Not long ago I had my first coaching session with a young man who was just out of his teens. He was a living embodiment of the themes we discuss: high intelligence, a racing mind, a poignant grandiosity mixed with massive self-doubt, great confusion about his career path, countless hours online every day, social isolation, a strained relationship with his parents, self-serving Self-descriptions (“Because of my ADHD, I can’t possibly do what you’re suggesting! I’m not done making my point yet!”)
He was bad, he knew that. But like so many smart, fast, verbal, stubbornly self-protective young adults, he had to run his obstacle course his way, stumbling and stumbling, doubting his methods, doubting his ability, and doubting his mental balance, but adamant in his refusal to listen to advice or to take seriously how low he had slipped. He could sense everyone’s concern; he could sense his own concern; but something in him made him reply to the world, “I’m in terrible shape, but I’m fine, I’m fine!”
We only had this one session because I bugged him with observations and suggestions. I usually work with coaching clients for a while, usually for a year or so. Then we usually take a break; and often the client returns after living more of her life and finding that she needs some guidance and support. But with a stubbornly defensive client who has no answers and all answers at the same time, whose modus operandi is to speak breathlessly without a pause to keep the listener in check, one session is more the norm.
This is a terrible problem. When a teenager is desperately unhappy, sensitive to everything around them, jumping from thought to thought, project to project, worry to worry, and also adamantly and defensively closed off from help, who and what can help? A very practiced, wise, and hearty helper can sometimes help; a major organizational task, like next year’s big cello competition, can help. But for the worried parent, it feels like not even a mortar shell could penetrate the wall his teen has erected.
What can parents do?
It can prove insanely frustrating to have your bright teenage boy so doubtful, so self-destructive, so depressed, and yet so stubborn about his own plan and advice. You may know for sure that he is not well, and you and he may even agree that he is not well, but his pressured resistance is a rock solid wall through which nothing you can suggest can penetrate.
What can you do? The world of psychiatry, which your child may find suitable for, offers one solution, and usually only one: chemicals. There is a lot of debate as to whether these chemicals are ultimately helpful or harmful, whether they are actually drugs used to treat a disorder, or rather should be construed as chemicals with powerful effects. Aside from these debates, concerned parents are naturally considering caring for their troubled, stubborn teen, which is what the mental health facility is offering.
Then there is psychotherapy, which of course is just a kind of “expert discussion”. It’s the quality, warmth, and compassion of the therapist, and not something magical about therapy, that can help—and regularly does. A wise, experienced therapist can listen—and listen and listen—can step in at just the right moment, can dance that brilliant two-step dance that offers support but also demands responsibility, and can actually transform your child’s life. And of course, a rude or unqualified therapist may not help at all.
There are other resources, often scarce and/or expensive, from home programs to mentorship programs to stress relief programs and wilderness camps that can be helpful. Of course, what can’t hurt is your love and compassion and your constant availability, especially when your troubled teenager is making an overture. Maybe he finally doesn’t just want to keep running, keep everyone out, but also listen. Life is such a strange affair that even a conversation like this could make a difference.
what young people can do
It is important that you retain your individuality, go your own way and remain true to your values and principles. But a defensive stubbornness that refuses any outside help won’t really help you when you’re trying to find your way in life. It’s one thing to be passionately adamant and another to be defensively stubborn. These two ways of being inevitably become intertwined and therefore need to be teased apart.
We have many reasons for wanting and having to defend ourselves against painful truths. Perhaps we’ve invested in the fantasy that we love Mary sitting across from us in biology class, and we want to take her kindness to us as a sign that our love is being returned. But we know in our heart of hearts that she is kind to everyone and is just kind to us every day. Well, this is where our defenses come in. We resist this truth that Mary is only kind so we can sustain the fantasy that she is attracted to us. We want and need that fantasy, so we wall off the truth.
My hope for you is that you will become familiar with your own defensive nature, see it for what it is, learn how it works, and realize that living defensively only seems to serve you. Yes, it can feel good to rationalize away your loneliness, to shift your anger about your bad grades to your parents, to suppress your truth about your sexual orientation, or to proudly and stubbornly deny that you need help. But I think you’re smart enough to understand the downside of being defensive like that. If you want to do your homework, you can read up on how defense mechanisms work. It’s a fascinating topic – and a really important one.
This post is an excerpt from Why smart teens hurt.