First, context: There are windows of development throughout childhood where certain skills are to be mastered. If the opportunity is missed, remediation can be used but it never can fully compensate. A simple example is left/right dominance. If this is not established by eight or nine years old it is almost impossible to establish it later in life. Just think of people you know who are otherwise intelligent, functional people who hesitate or incorrectly respond to a left or right directive. As children get older, the tasks to be engaged become more complex. At puberty there is an inward focus on the self, their physical changes and the awakening of their inner life. Correspondingly there arise questions along the lines of, "What can I do out in the world? What is my task? Where do I fit in?" This is followed a few years later with the even more difficult questions of, "Who am I? How do I find a place in the world where I am appreciated for who I am and how can I find a way to express my uniqueness and bring my gifts to the world?" These are sometimes articulated and always lie just beneath the surface of any teen's life.
As a culture, we do a poor job of giving teens the support they need to work through these questions yet if these questions are not worked with at this time, remediating is extremely difficult and will never be as complete as it could have been if tackled in the final stages of childhood. We see this in the many adults who live with a sense that they have not found work that fulfills their inner sense of destiny/what they are meant to do in their life. Like most of us, they were not guided well to work with these questions in their teen years or, like many, they avoided this task with drugs and alcohol themselves.
This developing sense of self is by definition deeply personal and as this sense of self develops, so too does a sense of loneliness. As one comes to the realization of one's uniqueness it closely follows that one feels there is no one "out there" who can truly understand him or her. It takes tremendous courage to continue on the path to the self and acute sensitivity to be aware of what is calling from the world to the inner sense of self. It is not by chance that teens are both sensitive and courageous. In traditional societies this time of life was anticipated and carefully watched for. As soon as the child showed signs of this awakening, a coming of age process and rites of passage ritual was in place to guide them. Elders from the community stepped in, for this was a task for the community and couldn't be done by the family. (To digress for a moment: Teens naturally start to pull away from the family in the teen years. This is the healthy process of establishing independence. If the family holds on too tightly, the necessary independence is not established. What traditional societies understood, and what we do so poorly, is that teens still need adult perspective in their lives. The coming of age/rites of passage tradition provided this. Understandably, without this system in place today, families often try to "hold on" to their teens. While temporarily effective, ultimately it stifles their development of independence.) Because the support is not in place for teens to embrace and engage this loneliness and because they are not guided on how to use this acute sensitivity, the burden of these experiences becomes extremely painful. Here is born the gravitation toward escape. Here too is where addiction often enters a person's life.
We can see why so many young people seek escape. Overwhelmed by an inner loneliness and an undeniable sensitivity to the outer world, they seek to turn off, to run from this relentless demand to look inwardly at themselves and to perceive the world and what is calling for their attention. If they aren't guided into a healthy escape they reach for whatever is easiest and since many have not established trusting relationships with adults who can guide them, they look to their peers and mimic the behavior they see there. The difficulty is that many of the escapes that their peers have found are either physically or psychologically addictive. Some kids are capable of using these escapes in moderation. Most are not, hence the prevalence of addictive behavior.
So what can we do? First of all we need to normalize the situation. Parents need to gain perspective that the struggle is healthy though not always pretty. Teens need to know that the internal and external struggles are normal and healthy. The second step is to embrace it rather than run away from it. We must teach teens that this is the work of this stage of life. This is the time to feel deeply the loneliness and anguish over finding their way. We need to teach them how to listen to what is calling them. They must deal with these questions sooner or later and now is the proper time. Delaying the inevitable until they are adults will result in far poorer results and the possibility of a far more difficult path to self awareness. In following posts I will speak more specifically to how this is done and especially on how we can develop the support around them that they need. Look also at the post on rites of passage. There are some ideas there. See you next time!