Facilitating Self-Expression, Part I- Introspection & Insight

An individual and most certainly, many teenagers may have problems expressing him or herself clearly. Getting a teenager to communicate clearly and deeply can be very frustrating. “I don’t know what he/she is thinking or feeling? All I get is… nothing!” Facilitating clear expression of feelings and thoughts can be very difficult with many people. A major root of dysfunctional relationships is the poor communication between any two or more people- whether that is between a teenager and parent, student and teacher, or between two partners. There are four requirements for self-expression; an individual must be:

  1. Introspective
  2. Insightful
  3. Connected to Own Feelings/Process
  4. Articulate

To express oneself, an individual must be able to be introspective. The ability to look into oneself and contemplate and savor ones experiences, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for some individuals, especially insecure teenagers. Intense life experiences, especially trauma that demand high sensitivity and vigilance to moment-to-moment dangers may not have allowed for much introspection. Adolescence with its many demands can be extremely stressful for some youth. Note and react can become the survival habit of such an individual.

 Whatever!

Introspection also may not have been fostered and even may have been discouraged for some individuals. American adolescent culture, especially for boys (not just Nike) may glorify and avoid introspection with the slogan, “Just do it.” When working with an impulsive teenager, one may realize that the assertions, “Whatever” or “Screw it!” or “F—k it!” are almost inevitably followed by a poor choice. The “Whatever!” game so to speak can be a practically purposeful non-consideration of relevant concerns because of some compelling or compulsive desire for the problematic behavior. It may be for example, really wanting to stay out late with friends so considering that he/she may be too exhausted to get up to go to school tomorrow is avoided. “What about school tomorrow?” “Whatever!” Or, being dared to do something exciting and risky. “Is that a good idea? Looks dangerous.” “Screw it!” Each of these expressions asserts an avoidance of self-examination about why one might want or be tempted. There is no deeper examination of the context and the consequences of potential actions- including how much trouble one can get into. There may be other experiences or cultural models that may further minimize introspection.

If anyone is able to be introspective and contemplate his/her processes, he/she may begin to gain insight about his/her thinking, feelings, habits, aversions, needs, and so forth. Adults actively try to promote such development in their children and teenagers- sometimes with their active resistance! Insight also depends on developmental maturity and wisdom acquired from others (but what others?!). Stressful or traumatic experiences however tend to blunt or stall intellectual, emotional, and psychological development. In addition, family or cultural expectations or religious dogma may foster or hinder development of insight. In some situations, fostering understanding and insight is considered essential to healthy development. Explaining the rationale, logic, or process of decisions and behavior helps the individual learn principles to apply to new experiences and challenges. This proves to be a functional and adaptive process for changing and evolving relationships and community demands.

“Cool”

Teenagers struggle with transitioning from being dependent children becoming supposedly independent adults in few short years. Established relationships are adapted if not lost to meet evolving demands and needs. What worked before may not work as a teenager, reaching puberty, becoming sexual, and trying out new roles. Moreover, in certain families, communities, and societies, the individual is directed to and focused instead on conforming to established behaviors. The “right” or correct choice is the decision or behavior pre-determined by cultural edict, or whether it draws punishment or not from family or community members. Teenage peers can ironically be particularly harsh about what is deemed “cool” behavior. Following the peer or group directives may be useful only to the extent whether the choice or action does or does not comply with established standards or gets one into trouble. A conservative approach is intended to maintain and perpetuate consistency within the family, community, or society that is assumed to be in of itself to be consistent. However, even minimal insight can become problematic if there are changes and new demands. Joining together as a couple, in a job, or any group is an inherent change with new demands where the previous “right” or correct choices of the prior culture may prove ineffective. This may not just be transitioning from a family model to some teen set of expectations, but also from shifting from one teen peer group to another teen peer group.

Introspection hopefully leads to insight about and furthermore, to connection to ones feelings. Since a healthy relationship depends on sharing feelings and vulnerability, inability to understand and own ones feelings precludes a deeper intimacy. A teenager can also be extremely emotional to the extent that he or she gets flooded or overwhelmed (imagine that? emotional teenagers?!). The lack of insight may cause such a teenager to be “over connected” to his or her feelings, and become highly reactive without the ability to judiciously channel emotional energy productively. Insight about temperamental, trauma, and/or cultural contributions to emotional intensity can lead to adaptations for more productive expression of feelings. Introspection, insight, and emotional self-connection may be expressed when and if the teenager has acquired the means and skills for articulation. The experience and practice of articulating feelings is supported or discouraged by the family and/or peers.

Say It… Show It

The effectiveness of communication development may not be from teaching skills, but be from an adult providing articulation examples and models for the teenager. One may be introspective, have insight, and be emotionally self-connected but have trouble articulating it verbally and/or non-verbally. Communication nonverbally with facial expression and body language and behavior may not have been received or interpreted accurately by another person. Verbal expression, which may not have been familiar or well-practiced by some individuals, often becomes essential to convey intention and meaning of nonverbal communication. Modeling is most beneficial by helping teenagers learn the verbal “language” of intimacy and relationships. Or conversely, by teaching the nonverbal “language” of intimacy and relationships. So the first answer to how to get your teenager to express him/herself with depth and emotion is YOU do it first! Adults who are able to be introspective and thus, become insightful about themselves show their teenagers how to do it! And create the possibility of seeing and experiencing it working for better relationships and intimacy.   Once again, one is reminded that good relationships are mutual and reciprocal. More with the next blog on facilitating self-expression.

 

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Facilitating Vulnerability- Part 3, Golden Rules

When the teenager is speaking with another person (not one he/she is upset with), that person is most helpful if he/she validates the person’s feelings, AND challenges his/her interpretation of the actions and motivations of the other individual not present. Unfortunately, the people an aggrieved teenager may speak to will most likely be other teenagers aggrieved about their parents or teachers. And thus, their peers are likely to validate grievances against a common “adversary”- that is, insensitive adult authority, “Yeah… yeah… that is SO messed up!” but without questioning the teenager’s possibly self-righteous and self-serving perspectives.  Such automatic unfiltered validation may be from a golden rule of sorts. An “Us Against Them” game where one must agree with teenage peers of how messed adults- particularly, parents are to “us.” As well-intended helpers, however peers can be quite off-base following that rule/game.

Both Sides

On the other hand, an open-minded person can move in and speak for the other person- for the parent or other adult authority figure possibly. That does not mean taking the teenager or the parent or adult’s side. Both sides may be responsible for problems. Being an adult does not ensure being mature! Or, wise! The helper may be involved with the teenager alone or when both persons are present. For example, if the teenager (or parent or adult) is bullying, being unreasonable, or unrealistic, such a helping person can offer perspective, including speaking from the other’s point of view. The key would be to challenge toxic assumptions by the teenager about the adult, AND in the case of both being present, mutual toxic assumptions about each other and inflammatory reactions from either of the two people. This may be an informal situation with a friend, family member, respected authority figure, or in a professional situation with a psychotherapist.

Each person is seeking validation through seeking to be identified as the one who is “right.” That is why it is so easy for a teenager to complain to other upset teenagers, and for parents to complain to other stressed parents (and teachers to other frustrated teachers) about the other party. Rather than be drawn to make judgement (one often would tend to decide, “You’re both screwed up!”), it is best for a helper to identify the deeper emotional needs.

  • “When he/she gets loud and insulting, you just stop listening to your outrage and focus on why you’re trying to make this work.”
  • Or, “It must be really frustrating to be thought of as being controlling when you’re trying to be supportive.”
  • Or, “All these rules feel like he/she thinks you aren’t mature or responsible. That feels disrespectful.”

Whoever this is said to, usually likes this… feels validated, and subsequently, is more likely to look at things from the point of view of another person. When one feels another (including an outside party such as a helper) has empathy for him/her, it becomes easier to reciprocate and have empathy for the other person. Someone- the teenager or the adult or another involved person can verbalize that everyone should hold oneself and each other to a powerful but implicit contract of sensitivity, attention, compassion, and appropriate response.

Golden Rules of Relationships

There are “golden rules” of a healthy relationship, which can also be seen as a relationship game rules. More or less, one important rule is

  • “If one loves and respects the other, then he/she will be automatically sensitive to any vulnerability the other person experiences.
  • He/she is expected to be naturally and intuitively attentive to any vulnerability without the other person drawing his/her attention to them.
  • He/she then is to immediately have compassion for any vulnerability the other experiences.
  • And of course, he/she is to respond with the appropriate communication and/or behavior without any guidance.”

Why wouldn’t someone tell an important person to him/her that something is bothering him/her and what he/she needs from the other? The implicit addendum to the prior golden rule is,

  • “Because it doesn’t count if I have to tell him/her!”

These golden rules of intimate relationships are normally not expressed, but often rigorously enforced. Since the first rule is in the form of an “If… then…” structure, the complementary rule becomes “If not… then not…” The failure of the criticized person, especially an intimate person to respond appropriately as desired by the aggrieved person results in the conclusion that criticized person does not love or respect the aggrieved person. As a result, the teenager (or adult) who is disappointed feels fundamentally betrayed in relationship contract. Often an avoidant or defensive reaction of the criticized person becomes tantamount to a second betrayal. After failing in the first round, even with the vulnerability having been expressed openly or directly (violating the “telling” part of the golden rule addendum), the avoidant or defensive response further betrays the aggrieved person.

In many difficult or problematic relationships, often neither person is able to identify much less verbalize his/her vulnerabilities. Or, when feeling vulnerable, are they unable to refrain from avoidant, defensive, and eventually aggressive or passive-aggressive communication and behaviors. Yet, both will still hold each other implicitly responsible to adhere to some “golden rule” of sensitivity, attention, compassion, and appropriate response to vulnerability. The more overtly intimate the relationship is such as a romantic couple or a family, the stricter is the golden rule. However, such rules also exist to some degree in casual, work, or other social or institutional relationships. One has expectations of colleagues, superiors, leaders, etc. In all cases, to some degree failure becomes betrayal. Underlying betrayal is the expectation of trust and investment in each other to enter into the relationship contract (child-parent, work, mentor-mentee, teacher-student, government-citizen, etc.). Trust and investment comes from caring about the other person. When vulnerability is betrayed and the relationship falls into swirling anger, caring is often forgotten. With too many failed interactions, one or both people may be afraid to care or be vulnerable. Or, the relationship is deeply and painfully dysfunctional. Sometimes, an individual has endured (particularly a parent or other adult) a long lifetime trail of relationship wreckages and devastated self-esteem. Repeated cycles of dysfunctional communication, which may start in the family between children or teenagers and parents will be duplicated in any new relationship with new people unless the individual recognizes the issues and takes responsibility to take action to change. Current dysfunctional relationships therefore are rooted in previous relationship problems and predict problematic future relationships romantically, socially, at work, etc.

Implicit Rules

The aggrieved person’s complaints and accusations can be interpreted to reveal his/her underlying emotions and needs. The person may be unable to reveal his/her vulnerability (not surprising for many teenagers- males in particular). A more reflective and emotionally self-aware teenager may for example, say “It hurts that you don’t (he/she doesn’t) spend time with me.” The other person if wise and non-reactive (or someone assisting the duo) may say, “That sounds like you felt alone and abandoned.” Often this type of interpretation will shift the person from anger to sadness or hurt. Avoidant or defensive responses by the criticized person if present can be interrupted with, “Do you… did you mean to hurt him/her?” If sufficiently self-aware, either person (that often means the hopefully more mature and wise adult) can say “I don’t mean to hurt you,” “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” or “I hope you aren’t trying to hurt me. That really makes me sad.” The prompt by a helper may be “I wonder if he/she was trying to hurt you or maybe instead of being clumsy.” This shifts the attention from arguing the minutia of supposedly absolute reality of what happened to the implicit accusation that is so sensational. The other person may respond, “Of course not. I didn’t want to hurt him/her” or the individual may consider, “Maybe he she wasn’t trying to hurt me.” Being accused (however tangentially) of purposely trying to hurt a person and in particular, ones partner is impugns ones integrity.

Another potential implicit intimate relationship rule is that everyone is supposed to know each other and care for each other well enough to know that the other person would not do anything that might be hurtful. If he/she does, it is interpreted as being purposely hurtful. This is kind of a secret internal game- the “You Know, So You Won’t” game where the other person is held to the rules without telling him/her of the rules! A valuable approach would be to bring such implicit rules to the surface so an individual or both people (teenager and parent) can examine, re-affirm, or adjust the rules- perhaps, with the helper’s assistance. Once re-affirmed or adjusted, people can then discuss which communications and behaviors were experienced as betrayals of these rules. This brings intent and motivation to the conversational table instead of the individuals just identifying, much less repeating lousy techniques and disastrous consequences.

Revealing Harm

The helper or whoever (teenager or adult) s aware enough to do so, should focus everyone on the emotional injuries that have been caused by the communication and behavior, rather than allowing the interaction to degenerate to one or another making accusations or assigning blame to others present or not. Revealing harm suffered exposes ones vulnerability and gives the other person a chance to be compassionate and caring. This of course, breaks the rules of the “Be Stoic, Don’t Reveal” game that many insecure people play. Either person or the helper may choose initially to model compassion rather than immediately prompt another person’s response. “If you thought he/she didn’t care, that would really hurt,” or “It must be scary to think he/she wanted to hurt you” pointedly emphasizes the vulnerability. Anyone can assert, “Trying to hurt him/her… not caring… that doesn’t sound like the person (son, daughter, parent, teacher, friend, etc.) you want to be.” The specific communication will depend on individuals’ styles and culture and his/her sense of the security in the interaction and/or relationship. However, effective communication to repair the relationship must encourage, if not require participants to risk vulnerability and trust. Either person or perhaps the helper should acknowledge the difficulty- specifically the extreme discomfort involved in risking vulnerability. The people involved may benefit from acknowledging and exploring that the difficulty in risking vulnerability; whether it may be personally or culturally based… or from negative experiences. Personal discomfort with risking vulnerability may come from prior harmful relationship experiences with the same person or with others. Cultural discomfort may be gender-based for some men or come from other cultural relationship and communal rules. In addition, there may be discomfort in experiencing the vulnerability of another person similar or comparable cultural or family dynamics. The approach just discussed may or may not be applicable or successful to a particular individual, couple, or family… for a particular teenager and parent. Nevertheless, the two or more people must first risk vulnerability and second, to honor each other or another’s vulnerability.

Help

In some situations, the adult- parent for example OR the teenager may have sufficient ability to step aside the dynamics and give third-party observations of problematic dynamics and suggest healthier approaches. By oneself, either person can take responsibility to become self-aware and insightful at his/her ineffective words and behaviors. And then, change and interrupt the process by reacting and responding differently- hopefully, more productively. That largely starts with NOT saying or doing the same old things that have been inflammatory and toxic to the relationship. If this proves too difficult for the two to manage themselves, seeking assistance would be highly recommended. The helper in some cases may need to be a particularly experienced and skilled professional such as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist or other similarly trained person. The next blog looks at facilitating self-expression or addressing the “Talk to the Hand” game of stoic silence!

 

Facilitating Vulnerability- Part 2, Arguing the Facts Game

It is often most challenging for anyone, much less an insecure teenager to reveal negative aspects of oneself when vulnerable. Imagine asking someone to reveal the emotion that is hardest for him/her to show to an intimate other person when one is at his/her worst. When at his/her worst the way that one acts is often from covering a vulnerable feeling. Many people puff up and get grandiose to cover up fear. Someone may act out aggressively to hide feelings of shame. Getting increasingly louder may be a way to hide feeling inadequate or out of control. By being angry, no one (hopefully) can tell that one feels vulnerable and scared. Unfortunately, this can be highly effective to distract the other person- an adult or ones parent for example, not just from the vulnerability but also from him/her soothing or supporting the teenager. Surprisingly, sometimes a direct question in a calmer moment is acceptable. A trusted adult can ask what feelings come up when most stressed that are the very difficult to reveal to another person. If one, including a teenager can own and reveal such feelings, it becomes possible to consider what might be a more productive response- especially, a reaction that improves rather than harms important intimate relationships. Can the teenager say, “It’s hard for me admit I’m scared… that I screwed up… and that it’s ok for me to not be perfect,” and to expect understanding and compassion? “I feel inadequate,” may be hardest thing but most essential thing for a teenager to say. Or perhaps, the most essential thing for an adult to know about the teenager.

Vulnerability is a Key

Intimate relationships require that individuals own fears of being harmed by another, being unappreciated, or being inadequate in meeting the other’s needs. Insecure teenagers, however may not openly bring up such feelings/experiences despite these being key vulnerabilities for intimate relationships. One may not reveal him/herself to others for a number of different emotional, psychological, cultural, or other reasons. This may be particularly true when a teenager has forced or coerced into a conversation or relationship. The teenager may start an interaction or relationship with recriminations and accusations against others present or outside the interaction or relationship. This could be distrust of authority figures such as teachers, therapists, or parents, or of school or organizations specifically or in general.  The challenge or “trick” of a positive interaction with a suspicious teenager is how to have communication without repeating any existing negative dynamics. Some repetition of negative relational dynamics may help the adult (particularly, someone new to the teenager) understand the teenager, but elimination or reduction of such dynamics is critical to relationship intimacy. Often it is more productive to avoid focus on the fact or fiction of behaviors but instead focusing on feelings of harm, lack of appreciation, and inadequacy. These are all forms of injury or harm. The accused teenager (or adult) will often want to argue the accuracy of some transgression. Often, the interaction gets waylaid into the minutia of details and specifics.

  • Not at 3pm- it was at 3:15pm…
  • No, it was only 3pm or at most, 3:05pm…
  • No, the show had already started and it starts at 3pm…
  • That show doesn’t always start on time…
  • Yes, it does!
  • No, it doesn’t!
  • You hardly ever watch that show anyway…
  • Yes, I do!
  • No, you don’t!”

Stop It!

This is the “Arguing the Facts” game which does not work except to waste time and distract from really important issues. As long as one keeps playing the “Facts” game, frustration and continued non-resolution result. Someone (teenager in trouble or partner who messed up) can purposely trick the other person into a revolving cycle of nonsensical assertions of what is precise reality or not. He/she thus avoids having to take ownership of some more compelling behavior that has either directly or indirectly harmed another person, or has negative implications to his/her life. The duo talk NOT about respect, responsibility, mistakes, injuries, harm to self or others, integrity, moral values, and any number of important issues. Instead they quibble furiously about 3-4-5-6-7 or oh my gosh… 10 whole minutes! A detached outside observer may want to just shout at the teenager and adult, “Stop it! I don’t care what time it was! It doesn’t matter what time it was! Stop it!” The facts don’t count! In the process of arguing irrelevant minutia, the core feeling from the core point is often lost. In many cases, the core point is something like, “I expected you at a certain time and I waited for you.” And most importantly, the core feeling is “I felt alone and abandoned by you.” THAT is important! Not 3pm, 3:05pm, 3:06pm, 3:10pm, or 3:15pm!

Who’s the Biggest Victim?!

Or, the argument can be another game called, “Who’s the most hurt!?” AKA as “Who’s the biggest victim?!” or “Who has the biggest case against the other!?” Drawn into the argument of who is the aggrieved person or who was the more critically emotionally injured person does not resolve any grievance. Or, much less deal with the hurt placed on the conversational or relationship table. This can be teenager OR the adult. This can be a very tempting game. It often is the consequence of someone who has not experienced power, control, or respect in life from affirmative empowering experiences. It is a kind backwards dysfunctional attempt at self-esteem. Unfortunately, being the biggest victim forgoes having personal power and control in one’s life, and adopts a self-definition or identity of being a victim.

It may be incumbent upon the adult to be more self-aware… and more mature than the developmentally less secure teenager. Hopefully, the adult has processed this tempting game to be a victim and done enough personal work to feel empowered through affirmative behaviors. Unfortunately the adult including a parent being more mature or emotionally stable… or less reactive than the teenager is not always the case. The adult may have to do his/her personal growth work of self-empowerment simultaneously with dealing with a difficult teenager. In the healthy dynamic, the aggrieved person- teenager OR adult has attempted to reveal his/her vulnerability by naming an interaction where he/she was hurt. Unfortunately, poor communication habits often result in the emphasis NOT being placed on the hurt or vulnerability. Instead, the aggrieved person emphasizes the negative behavior or labels the other person’s intent as purposefully hurtful. The other person in some home, work, academic, or social situation is first often readily drawn to argue the degree of negativity or the specificity of the accusation. Secondly, but often bypassed, he/she attempts dispute that he/she had negative intentions. One or both persons can get caught up in a “You Messed Up First” or “You Messed Up Worse” contest. Or, in a different but common version of this game, one person attempts to dismiss a grievance or deflect taking responsibility by invoking the “You Did It Too!” game. The implication is that the other’s grievance has no validity since he/she has transgressed in the same or similar manner. Thus, the recipient of the complaint avoids having to answer for or address what he/she has done wrong or poorly. Of course, this can get the two into another game- the “Is It or Isn’t It REALLY the Same As What You Did!” Far too frequently, acknowledging much less attempting to soothe the aggrieved person’s injured feelings is completely lost in the swirling arguments.

Too Intolerable

This or similarly highly problematic dynamic may be purposefully or instinctively prompted by an individual to avoid the accusation or possibly the shame of having failed the aggrieved other person. Owning the behavior becomes being at fault… being bad, rather than taking responsibility for a personal failing- too intolerable. That could be the teenager who feels he/she has failed to please his/her parents. It could be parents feeling that they have failed as parents. Ironically, the aggrieved person’s expression of vulnerability often triggers intense vulnerability in the criticized other person, especially if they are close and important to each other. The criticized person may become internally (and secretly) worried or terrified that he/she has messed up, or that any response may be inadequate for the aggrieved person. The criticized person’s defensive mechanisms may manifest to frustrate the aggrieved person instead of being affirmative or having validating reactions that are soothing.   Underlying both individuals’ anger, anxiety, and hurt may be betrayal. This happens in any intimate relationship, and perhaps especially in romantic relationships.   There are key expectations that intensify the sense of betrayal that will be discussed in the next blog.

 

 

Facilitating Vulnerability- Part 1

Being vulnerable, that is revealing inner or deeper feelings may be something that an individual- particularly a teenager may be somewhere from highly comfortable and familiar to completely distressing and foreign. Keeping secrets or being secretive seems to be the normal operating process for many teenagers! Many boys or men, in particular being vulnerable violates their fundamental “man codes” of self-denial and stoicism. Or, on the other hand there may be girls or women for whom silent suffering is expected, while overt expression may have been punished. A teenager can pick up these values and behaviors from experiences and modeling from family dynamics. This could include having lived in an alcoholic family system to various conscious and unconscious cultural models- as well as religious values. Not to be discounted are media influences on how to be “tough” or “cool” that emphasize not expressing feelings to others. On the other hand, some teenagers may be very willing and ready to be vulnerable with others.

Early or quick willingness to share vulnerabilities may be indicative of a relatively open and secure relational style. Early vulnerability often helps develop quick rapport with a new person. Sometimes, in a new relationship one can overtly ask the other of his or her expectations of expressed vulnerability, including how another’s vulnerability affects him or her. Or, it may be very subtly expressed- often, non-verbally in actions and body language and tone.

There can be differences that appear early that are later fairly observable between men and women in four aspects of relationship quality: Intimacy, Agreement, Independence, and Sexuality. Women score higher than men on the intimacy factor. They tend do more intimate self-disclosure than men. Women also enact more intimacy behaviors such providing emotional support. This difference can be noticeable often be seen in young girls and teenagers. Despite gender differences in behaviors, for both men and women there is similar strong belief in the importance on intimacy in the relationship. Men tend to find maintaining harmony as more critical to the relationship than women. Not surprisingly, they also tend to be more conflict-avoidant. A study found that the following features seemed most valuable for the relationship: taking time for each other, talking with each other, empathy, listening to each other, taking interest in the partner, consideration, and so forth. Improvement in these features can then also be interpreted as improving relationship. These features and improvement would be applicable to relationships between a teenager and a parent or adult.

 Who Can Hurt You

Intimacy reinforces the relationship between people by sharing and responding supportively vulnerable behavior and expression, but it also increases personal vulnerability. Teenagers can become uniquely sensitive and develop increased potential to being hurt by someone close to them. Often insecure in this developmental stage, teenagers can be more sensitive to being hurt while being highly vigilant about getting hurt. With challenges in a relationship, purposeful and accidental injuries can be frequent and emotionally challenging. No one can hurt you as much as the person you love or really care about. That could be a teenager’s girlfriend or boyfriend, BFF, or parent… or important adult authority figure such as a coach, minister, or teacher. No one else is allowed to be as close to you, to know you as well, or to have the opportunity or more opportunities to clumsily or purposely hurt you as that close person. Someone can have a dream where a close person is cold or mean, and one will wake up depressed and upset! When close to another, how often or how badly vulnerability is violated depends on each teenager’s makeup.

A teenager’s or anyone’s responses also depend on earlier experiences. Negative experiences can include or result in poor emotional skills, interpersonal hurt is enacted as retaliation, withdrawal, defensiveness, hostility, or avoidance, diminishing intimacy, and poor overall relationship health. On the other hand, positive relationship are more predicted with adequate emotional skills, interpersonal hurt is enacted as self–disclosure, confident emotional communication, repair seeking, positive approach, appropriate self–care, forgiveness, relationship–enhancing attributions, and assertive communication, maintaining intimacy and enhancing relationship health. Of course, emotionally healthy and secure teenagers (and others) are less likely to hurt their close personal intimates in the first place.

As relationships (especially early developmentally formative relationships) affect emotional skills, emotional skills affect subsequent relationships. The emotional skill level of a teenager affects trust and vulnerability, which are highly linked and essential to intimacy. Trust allows for a teenager to make personal disclosures or engage in behaviors that expose one or more vulnerabilities. An exposed vulnerability puts the individual at risk, hopefully with someone who will honor the trust. Hopefully, that someone (another teenager!?) has the emotional skills to honor the vulnerability and trust. When another person including an adult offers vulnerability, trust, and intimacy, it creates a sanction- an expectation of reciprocity from the recipient. A message has been sent, there is an anticipated experience by the recipient, and a response… specifically, and a response-in-kind is expected. The recipient of a self-disclosure sees the intimacy level of the disclosure as indicating the sender’s trust and liking. The recipient feels socially rewarded and, as a consequence, likes the person who self-disclosed. With some adult interactions with a difficult teenager, the adult does not get what he or she anticipated. Instead of being rewarded, he or she may feel punished. The reciprocal process has not worked as it should have.

 How It Works

  • “If I show my vulnerabilities to you… if I open my heart and reveal my anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas to you, I honor you. I honor you by revealing my vulnerabilities, implicitly saying I think and have hope that you are a kind, sensitive, and caring person who will honor my vulnerabilities… that you will hold them gently and respond with respect and care.
  •  If I don’t show my vulnerabilities to you… if I hide my heart and feelings, I dishonor you. I dishonor you by hiding myself, implicitly saying I think that you are unkind, insensitive, and uncaring unworthy of sharing my vulnerabilities with.

Then there are two types of responses from you. First, if you hold my vulnerabilities with sensitivity and caring… great! You show me that you are a kind person and worthy of my taking a risk in investing a bit of trust in you.

On the other hand, if you abuse my vulnerabilities… if you doubt, question, or insult my anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas, you dishonor me… you betray my hope that you are a kind, sensitive, and caring person. The beginnings of mistrust color my sense of you.”

This is only the beginning of the process however. The first person (teenager or adult) has risked trusting the other person, and if he or she came through, all is going well. If the other person did not come through, mistrust has begun to build. If the response was positive, sharing vulnerability appears to work to build trust, intimacy, and the relationship. However, does it… will it work the other direction? Will it be reciprocated? This may be between a teenager and a friend, or between two partners, or any two persons.

  •  “And, now it’s your turn. If you show your vulnerabilities to the other person, to me for example… if you open your heart and reveal your anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas to me as well, you honor me. You honor me and further confirm my (or the other person) first risking revealing vulnerabilities. Your sharing shows that you return the trust. You hold me as a kind, sensitive, and caring person that you are willing to trust with your vulnerabilities. You have reciprocated my investment and trust in you.

However, if you don’t show your vulnerabilities to me… if you hide your emotions, you disappoint and betray me. Your withholding makes me feel you think I am unworthy, unkind, insensitive, and uncaring. The relationship becomes unequal with my sharing and you keeping secrets.”

This might be already consistent with a teenager’s relational value system and practice. In that case, then communication and the relationship with the teenager would tend to be a positive one.

 Mismatch

On the other hand, revealing or honoring vulnerability may be alien because of cultural models and/or family dynamics. There may be a mismatch between a teenager and another such as the adult. If this mismatch is unarticulated and implicit expectations are assumed to be binding, then the relationships can become quite strained. Unfamiliar communication may be subject to problematic speculation. For example, the teenager or the other person may present an intimate side of themselves too early in the relationship. This could make the recipient either uncomfortable- (“Why are you telling me that? I’m not ready to expose myself to someone I don’t know well enough yet”). If the disclosure comes from someone not well known it is not readily trusted. However from someone close- someone with whom there is already some intimacy, it is viewed as a sign of trust and more likely to be reciprocated. Expecting a teenager one has just met to automatically engage in reciprocal vulnerability and sharing may be unfounded. Worse yet, it may result in a disastrous relationship.

Yet and of importance is that disclosure or expression of vulnerability tends to prompt reciprocal disclosure even if the recipient is not normally disposed to reveal him or herself. Someone who uses self-disclosure with a teenager may be “priming the pump” to get the teenager to “flow.” A parent being open and honest about his or her adolescent or current struggles with life (alcohol, drugs, sex/relationships, career goals or aspirations, etc.) may prompt similar disclosure from the teenager. Reversing the normal authoritative positions may be beneficial- that is, ask the teenager for assistance. Perhaps, let the teenager be the helper. “Tell me (the adult), what’s not working in the schools?” “What’s most annoying about doing it this way? Help me understand.” Sometimes, a person may be able to respond to the needs of another person- that is, help, but may not be able to show vulnerability to another. Being sensitive, kind, nurturing, helping, or supporting another can keep the “helper” in a superior hierarchal position. The “helper” stays in a dominant position to the subordinate position of the “helped.” Some men who have been raised to be the “big dog” or the alpha male can readily assume the role of the gallant knight able to save a damsel in distress or to slay a fierce dragon. A teenager may find the role empowering. Conversely, a person may sense being in need or revealing vulnerability becomes tantamount to becoming the damsel in distress- an unacceptable role for many individuals- perhaps, especially some insecure teenagers. Other family or cultural patterns vary on the acceptability of exposing ones vulnerability. These patterns or models can become problematic when carried into any relationship that is supposed to be intimate. The second person needs to not only respond to the first individual’s vulnerability but also to expose his or her own vulnerability. This becomes an implicit golden rule of the intimate relationship- to expose oneself or else one insults the other as being unworthy of holding ones vulnerabilities. An unaware or unsophisticated adult may feel disrespected if the teenager is unable or unwilling to reveal him or herself. And, may pathologize the reaction as teenage resistance rather than indicative of important values and behaviors.

Given the opportunity to respond to the second person’s vulnerability,

  • “If I treat your vulnerabilities with sensitivity and caring, I confirm to you that I am a kind person and worthy of your trust… worthy of risking intimacy.

If I abuse your vulnerabilities… if I doubt, question, or insult your anxieties, fears, hopes, joys, needs, dreams, injuries, and traumas, I dishonor you… I betray your hope that I am a kind, sensitive, and caring person. The beginnings of mistrust will color your sense of me.”

Honored and Reciprocated

Mistreatment, which consists of failing to hold vulnerabilities with kindness, will break down a relationship. Mistrust or trust grows as the process cycles repeatedly. Unfortunately, some teenagers and adults- particularly their parents have cycled negatively to dysfunctional relationships. On the other hand, if both individuals- for example, the teenager and an adult respond well and honor each other’s vulnerabilities, trust and an intimate relationship grow a little bit with each interaction. The growth prompts two people to risk further vulnerability with each other. As further vulnerability is honored and reciprocated, gradually greater trust and a more intimate relationship grow. Over and over, continued positive consistent interactions build a stable healthy relationship. If one or both persons- either the teenager or the adult respond poorly to each other’s vulnerabilities or withhold vulnerability, then mistrust grows and intimacy fades. In problematic teenager and adult relationship has often has suffered inadequate interactions around sharing vulnerability. It can be very beneficial to bring this to a conscious level for discussion, examination, and adaptation. As a negative cycle may have developed, both persons are contributing to perpetuate it. In other words, either person can also change his or her pattern of response or action to something more positive. “You go first” changes to “whoever can go first, should go first.” And both are “wrong” for not doing something more positive. That may be in risking being vulnerable… first.

 

 

 

Five Foundations to Relationships

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:

Trust

Be Vulnerable

Self-Express (Expressive Communication):

  •        Introspective

  •        Insightful

  •        Connected to Own Feelings/Process

  •        Articulate

Empathize (Receptive Communication):

  •        Listen

  • Understand

  • Relate/Identify

Invest

 

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.

Facilitating 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.

 

The “What!? You don’t trust me?” Game

Intimacy and its partner- trust can be twisted into a coercive challenge of “What!? You don’t trust me?” Consider these principles in the sometimes Machiavellian world of the teenager. The implication by the teenager is that one SHOULD trust him or her, and that one is somehow being INSULTING not to trust the teenager. The offended accusing teenager then holds power over the adult who dares-to-not-trust… the untrustworthy teenager! But… but… that teen ain’t trustworthy!

As with the developmental sequence for growth and change, healthy relationships are based on trust. Between the parent or adult and a child or teenager- or between any two people, intimacy and trust predict positive interactions. The individual as a teenager or adult often is in search of relationship health and fulfillment. It may also be a relationship with an inner child, a false sense of self, a demanding idealized self-image, or other internalized intrapsychic relationship.  Monogamy, life-long commitment, and a depth of intimacy often characterize intent of the romantic relationship. The couple is one of many intimate relationships. Other potentially intimate relationships may involve a hierarchical relationship such as student to teacher, child or teen to parent, player to coach, mentee to mentor, and supervisee to supervisor. On the other hand, other potentially intimate relationships may be egalitarian such as friends, co-workers, teammates, siblings, and of course, couples in many modern American mainstream cultures.

The family itself is an intimate relationship among parents and children with hierarchical qualities. Intimacy is both a process and an outcome. The “What!? You don’t trust me?” game presumes the outcome without the process. The process to establish intimacy and trust involves particular interpersonal dynamics. Intimacy can be seen as an interpersonal process that involves communication of personal feelings and information to another person who responds warmly and sympathetically. According to this model, the development of intimacy begins with disclosure of emotional or personal information by one of the members in the relationship. Revealing emotional and private information about oneself communicates trust, liking for the other person, and commitment to increased intimacy in the relationship. Emotional self-disclosures also reveal centrally important aspects of the self, allowing the other person to verify and validate these self-views. As a result, emotional disclosures are more strongly associated with relationship development and intimacy than are factual or behavioral disclosures. The “What!? You don’t trust me?” game implies a kind of converse is also true- that one must both trust and self-disclose whether or not the other person is worthy of being trusted with intimate disclosures. The key issue out of this potential trap is whether or not the other person (teenager for example) has a history of honestly self-disclosing or occasionally to frequently lie.

Disclosure + Response = Relationship

Self-disclosure affects the relationship depending in part on the other person’s response. So, how do you as the parent or adult respond to some sensational (and perhaps, scary) revelation- that is, of course if revelation is truthful? The relationship is enhanced when there are mutual behaviors that communicate understanding (a clear perception of the speaker’s core self), validation (respect and acceptance), and caring (affection and liking of the speaker). The nature and quality of the adult response (“What!?” “Oh my god!” “Noooo!” “The hell you are!”) may be more important than the self-disclosure to building intimacy. This is another game of sorts- “Can I shock you?” or “Will you be understanding or rejecting of my truth?” Whether parent or adult and teenager has or is familiar with a hierarchical relationship or an egalitarian relationship, the condition of the relationship and quality of intimacy inevitably shade interactions. Each individual- parent/adult or teenager, has his or her personal history and brings strengths and weaknesses, aptitude and inhibitions, ease and discomfort with intimacy and relationships. These are both the result of such interactions and games and the consequence of them.

Communication and interactions come from the existing relationship and the level of intimacy with between or among all actors. Dynamics may be very challenging if trust and intimacy already is a core problem between or among family members or in the relationship or community. The test or game is conducted with minimal expectation that the adult will respond well or appropriately. Any inability to form an intimate relationship with each other in the family may be duplicated with an inability to bond with anyone else. Individuals with a secure global attachment style generally feel comfortable with closeness and interdependence in relationships. They believe they are worthy of love and see others as trustworthy and dependable. Even as they test or game others, they are hopeful that others will be worthy of intimacy and trust. Those with a preoccupied global attachment style are mistrusting that close others will meet their emotional needs. Preoccupied individuals including teenagers crave intimacy but simultaneously fear rejection. People with a dismissing-avoidant global attachment style, in contrast, are not comfortable with intimacy and interdependence in relationships and believe that others are generally not trustworthy or dependable. And then there are teenagers who have a fearful-avoidant global attachment style. They believe that they are unworthy of love and fear abandonment, and thus find it hard to trust and depend on relationship partners. They see both themselves and most other people negatively. They will anticipate a poor response to the game or test. They are also unlikely to give the other the benefit of a doubt.

Pattern of Honesty

Sometimes, the “What!? You don’t trust me?” challenge is reactive, implicit or overt, and other times, overtly manipulative. Adults and parents need to look at their children’s patterns of behavior over time. If the youth has not shown a pattern of deception and avoidance of responsibility, then the question “What!? You don’t trust me?” is less a manipulative game, but more a genuine expression of surprise of being doubted when there has not been reasons for such doubt. In this circumstance, the parent or adult should examine how much of his or her reaction of doubt comes from the actual scenario around the child’s behavior or words. Or does it come from his or her anxiety or fears of something bad happening? For example, with hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive fears about alcohol and drug availability and dangers to youth, a parent or adult can input anxiety into otherwise benign actions or words. If parental or adult anxiety overwhelm the knowledge and experience of his or her child’s values, personality, and behaviors over many years to create lack of trust, then the parent or adult HAS essentially betrayed the youth. The question is more “Don’t you know me? How could you think that of me?” Opening up the conversation, including presenting transparently ones anxiety with the youth would be a good way to deal with doubts. The background of honesty and openness along with the many experiences of sensitive nurturing interactions with a habitually truthful child and parent or adult predicts this process being available.

What NOT To Do

And then there is the frequent or habitual lying youth! Frequent or habitual does not however mean the youth always lies. Eventually a child or teenager who lies frequently will occasionally be doubted when he or she is telling the truth. As a therapist, this happens often in sessions where the mom or dad doubts or distrusts whatever the young person is claiming: having done homework, not sneaking out, not taking the $20 bill from the kitchen table, etc. The young person is duly outraged at being falsely accused (“of a crime he did not commit” as the title voice ominously states over from the old television series “The Fugitive”… a cultural reference from 1963-1967!). As he or she acts insulted for his/her word and integrity being impugned, I ask, “Wait a second! How many times did you lie or cheat and your parent never knew? How many times did you BS him/her and got away with it? Huh?” This usually stops the runaway train of self-righteous outrage and elicits a silent look. “How often? How many times?” Eventually, with or without more prompting, the kid usually admits to “a bunch of times!” Then I’ll challenge, “And here you go acting all hurt and outraged for being doubted for a one time you didn’t pull some crap!”

Once the game has been identified and exposed, then the logic of adult or parental doubt is asserted. It may be as direct as asking, “Given how many times you have lied or deceived me (or your parent), how can you expect us to tell the difference between another lie or the truth… this time? Since you’re so good and have so much practice… and have pulled off lies and deceptions so often, it really doesn’t make sense for you to expect me (or your parent) to be able to tell the difference. You ARE really good at fooling us!” As a parent or other important adult role, it is often best to acknowledge to the youth that one is not good enough… astute enough… analytical enough to recognize whether he or she is telling the truth. As such, it does make much more sense to NOT trust the youth with the pattern of lies and deceptions. It makes way more sense, as sad as it may be and as hurtful as it may be for everyone to not trust the youth. The adult(s) can acknowledge that it is really screwed up to be speaking the truth and be doubted or distrusted.

Caught in the Game… Trapped!

“What!? You don’t trust me?” expressed angrily and self-righteously can cause the adult to feel guilt for NOT trusting. He or she wants very much to trust the youth, but reality, history, and experience says trust is foolish. Implicit with this game challenge is that the youth would be horribly psychically wounded if this important adult (parent, teacher, coach, therapist, etc.) does not trust him or her. Caught in this manipulative game, the adult

  • may back down challenging the veracity of the youth’s statements or the quality or intent of his or her behavior,
  • forgo setting and following through on appropriate boundaries and discipline,
  • acquiesce to unhealthy and/or unproductive behavior or choices- that is, let the kid get away with lying,
  • become paralyzed as a leader, mentor, guide… as a parent, teacher, or other important adult role.

Some adults instinctively sense that this stinks! They sense the self-righteous which places them in the morally deficient position- the betrayer to the youth’s need for benevolent adult guidance. Yet they also sense that this is a blatant manipulation to avoid responsibility. They recognize that they are being played! The moral accusation and the manipulation can elicit a reciprocal self-righteous enraged response. As the parent or adult snaps and angrily yells at the youth, another test or game has been triggered. Once the parent or adult gets activated, then the youth can assert to him or herself (and later to peers and others) that his or her parent always loses control and yells at him or her. It’s the “You lose credibility if you lose your temper” game. Or, the “You lose if you get mad, I win!” game. While the youth may not enjoy being yelled at or having the parent or adult be angry at him or her, since the youth cannot otherwise have control it is a pyrrhic victory.

Expecting, Identifying, Accepting… and Sad

Unfortunately, in reality a youth who successfully plays this game- that is, also a parent or adult who gets played by this game results in a deep loss for everyone. The youth does not learn how to lead an honorable life, does not acquire productive ways to gain real control, and becomes satisfied with symbolic victories at the cost of relationship harm. The parent or adult fails in his or her leadership responsibilities to discipline and guide the youth towards positive life values and strategies. And the community (home, school, job, team, etc.) becomes dysfunctional in achieving their goals. The best response to the “What!? You don’t trust me?” game starts with recognizing the youth’s pattern of dealing with problems. That means not only the nature of problems: tardiness, losing things, forgetting, sloppy work, stealing, etc. but also the pattern of how he or she responds to being confronted about the problems. If the youth has a pattern- a history of lying, deceiving, omitting information, or otherwise not be honest, then the parent or adult SHOULD NOT BE SURPRISED that the youth will almost certainly stay true to being untruthful!

It is stunning sometimes to hear parents and adults with significant experience and history with particular youth lying to them seem surprised that he or she has lied to them… AGAIN! While positive parents and adults are always hopeful that a youth will or can change, they must also know that such a youth will not change just because… just because you love him or her… just because he or she has so much potential… just because you know he or she is inherently a good person… just because! Remember, lying works! It works for the youth to get away with things. It works to avoid getting into trouble. It works well enough and often enough. And with the “What!? You don’t trust me?” game working to manipulate and paralyze adult reactions, or getting adults to lose their temper, lying works well enough. Therefore, it is up to parents and adults to make it not work well enough. Once parents and adults expect their little sweethearts can and will lie (based on prior experience), they are much less likely to be surprised. They become more likely to identify the lying and accept that it is or has become a habitual response of their child. With this acceptance comes sadness that can be used to mitigate or avoid the shame/guilt of distrusting ones child and the outrage reaction to the self-righteous manipulation. Acceptance and sadness can be expressed in the following manner.

Sad… Hope

“I’m sad that I don’t know if you’re telling the truth or not. I’m sure it’s sad for you too that you may be telling the truth and I don’t trust you. It’s really sad that for a bunch of reasons, you’ve lied to or deceived me so many times before. That includes a bunch times, you got away with it and I never found out that you had lied. And then there’s the times, I eventually found out that you had lied and I had believed you. I am upset… am a little angry, certainly been really angry before, but mostly I’m sad. I hear you and I don’t know whether you’re telling the truth or not. I can’t trust you because of all the previous times. You can tell me know that you will always tell me the truth from now on. But I don’t trust you to believe you as much as I want that to be true. That’s really really sad. Parents should be able to believe whatever their kids tell them. And you don’t know that whatever you say- not matter how honest or sincere… you won’t know whether I will believe you or not. That’s really really sad. Kids should know that whatever they say, their parents will listen and trust them.”

Sadness rather than shame or anger is the emotional expression of the parent or adult. Anger or shaming of the youth is hopefully reduced or eliminated. The self-righteousness and manipulation of the game is avoided. The parent or adult essentially invites the youth to be sad as well. Then the parent or adult can say,

“I would like that relationship where I can trust what you say, and you can trust that I will believe you. That will take many many times of you telling me the truth… and us… perhaps, especially me being able to dealing with the truth in some productive way. You’ll still be the kid and I’ll still be the parent (or adult in my role). I would like to get there. Hope you will too. Whatever you tell me now, I’ll won’t trust yet… I have to see if you will can be consistent enough… or maybe initially, better enough to have hope and keep at it.”

It may take many interactions or tries to change the pattern. There are so many variables that bring a parent-youth (adult-youth) dynamic to this point of distrust, lying, and gaming. And there are many variables to deal with to change the pattern, including the parent or adult being able to deal with the truth he or she does not want to hear. Those variables are too individualized to address in an article or blog. However, the first step remains to expect, identify, and accept the pattern… and the game, before one can start to change it or to change the game outcome. And that’s the truth! Don’t you trust me?

 

 

Hard to Trust- Part 2, Sequence for Growth and Change Continued

The sequence for growth and change has its foundation in basic trust leading to the ability to have hope as discussed in the prior blog, but also has important successive and progressive stages necessary for increased potential for later growth. The six stages in this theory lead eventually to rewards, benefits, or the realization of growth or change. Such growth or change is both incremental- that is quantitative and qualitatively substantial. Moreover, a person can rotate several times through these stages gathering quantitative growth each time, which creates the critical mass of development that leads to leaps forward in growth, change, and maturity- that is, hopefully wisdom.  Trust-Hope was the first of the six states and the first two-stage pair. Here are all six stages again as well as their pairing leading to greater change.

  1. BASIC TRUST

  2. HOPE

  1. DREAMS

  2. PURPOSE

  1. GOALS

  2. INVESTMENT

  1. REWARDS/BENEFITS/REALIZATION

Dreams

Simple and small things a person has hope for coalesce into a larger formation of possibilities in the ability to have dreams. It is developmentally appropriate for young children have fantasies as their dreams. Being or becoming a fairy princess or Spiderman reflects their developmental inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. They are just learning about how the world works in the pre-operational (magical thinking) and concrete operations stages up until pre-adolescence. They may also dream of running faster than the wind, or becoming a rock star like Taylor Swift, or a superstar athlete like Stephen Curry, or a world-renown author such as J. K. Rowling. In those intermediate years between fantasy or dreaming and adult accomplishment are the experiences in the real world. The child who is not the fastest on the playground, has trouble keeping in tune, cannot make a jump shot, or has not turned out multiple stories has experiences contrary to realization of their dreams. On the other hand, the child no one can catch in a race, sings with the voice of an angel, is always the first player picked in playground games, or has contributed regularly and been published in youth journals has received affirmation that his or her skills at least suggest that such dreams are possible.

Dreams Validated by Experience vs. Grandiosity

Throughout childhood, people have experiences whereby they gain knowledge, develop skills, and explore their capacity. As these experiences validate or invalidate potential competency in achieving their fantasies or dreams, they become more or less realistic. Children figure out that fairy princesses and superheroes exist in books, computer games, television, and the movies but cannot be their future. Some children, teenagers, and adults continue to have fantastical dreams despite real life experiences that disconfirm their capacity and show limited skills inadequate for such achievement. While a common recommendation is to never discourage another person’s dreams, some dreams are simply outside of one’s realistic capacity. For them, dreams are not aspirations that motivate and direct energy and work, but grandiose dreams that will waste time and resources.

Dreams to Purpose

When a dreams is validated frequently and relatively consistently by real life achievements and increased skills intrinsic to them, the child, teenager, and adult gradually develops an identity consistent with the dream. “I’m a fast runner.” “I’m a good singer.” “I’m a really good basketball player.” “I’m a writer.” The dreams of being the fastest runner, a singing star, a NBA basketball player, and a published author become more realistic over time and with good experiences. They evolve beyond some mental exercise to having more structure and direction. As current and subsequent steps to further move towards achieving that dream become evident, the dream triggers a sense of purpose for the child, teenager, or adult. The individual becomes purposeful in pursuing his or her craft, developing increased skills, gaining formative experiences, and exploring all aspects for growth and realization. The runner or singer, basketball player, and author tries different techniques, adapts his or her diet for greater fitness, pushes out the edges of his or her skills, studies accomplished role models who have achieved his or her desired dreams, and anything else that may further growth and development.

However, if the basic trust is missing so that the teenager or adult has a foundation of mistrust in self and others, with false hope, and grandiose dreams, an erratic sense of purpose develops that operates more as slogans than structure or direction for activity. The teenager or adult can spout the righteous principles of effort, dedication, and discipline but fail to practice them. Without a true sense of purpose, there is not the focused energy and efforts that increase knowledge, skills, and sophistication. Activity or behavior is erratic- at times, even contradictory to moving one towards realization of dreams. Exercise is skipped, an audition or music rehearsal is skipped, there is languid effort at basketball practice, and no writing schedule is followed.   Success of others is attributed to luck while one’s own mediocre or absent opportunities attributed to bad luck. Magical thinking extends well beyond early childhood and becomes the justification or excuse for failure.

Goals to Investment

As development continues and the sequence and progression accrues more foundation with trust, leading to hope, leading to dreams, leading to a sense of purpose, then setting goals to achieve the purpose becomes logical. The structure and direction gained from a sense of purpose moves from the more general to the more specific. The general goal of gaining more experience, resources, and skills points the teenager or adult to specific goals such as a workout plan to increase muscle mass and reaction time, taking voice lessons to improve vocal range, making the school team, or writing every day for two hours. Rather than expansive undirected energy directed in some amorphous manner, goals that serve the purpose/dream become where action and energy is directed. Without a sense of purpose, the teenager or adult will set goals that are not cohesive or serve anything in particular. Busy being busy. They become goals of activity- being busy but without developing skills, resources, or knowledge or moving one any closer to the original desire. Energy may be expended in spasmodic intense bursts now and then, repetitively, with little or no effect or efficiency. Weights may be lifted, songs sung, balls bounced, or stories written… goals “achieved” without any progression or development. Busy for the sake of being busy becomes a waste of energy, but some kind of pseudo-justification for trying.

Rewards/Benefits/Realization

Rather than busy being busy without purpose or results, the teenager or adult with a solid sequence and progression of accrued development has goals that his or her investment of time and energy is more likely to bear fruition.   A person without the same foundation invests in empty, erratic, and scattered goals leading to little growth other than a lot of classes taken, time spent, purposeless skills, unproductive exercises, and unfulfilled dreams. Depression, anxiety, and often resentment often result. Such a frustrated teenager or adult has increased vulnerability to self-soothing with alcohol, drugs, and any number of self-destructive behaviors. On the other hand, healthy trust and genuine hope, realistic dreams and resultant purpose, lead to setting productive goals that consistent investment is much more likely to lead to growth and desired change. Even when dreams change and purpose may shift with challenging or unexpected experiences, basic trust in self and others and resultant hope allow for shifting to more productive goals and investment or re-investment that serves realizing the teenager or adult’s aspirations.

Satiation and the Aimless Teenager

The three pairs of this developmental sequence and progression: trust/hope, dreams/purpose, and goals/investment also suggest the three areas to direct support or interventions with the aimless teenager. Ordinarily, parents and adults promote the teenager setting goals for his or life. The expectation is that clear goals will lead to investment towards achieving them and therefore, progression towards some mature productive life achievements. The fallacy of this approach is that setting goals and/or encouraging investment in them is only effective if the earlier developmental stages to growth and change have been solidly experienced. Without healthy trust/hope and dreams/purpose development, promoting further disconnected goals and energy or investment will lead both the teenager and well-intended to further frustration. Thus, attention to goal setting and investment of attention and energy must be qualified by examination of whether the needs of earlier developmental stages have been satiated.

Satiation of developmental needs triggers the individual, couple, and family’s progression on to the next developmental challenge.   Setting goals and investment of energy are subsequent stages dependent on earlier formative stages. Until the developmental needs of the stage are met, an individual will stay in the stage or be pulled back to deal with unresolved tasks or energy. Harriet’s compulsive attempts to gain intimate validation through successive relationships reflected the lack of resolution of her developmental attachment needs. Sufficient quantitative experiences create satiation of developmental needs, which facilitates qualitative change into more mature stages. Satiation of unmet developmental energy or needs may be a key issue for many teenagers (and adults). The parent or adult’s role is to facilitate satiation of unresolved, denied, suppressed, and unfinished developmental needs for the teenager that have interfered with moving forward in life, including healthy relationship functioning.

Failure Provides Information

When setting goals and directing investment of energy fails to produce rewards, benefits, or realization, that the failure provides important useful information. Failure points to one of two theories. One is that the teenager is somehow inherently flawed, either intellectually, morally, or characterologically. The other theory is that the rational reason for not following a logical course set by appropriate goals and investment is that there is some important and compelling blockage to the teenager’s failure to progress. That would be that earlier development either at or in both of the two earlier stages: trust/hope or dreams/purpose was not satiated. Attention to one or another stage thus becomes the focus of support or intervention. If there is a solid foundation of trust/hope, then encouraging dream building makes sense. If there are dreams that are reasonable given experience, skills, knowledge, and/or resources, then provoking various options for following through on them helps the teenager develop a sense of purpose. If there is weakness or insecurity in the basic stage of trust/hope, then support should orient to examining how trust/hope was not developed and creating new experiences to build or rebuild basic trust and the ability to hope.

Resiliency and Repair

Resiliency allows for skipped, rushed, incomplete, stalled, regressed, or suppressed developmental energy to be re-stimulated in the organism. While someone may pass through a critical period for development without meeting his or her/their developmental needs, the critical period is not an absolute period. Fortunately, resiliency allows for second opportunities later in life to achieve another language, learn how to ride, and develop secure attachment. A teenager displays resiliency when he or she they attempt intimate relationships poor early attachment.   And try and try again. Resiliency offers hope to that despite early or previous losses, stress, and trauma, one can recover and progress nevertheless. Despite disappointment and emotional abandonment as she emerged from his childhood, Harriet continued to seek emotional sustenance from intimate relationships. Although immature and damaged, her ability to elicit, absorb, and reciprocate nurturing was not extinguished. Greater awareness and subsequent compensatory skills modified her attachment style. Resiliency allowed her to have a reparative relationships with key people.

Each Stage and All at Once

Repair- that is, support and guidance needs to happen at each stage, but also realistically happens all at once. One cannot reset the clock and go back in time to an earlier developmental stage to address unfinished issues. Current challenges demand attention in the shadow of previous deficits. Wise and sensitive attention in any of these developmental stages foster. Practically, the individual and particularly the teenager often goes through all of the stages simultaneously. Although sequence and progression principles apply, while the individual deals with any particular stage demands, all stages are challenged. Gains and positive experiences with trust, hope, dreams, purpose, goals, and investment interact to mutually affirm each stage. Success in setting goals and investment enables one to trust and have hope however slightly and incrementally. It also validates that tentative dreams and purpose are possible. Dreams that become more realistic and turn into some attainable purpose in life not only leads to goals and investment but also affirms trust and hope.

Anything that leads to rewards/benefits/realization reinforces all stages in the developmental sequence. This also means that whatever stage a person or teenager may be in, any interaction or experience potentially activates the developmental sequence for growth and change. Thus, inactivity and/or a paralyzing fear of failure becomes the major blockage to growth and change. In other words, one way or another get the teenager to do something! Anything will do in a way. Anything is better than nothing, as nothing facilitates more nothing, while anything may promote something. Becoming inert or not putting oneself out- not risking probably is based in lacking basic trust and/or hope. The parental or adult instinct is correct. Get that teenager to somehow do something!