I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Several events this week made it feel like it was time. As you know, if you’ve read some of the posts on this blog, I’m a mental health therapist. I’ve been one now for almost fifteen years. When I started, I wanted to do anything but work with kids and teenagers. I got out of graduate school and all the jobs that were hot to hire me was with adolescents. As a male in the field of therapy, you are a rarity. As a male willing to work with adolescents or children, you are a huge ‘rarity.’ My first job out of graduate school was with children and adolescents, and I had great colleagues and supervisors and learned a ton about working with this population. I will say now, as a therapist, working with adolescents teaches you all you need to know. You understand how systems impact people, environments, trauma, and how mental illness forms, grows, and develops. You also learn how to deal with just about everything. I left working with adolescents after about four years. When I left, I was not really sure if I would return to it because it’s hard work. The population of therapists that serves children and adolescents are special people. There’s a handful of people that know this is what they’re going to do and they stick it out. The majority are young therapists that are getting hours in for the license. You’re dealing with individuals who are mostly being forced into treatment, many times by a family system, where they are the identified patient in a whole system that is broken. You take on having to deal with the whole world that deals with an adolescent or child that includes schools, social welfare agencies, case workers, adoption agencies, foster care providers, and parents, which, in comparison, to working with adults is a lot more case management work. You also are dealing with someone who has very little control of many of the things that occur within their world. After years of working primarily with individuals in military settings and chronically mentally ill adults, I was across the country and needed a job to move home. Again, I was at a place where the jobs that really wanted me were with adolescents. I agreed. I did not think I would stay long, and it’s been three years. In those three years, it’s been fascinating to be exposed to the adolescents of ‘today,’ versus the adolescents I worked with right out of graduate school. The world has changed immensely since then, as we’ve seen the introduction of the Smartphone, the internet, and all these new technological advancements. Technology has changed so much changing the adolescent experience and views on mental health have also radically changed. I saw the beginnings of the change when I first was working with adolescents, and I see it now in full force. During the first period that I worked with adolescents, there we a handful that were into self-injury, etc. Today, almost every teen I see engages in some form of self-injury. Their friends also do. There are groups and chatrooms online where these teenagers go to self-harm together. The first time I worked with kids/teens, they were not going home and telling their friends they were in therapy. Now, it seems, my client’s compare therapy experiences and hospitalizations with their friends. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the increase in anxiety and depression. The teens I see today have major social anxiety. I can’t tell you the number of times an adolescent has thrown a chair or melted down regarding an exposure to have them simply call a local business and ask for hours. They don’t communicate in this way. As many ask, “Why would I call for a question I can just look up on my phone?” The idea that all information is not at your fingertips is foreign. The way they interact with each other is strange. Texts have replaced actual face to face interactions, so they are oblivious to social cues and social anxiety is rampant. They also live in a more unpredictable time. These are kids whose parents are many times way more invovled in their social interactions versus when I was a kid. The idea of ‘walking to school,’ which almost everyone did has been replaced out of parental fear(s) (for good reason in many cases). These teens are so different in so many ways. Where once a question of what do you want to be when you get older used to give fantasy answers of sports stars and actors and actresses, these teens all want to be ‘social media influencers.’ They bond over reciting youtube videos, maybe how kids bonded over music videos at the dawn of MTV. One of the things that got me thinking about this post, is I was visiting my parents this weekend and we were trying to find something to watch on Netflix. We came across this ‘reality TV gameshow called, “The Circle.” If you’ve not heard of it, they put seven people or so into one apartment building (they all have their own apartments and none of them ever see the others). They are only connected online by chat and profiles. In the rules of the game, you can be yourself or someone else (a catfish). The goal of the game is to be the most liked. We watched a few episodes and I was struck by how these twenty-somethings interacted. Often, they would have a ‘chat’ with someone and it’d be like five back and forth messages and they would end it and feel it was substanative. It was amazing because each of these chats severely lacked substance. The amount of time and consideration that went into choosing the right profile picture (as first impressions are everything) was interesting. They also had ‘events,’ (like one night was a party), and they all got dressed up as if they were going to a party and proceeded to ‘party it up by themselves in their apartments with an occasional instant message serving as the ‘friend who drops in.” As I watched, I thought about the teens I work with and how many do the same thing. Night after night, they go to their phones and hang out via messaging. To me, I would feel lonely and isolated just text messaging people, but in the world of now, friendships are born and end in chat rooms, sometimes with almost zero to ‘a tiny bit’ of interaction. I don’t want this to end up being a ‘bash,’ against teens because they also have amazing qualities that teens years ago did not have. They are more tolerant of diversity, they obviously have a handle on technology, etc. Being a therapist, you are so used to working with people who are afraid of their emotions. The teens I see are horrified of them. I will say that was probably true of the first teens I worked with and of the teens now. The teens now, however, seem to be horrified of ‘more of them,’ then teens of the past. It makes sense, anxiety would increase as now things that were once ‘a mistake you made at school,’ would be ridiculed and then fade. The teens I work with now, their lives are essentially documents. Most of their existence has been documented since birth in some form and is out there for the world to see. They don’t get to choose the narratives of their lives the way past teens have. The narrative is documented, taking away choices of what one essentially includes and takes out. They live in a world of constant comparing. They spend their nights looking at profiles (which is someone putting their best self and life out there) and believe that this is the person’s true life. What’s absent from that is the true feelings that people feel. It’s no wonder, they wander off the beaten path into chat rooms filled with rumination and self-harm because it feels much more real than staring at lives that seemlessly look perfect. As society turns to these forms of social media, these individuals have less and less modeling to them that people feel. Underneath the calculated tweets and DM’s and texts, is a person who has feeling. The thing is no one is seeing that real feeling. Then one day you wander into a chat room or find yourself hospitalized (because your feelings have to come out somewhere) and the hospital, the chat rooms that emote and promote self-harm or cutting or disordered eating, feel good and real because even if it is ‘unhealthy or maladaptive,’ it’s real feeling. If I’ve learned anything over the last three years working with this new generation of teens, it’s that we are going to continue to increase the epidemics of self-harm, etc. if they are the only place someone can feel. Teenagers are full of feelings and they always have been, but in the digital world, feelings are hidden. You can ‘dump a friend,’ and not have to look at them to see the hurt. It proves, again, the power of feelings and the need for our society to look at how we promote feelings because everything out there indicates that you cannot restrict yourself or anyone from feeling them, they’re going to come out. The choice is whether they will present themselves in a healthy manner or in a maladaptive manner. It’s a question, I think, society needs to contemplate. The poem I am sharing today gets at the heart of that question. I hope you like it or it at least makes you think.
The teens I work with aren’t birthday parties.
They have no idea how to celebrate.
They are piñata’s so full of abandonments,
assaults, depression, anxiety, and trauma.
They do not eat cake. They are the cake.
They are cut up in so many literal and metaphoric ways.
They are bats swinging and missing
at the piñata. They have no intention of breaking it
because that would mean everything inside them
pouring out, and they’ve worked a long time adding
layers and layers of paper machete
to protect themselves from people that swing to hit.
They know their greatest fear is themselves.
They know to grab the bat before anyone else.
They know how to make it look like they’re trying
to break themselves open, when they’ll do anything to ensure
Nothing punctures them. They are the balloons popped,
the streamers torn down, so they decorate themselves
in cuts and self-inflicted injuries and attitudes
that are kind enough to get them to the party,
but hard enough so no one challenges them
when they demand the bat to take swings at the piñata.
They’ll do anything, including stealing and hiding
all the stuff inside, just in case, someone hits
hard enough and they’re broken open
all that will be seen
is a hollow piñata with no feelings inside.