Relationships may be difficult, because of affect regulation patterns- that is, emotional reactions that are embedded from prior experiences. Childhood abuse or emotional neglect, for example may preclude readily secure attachment to a parent, partner, family members, and to anyone else. Individuals with negative attachment experiences would have difficulty with any intimate relationships and moving toward a global secure attachment pattern. Some people, including teenagers may be intellectually aware of these issues but still have trouble not responding negatively to familiar triggers and to develop the following capabilities. In order to have any intimate mutual relationship (spousal, friendship, therapeutic, etc.), each individual must have certain capabilities, which serve as the foundations to the relationship. One needs to consider, especially for teenagers who experience the same issues more intensely for five capacities. How readily are they able to:
Self-Express (Expressive Communication):
Connected to Own Feelings/Process
Empathize (Receptive Communication):
Damage to the Five Foundations
Individually or in a couple or family, the teenager may have each of the five foundations compromised or severely damaged. The damage is often why the teenager, teen couple, or family has developed problems. An individual may have limited abilities due to extensive dysfunctional experiences. He or she may have been inadequately supported or discouraged due to cultural backgrounds. Remember that modeling can come from expectations from a national, local community, and/or a family culture. A person’s ability to have an intimate relationship with anyone else is compromised because of deficiencies in one or more areas. A teenager who asks for help, knows he or she needs to trust, have to be vulnerable, express himself or herself, be available to input, and is invested. A mandated or coerced teen, for example forced into therapy often is not! In addition, there may be issues around match or mismatch of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, and age of the well-intended adult (much less the parent) that bring up harmful transference issues that destabilize the teenager’s ability to form these foundations. A teenager often:
- does not trust from having been violated and betrayed many times,
- fears vulnerability from having been hurt over and over,
- expresses dysfunctionally (in terms of American society),
- may avoid introspection, have poor insight, often are disconnected and even fearful of own feelings, articulate very poorly,
- is self-focused in order to survive (often self-righteously), and is consequently dismissive of the other’s feelings; he or she may listen to argue or dispute… or rationalize egocentrically,
- and cannot identify, fearing identification with another person would cause him or her to lose his or her own “righteousness.
A concerned adult or parent may need to assess how much strength is there in the teenager’s ability (or, whether there is personal or cultural permission) in each of the foundation areas: to trust, be vulnerable with, self-express to, empathize with, and invest in the other and the relationship? How much damage has occurred to these foundations? How culturally or familially foreign are these foundations to the person the teenager is relating to? How much ability and willingness (personal or cultural permission) is there to risk each, any, and all of the five? This assessment and other assessments lead to the goals and process of building a relationship with the teenager. Any concerns in the five foundations of an intimate relationship need to be addressed- sometimes, with assistance from another person such as a therapist. From an initial assessment, interactions should try to build upon each of the foundations.
The Right to Survive
One may be readily judgmental or be bewildered as to why a youth or other person makes choices that are clearly dysfunctional: alcohol or drug abuse, toxic relationships, cutting school, intemperate moods and treatment of others, etc. The illogic of such behavior as it brings harm upon the youth may be clearly evident to another. However, what may be unobserved is the internal logic of the behavior or choices based on deep and perhaps, hidden needs to survive emotionally or psychically. It is important to acknowledge that each person has a right to survive. As a young person without resources and experience, an individual may seek and exercise a means to survive that he or she will otherwise find dysfunctional and a later time in his or her life. Or, that others recognize as problematic. It may only with deeper examination does the otherwise negative behavior or choices become recognized as instinctive attempts to survive in some untenable situation or set of circumstances within a family or community. It is important to honor that right to survive as the first step to finding a functional way to survive in the present life.
It’s Stupid to Trust Your Parent (Therapist, Coach, Teacher…)!
Parents or adults often expect or ask teens to trust them and devolve uncomfortable or sensitive feelings, thoughts, needs, or experiences. However, for some youth given their previous experience with adults, they may have every reason to distrust them! Articulating this out loud helps the teen relax- that it may be stupid to trust this adult! This may not be the functional or factual reality- youth often need to depend on adults, especially parents to guide and support them. However, this provocative (to adults, in particular!) assertion may be the emotional reality of the youth. This may be an important step to facilitate trust.
Individuals feel more connected to one another by revealing their inner vulnerabilities and then being understood by the other person. This can be difficult when attempts to facilitate confiding in one another elicits habitual reactions of anger or withdrawal. Some individuals by the time they reach adolescence (or sooner) may have significant underlying feelings that they feel too vulnerable to express. If unacknowledged, they may have difficulty expressing hurt in other than anger or shutting down. Teenagers may need assistance in expressing their anger in a way that is more satisfying to them and easier for others, especially their parents to hear. If they feel hopeless about something including the relationship, they are often long to have the other person hear or get the vulnerability. When such deeper feelings are expressed and honored, one may often see a visible softening in the affect and physical presentation of a teenager as he or she thinks and feels, “Finally, someone gets me!” This may result from acknowledging the thought or feeling that he or she finds it stupid to trust this adult.
Intimacy develops when the teenager can say what’s on their mind, with the other person (parent, important adult, friend or partner) understanding him or her. Ideally, between the teenager and another there develops a stable positive process they both keep track of and manage their relationship. Intimacy is created by the way people talk about what is going on in their lives and between them as mutual confidants. Trust entails risk. A teenager risks trusting the adult or anyone else. Putting out vulnerabilities only to be disappointed over and over by another person, much less ones parent makes it hard to risk again. Often the teenager or individual wants to be able to trust without taking any risks. Anyone will have to risk trusting in order for there to be any growth. It is best to acknowledge a teenager’s fear and desire to avoid risk. By the time one notices the teenager is having problems, he or she may have had negative experiences of risks being horrific from his or her family of origin, childhood, adolescent, and peer relationships, and in some romantic relationship. Whoever up next may become the latest person for him or her to risk or not risk trusting. A mutual nurturing relationship requires validating the fears and honoring the courage it takes to engage. When someone responds or interacts in a manner that is nurturing of tentative risks, the teenager or individual becomes a bit more willing to risk further in the relationship.
Acknowledge and Honor
Sometimes, it may be beneficial to directly acknowledge the teenager’s wariness to trust. One might say, “All that has been so painful…all that you’ve learned to avoid, you have chosen to face here… on purpose! Scared that you will be disappointed or devastated? You should be! You’re taking quite a chance given what you experienced in life, this relationship and possibly in other relationship before this one, or in this family. But you are here to try anyway. I honor your courage.” A caring person should honor how difficult it is for the mistrusting teenager to try something different. One is acknowledging that it is difficult to stretch culturally in ways that are foreign and dangerous. The teenager can be asked what he or she is afraid of. Sometimes the fear is relatively minimal. There may be fear of not maximizing the relationship, or unfulfilled individual, couple, or family needs. Sometimes the fear is of gradual degeneration, damage to self, and/or break-ups. Or, the fear may be much more substantial such as a fear of being betrayed. The greatest fear may be of fundamental self-betrayal- of failing oneself. Your confidence that you can handle the process is critical to the teenager taking the risk. You can offer yourself as a cross-cultural translator.
“I know what needs to happen. I know how to handle this. I don’t know if the process will work for you or if you can handle the process. However, I know it can work. If you don’t trust yourself or others (or each other or have confidence in each other) right now, then you may use my confidence in facilitating the process for the time being. Perhaps, from that you’ll eventually gain confidence.” This verbal intervention may sound bombastic or overly promising. The words do not guarantee successful relationships. For some adults or parents similar words may not be necessary if their affect and demeanor sufficiently convey confidence. Verbal or non-verbal communication can however, assert the experience of the caring person. The caring person needs to be clear in his or her process to give the teenager sufficient confidence to compensate for their initial uncertainty. A conflicted or confused teenager that is out of control with minimal hope does not need a passive ambiguous adult or parent! “Uh… I don’t know how it’ll be. I guess we’ll try this or that and see what happens,” may sound too vague for teenagers seeking grounding in their turbulent life. Sometimes, specific tools, processes, or professional guidance may allow the parent or adult to project the confidence and control teenagers are instinctively looking for.
As with the developmental sequence for growth and change, the development of relationships starts with building trust. Doing one’s personal work empowers and enables one to have the consistency to follow through on the love one has for his or her teenager. That may mean working through one’s own issues about trust. This may become a parallel process of healing and growth for both teenager and parent or caring adult. The reparative process when trust is not really there, also then has to be about re-building trust. Honoring the right to survive by not risking trusting others and that it may have become stupid if not dangerous or difficult to trust otherwise trustworthy adults serves ironically to build or re-build trust. In the next blog, facilitating vulnerability- the second foundation to relationships will be discussed.