Working with teenagers and young adults in therapy is exhilarating, frustrating, exciting and daunting. They don’t always wish to be in treatment but most generally warm up to the idea. They are curious about the non-parent adult who is asking unusual questions and seeking a connection for the purpose of potentially assisting them in being happier and healthier. They are generally willing to be verbal, somewhat introspective, and often quite inquisitive. They are on the cutting edge with the latest trends and technology, often keeping us therapists informed but feeling slightly behind. By the latter part of the teenage years, most are very eagerly, albeit somewhat anxiously, looking to the time when they can be more independent adults.
In collaborating with teens at this stage, it can sometimes be helpful to remember some of the pivotal points from similar stages in our own earlier lives. We have our theories, our knowledge of developmental stages, and our trendy tricks of the trade to employ with this age group, but tapping into our own memories of yesteryear can sometimes help us to be more empathic. Reflecting back on my own launch into adulthood has permitted me a renewed appreciation for that stage of life, allowing me to consider the apparent dichotomy that exists during that confusing and formidable time.
There appear to be three phases through which teens pass on their way to adulthood, exemplified not only in our clients but also in ourselves. The phases can be informally summarized as: you think you have it, then you don’t but then finally you do.
You Think You’re an Adult, but Others Don’t
“I can’t believe they are telling me I can’t when I am practically an adult!” exclaims a 17-year-old wanting to go away with her boyfriend for the weekend. “Everyone” is doing it. “All” the other parents let them their daughters do this sort of thing. How can they be so “unfair”?
In working with this teen, we navigated the tricky waters of helping her to embrace her growing independence while also figuring out ways that she might be able to demonstrate more maturity, sensibility and overall patience. She came to recognize that breaking curfew and not emptying the dishwasher when she had agreed to do so were not helping her case of wanting to appear more responsible. She also naturally needed guidance on tolerance and acceptance, while I supported the parents on standing strong in a very unpopular position.
I, too, remember the times when I was much younger when I was convinced that I was pretty grown up. I felt pretty proud of taking an airplane ride by myself overseas when I was only 5, though I chose to minimize the many adults who were likely closely supervising my journey. I bathed in the glory of my parents trusting me to babysit for my sister when I was a young teen while they were on vacation, despite the fact that I was vomiting in distress by the end of the week. I remember feeling exhilarated the first few months of having my license but much less so when I had to explain to my parents how I had hit a telephone pole a few months later. And most of us have memories of college activities which felt so adult-like in the moment but later were realized to be soberingly immature. There is a difference between feeling like an adult and really being one.
Assisting teenagers and wannabe adults at this stage of transition requires a balance of respectful acknowledgement and gentle challenge. Validating the way in which one is indeed further away from childhood is just as critical as balancing honest feedback about the steps yet remaining. Allowing both parts to be true can provide a smoother transition rather than a stuckness in either extreme. This phase requires full practice of mindful moderation, a concept so applicable to so many other areas of concern to teens as well, including eating, sleeping, and socializing.
Others Think You’re Ready for Adulthood, but You Don’t
“I can’t handle my mother being sick at this point in my life,” reports a 20-year-old whose mother has a terminal, disabling illness. He was being asked to care for his mother because his father often was traveling for work. This young man suddenly found himself having to grocery shop and schedule transportation for his mother’s doctors’ visits, while his father worked more hours to manage the mounting health care costs.
Despite this young adult identifying that he wasn’t ready and couldn’t do it, he actually did step up and handle a number of very grown-up responsibilities. He was overwhelmed at times but ultimately did develop and mature significantly from the experiences. He had times of regret when many of his peers were simply “hanging out,” yet he later came to appreciate the fact that he hadn’t wasted hours in relatively nonproductive activities but had spent time with his mother and time learning skills to last a lifetime.
There have been many moments in my life when I suspect I was considered an adult but didn’t feel like the title was fully applicable. Moving on to graduate school and even getting a professional job felt like I was entering into the adult world, but I could still feel like an imposter at times and hoped others might not notice that I was really just a young person doing grownup things.
Despite the fact that I was making significant decisions in my daily work life and had retirement funds deducted from my paycheck, I often still found comfort in the notion that I was a novice in the whole work arena and retirement seemed a long time away. Getting married and buying a house did require lots of adult responsibilities and decisions, but it still felt like I was just “playing grownup.” Being called “Ma’am” for the first time by the bagger at the grocery store certainly indicated that he thought of me as an adult, but I figured that he was a teenager and didn’t really have proper perspective.
The experience of watching my mother die of a brain tumor during my own young adult years was pivotal in my growth. Holding her hand as she struggled to speak or changing sheets when bowel control was lost required me to step up to take on more adult responsibilities than I thought were possible for me. At the time, I often felt as if I had simply fast-forwarded temporarily into an adult chapter; however, I eventually came to realize that all such learning experiences were part of what launches one solidly and permanently into the privilege of being considered an adult.
This stage seems to emphasize the essential therapeutic step of taking in evidence and evaluating situations realistically. We humans are pretty good at ruminating, distorting, denying, avoiding and fantasizing, and therapists sometimes have the responsibility of helping to provide the perspective, to summarize the data and validate the uncomfortable but important reactions which are part of moving to the next stage in development. Orienting to the positive and to lessons learned allows hopefulness and motivation for moving on, especially in those difficult or tragic situations.
Wartski, S. (2013). Through the Eyes of Emerging, Young Adults & Teens. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 20, 2013, from http://pro.psychcentral.com/2013/through-the-eyes-of-emerging-young-adults-teens/001201.html
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 18 Mar 2013