When the first edition of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul was published in 1997, I was delighted that an excerpt from one of Peer Resources’ books (The Peer Helper’s Workbook) as well as contact details for our organization were included in this soon-to-be a best-selling book.
But the inclusion of our toll-free number as part of our contact details had unexpected consequences. Perhaps because Peer Resources had the only telephone number listed in that edition, we received many calls and letters from young people wanting to know how they could submit a story for the Chicken Soup series. Some of the callers and writers, however, just wanted someone to talk to about a life circumstance that was unbearable or troubling.
One of these calls, from a 14-year old youth, started out as a request for information about how to deal with peer pressure. Within a few minutes, the story shifted dramatically from a focus on peers to a deep sense of helplessness and depression about communicating his worries and anxieties to his parents. Both parents, according to the caller, believed he should be able to handle his peers in an effective way and he should be able to stand up for himself. To do any less meant that he was incompetent and worthless.
Whether his parents actually held these views is less important than his perception that they did. He believed his parents did not understand him. He had given up seeing them as a resource to help him, and he was lost as to what do about his situation.
What he had tried was getting him into trouble at school, reducing his attention to school work, and contributing to rage toward his peers. He felt angry, hurt, and abandoned.
How many young people can tell a similar story? Feeling cut-off with no one who understands. Not knowing who to turn to for help. Giving up and burying their feelings. Turning fears into rage.
How often has this experience led a young person to suicide or violence toward others? How many times in the aftermath of a tragedy do we hear phrases such as “he was just a quiet person,” or “I would have never thought he/she could do this,” or “we thought he/she was just weird.”
How many young people are torn between their secret inner life and what they show on the outside?
The teen who called us was developing a secret inner life. A life that would not only be hidden from his parents and his peers, but might eventually become hidden from his own awareness.
We all have an inner life. The danger is when we become cut off from our inner world and do not have the tools or support to restore this connection. This disconnection severely hampers our emotional intelligence and reduces our ability to learn from life experiences. The bad news is that adults who have experienced such disconnection when they were young not only have difficulty recognizing or accepting such circumstances in their children, but their own arrested development prevents them from knowing how to help their children overcome these circumstances.
The good news is these situations can be identified, remedied, and prevented. Unfortunately, society in general, and the media and professionals in particular, often contribute to this disconnection. When a tragedy happens, a common cycle is initiated. Virtually everyone will respond with horror, shock, disbelief, and anguish.
Then there will be a search for blame. This search will focus on the superficial: the Internet, social media, movies, television, guns, bad parents or bad kids. The private and personal grief of friends and family will be made public. An emphasis will be placed on photographs, videos, and outward appearances. Experts will talk about a violent society or trends occurring in society that precipitate or predict such violence.
When the perpetrators are identified or put on trial, the focus will shift toward demonizing their motives and at the same time rationalizing their actions as victims of some syndrome or category of disease. The legal system will emphasize determining guilt and punishment. The cycle will include additional public funding directed towards violence prevention in the form of a better connection between police and schools; more anti-violence lectures; games and curriculum for youth; longer prison sentences for offenders; restrictions on weapons; better monitoring of or restrictions on Internet use, movies, television, or music.
When tragic events occur, the search for blame seems like the correct thing to do.
After all, we don’t want those events to be repeated. But what if such a search actually contributes to the problem rather than reduces its future likelihood? What if the assignment of blame is a substitute for looking inside ourselves to determine how we have contributed to the situation? What if blame is just another way of passing judgment and not really listening and understanding? Does the assignment of blame increase or decrease that area within ourselves that is hidden from view?
The most important question to ask is whether young people in our communities will actually find others in their lives who are willing to listen and understand.
What can we do to help young people access their inner selves? What can we do to demonstrate respect to all young people regardless of their appearance, background, or circumstances?
Answers to these questions are readily available. Here are some samples. Be a mentor. Be a coach. Make sure your schools have peer support programs.
When talking to a young person, listen more than you talk. Don’t interrupt. Practice
patience. Suspend judgment. Show respect by summarizing what has been said. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Share your life story. Talk about what has meaning for you and how that came about. Ask about dreams, hopes, and goals. Be curious. Ask whether suggestions might help. Be clear about expectations. Know your own hot buttons. Leave the impression your door is open for further conversation. And again: listen more than you talk.
I wish I could share the outcome of my discussion with the 14-year old described above. After we had discussed possible options that were available in his community, he had to hang up the phone abruptly because one of his parents just came home.
Canfield, J., Hanson, M.V., Kirberger, K. & Claspy, M. (1997). Chicken soup for the teenage soul. Deerfield Beach, Florida: HCI Teens.
Roberts, G. (1994). The peer helper’s workbook. Victoria, BC: Peer Systems Consulting Group, Inc. (Available from Peer Resources)
We must teach our children to dream with their eyes open.
~ Harry Edwards (1893-1976) ~ British spiritual healer