unresolved developmental issue from that earlier era of her life. Harriet will argue the details without gaining any benefit from the discourse. The objective realities are relatively unimportant. However, the symbolic realities are critical. Since like many individuals, Harriet is unable to articulate the symbolic realities, hurt, pain, anxieties, and fears, her boyfriend would assert that he is unjustly criticized and punished for trivial issues where he had no negative intent.
Harriet’s original trauma come from her father’s cultural style significantly distorted and amplified by his alcoholism-fueled emotional unavailability, and his affairs and eventual abandonment of the family. “Distant or unavailable” barely were adequate to describe his “ice-berg of a father” according to Harriet. Unfortunately for Harriet, her mother did not compensate consistently or adequately with maternal attention either. She became viscerally self-aware when anxieties were ignited within her. Talking about it brought her back to that pre-adolescent place of vulnerability. Harriet had not been able to articulate to her boyfriend, “When you do that, I feel like the lost little girl I was when my father did that. And I want you to respond differently… better…” She obtusely put that out to him instinctively as she still needed resolution for what needs unmet in her family. Harriet had been stuck, trying to get unstuck. However, her boyfriend did not know that she was stuck, wanted to get unstuck, and most importantly, that HE was supposed to get her unstuck!
Harriet’s developmental energy striving for intimacy with her father was denied or diverted and thus sought to reassert itself. Harriet wanted to know where, when, how, and with who her boyfriend was just about all the time. She called him on his cell phone to the point that his teachers and boss reprimanded him about taking calls from her. So, she sent e-mails and text messages several times a day- sometimes, a few times an hour. Her boyfriend was getting worn down by her “neediness.” The calls, messages, and texting when he was at school and work was paralleled in just about every other area of their lives. It seemed that Harriet was insatiable about needing attention. Harriet’s behavior came from anxious or insecure attachment style.
In every subsequent intimate relationship outside of her family, Harriet’s underlying developmental energy or need for another person to be available (emotional proximity) and to nurture her would arise. She had developed many socially acceptable mechanisms to be generally liked and accepted, especially among female counterparts. However, there was emotional- primarily, depression and anxiety consequences of her settling for less than she desired or needed. As Harriet’s boyfriend complained, no matter how much he attended to and reassured her, it was never enough. What should have been enough for the current situation or relationship was inadequate because of Harriet’s residual development poverty.
Harriet cannot trust that her boyfriend would be available. And if available that he would nurture her. She did not trust that if he was available and nurturing right now, that he would not abandon her or stop nurturing her. Or if available and nurturing this time, that he would be available or nurturing next time! As a result, a developmental sequence and progression to rewards or the realization of growth became erratic and uncertain for her. Trust in caregivers and other intimate figures becomes trust in one’s own worth and sense of survivability. Not only does the child, teenager, or adult have a sense of what a quality relationship feels like- and thus, less likely to tolerate unhealthy relationships, but he or she acquires the confidence that there is another person available sooner or later that will be good for him or her. The ability to trust in self and others lays the foundation for realization of eventual rewards and growth. Conversely, the inability to trust in self and others predicts difficulties in relationships and social, academic, and career progression. There are at least two developmental sequences and progressions that start with trust: a developmental sequence for growth and change and a developmental set of requirements for relationships.
Developmental Sequence for Growth and Change
This sequence is also progressive in that success or accomplishments in an earlier stages create the foundation for the following stages. Each stage has greater or lesser potential for growth depending on what has happened (or not happened) in the earlier stages. There are six stages in this theory that lead eventually to rewards, benefits, or the realization of growth or change. The six states are made up of two stage pairs as such stages even more intricately tied together.
As mentioned earlier, the ability to trust that others will be available and nurture one, along with the confidence that if not this person that one will eventually find someone who will be available and nurturing. This come from a sense of self-worth from having been important enough for caregivers to attend to and nurture over infancy and childhood. The anticipation that there can be and probably will be another person to care for oneself can be characterized as hope. Basic trust leads to the ability to hope. As things, people, or circumstances may not be as pleasurable or beneficial at any given time, hope that eventually “this too shall pass” and “good things happen to good people” moderates depression and anxiety that can otherwise get out of hand. One can then be alone without always getting lonely; occasionally get lonely without always becoming desperate; and become desperate at times and be able to self-soothe- and thus, not make bad choices that harm one’s life. The ability to self-soothe comes from having hope- hope that things, people, or circumstance will get better. Such hope comes from prior experiences that things, people, or circumstance did get better.
Harriet without a foundation of basic trust had trouble having hope that her boyfriend would be there for her or would stay with her. Another person with secure attachment experiences could risk having hope from having good experiences trusting people and having hope fulfilled. Harriet would try to be hopeful, but since she also tended to pick emotionally unavailable and/or erratic boyfriends it would be better characterized as false hope. Her poor choices from not having sound experiences with qualitative intimate experiences caused her to “trust” in boyfriends for whom her hope for fulfillment was almost doomed to disappointment. Problematic experiences of mistrust and false hope not only further intensified Harriet’s insecure attachment to intimates, but also extended to other aspects of her life that required her to risk involvement and energy. She had trouble trusting that she would be ok and trouble hoping that good things would happen trying new ventures, extending herself, joining a club or group, and going outside of her emotional, social, and geographical comfort zone. Hope that she would do well was compromised by her not trusting in herself… or in others to support her.
Own It to Deal With It
At this point, some parents will be consumed with guilt for somehow failing to nurture the sense of trust and subsequent ability to hope in their children. There can be intense parental love and commitment but still problematic trust development may result- there is more to it than love. On the other hand, non-parental adults may feel justified and self-righteous that it’s not their fault that children and teenagers under their charge are not progressing due to underlying issues. It may become rationale to quit or avoid continued energy and attention to challenging teenagers. Or, some parents may be sensationalized, feel insulted, and/or dismiss out of hand that their children may not trust them totally. Of course, they love their children and their children love them. Again, however love is not the same as trust; and attention, guidance, and support are not the same as effective parenting. Resisting implicit blame or fault, some parents resort to further and additional unconscious and covert assaults on their children’s sense of worth. More or less, to maintain their own fragile sense of self-esteem, some parents will throw their teenagers under the bus… again. They will blame them for being unreasonable, morally deficient, stupid, or otherwise screwed up.
Children and teenagers want to and need to trust their intimate caregivers- to have secure attachment, in particular with their parents. It makes no sense that they would purposely chose to get out of hand. Parent must remember that it is not useful to fall into a pit of self-recrimination as a failed parent nor to dismiss children or teenagers as corrupted and irredeemable from prior caregiver experiences. And it is certainly not supportive or healing to give up on them. Parents and other adults need to own their responsibility in whatever happened developmentally for their children and teenagers. It does not have to be from neglect or evil intent. It may be from ignorance, distraction, cultural expectations, economic pressures, or a litany of real-life challenges. Yes, it was your responsibility to observe and then, support your child. And if you missed something or some things did not go as expected, it remains your responsibility. Own it so that you can deal with it. It remains your responsibility to further observe and then adapt your support- even if it hurts to own having not being as trustworthy as you thought you had been. What’s worse than not trusting your parent growing up? Still not trusting them to want to, try to, and actually understand you now- be that adolescence or later.
The next blog will continue looking at the Developmental Sequence for Growth and Change after the Trust-Hope stages.