“Oh That’s Normal” The Price of Minimizing Trauma in Teenagers

We all know the stereotypical teenager- aloof, full of angst, snarky, sarcastic, and moody. “It’s just a phase” should perhaps be tattooed on the parents of teens everywhere. Of course, there is some “normal” testing of boundaries and trying to figure out who they are separate from their family, questioning cultural norms and being critical of authority.  However, there seems to be a trend in the culture of the US that is an overarching assumption that teenage years need to be full of turmoil and mayhem paired with a minimizing of unprocessed trauma in a child’s life.  Even doctors, educators and well meaning therapists that are not properly trauma informed can mistakenly normalize behaviors that are really linked to unprocessed trauma.

The Adverse Childhood Experience Study, which can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html points to unprocessed trauma being linked with many lifelong problems including early death, problems with alcohol and drugs, obesity, cancer, even a greater risk for broken bones.  Some statistics say that up to 92% of women in prison have had physical or sexual abuse in their past and the numbers are not that different for men so there is likely a link between adverse childhood experiences and getting in trouble with the law as well.   Witnessing violence, physical abuse, emotional neglect,  being exposed to excessive drugs and alcohol use, separation or divorce, witnessing or participating in illegal activity and watching someone be emotionally abused are all examples of trauma that will come back to haunt our children (and us) if they do not get properly addressed.  Do we need to blame or beat ourselves up for getting out of an unhealthy marriage? No. But it likely had an impact on the kids and there at least needs to be consistent opportunity to talk through it or express their feelings and thoughts in other ways.  If parents and caregivers cannot stay emotionally regulated to guide your children through that, than perhaps the family needs some therapuetic support.

We need to strike a balance between giving our kids time and space to struggle and figure things out on their own, while also giving opportunities to talk openly about their internal world with care and support.  If you believe that therapy is important, but they are refusing to go, perhaps contracting with them to try it for a couple of sessions and seeing how it goes might be an option.  Getting your own therapy and healing from past wounds is great modeling that therapy does not mean we are broken, it simply means we are human and we need some guidance. EMDR therapy can be especailly powerful for processing traumatic memories and store them in the brain in a different way.  Making sure not to shame them or make them feel that it is somehow their fault or that there is something wrong with them is also important. Saying things like “Sometimes, it might be easier to talk to someone outside of the family.” Or “I don’t always have all the answers and we all need help sometimes.”

What happens so often is that a parent will see that their child has gone through something difficult and try to overcompensate with a lack of structure.  Perhaps the other parent has been abusive in the past, or perhaps the child has been bullied or abused outside of the home, or perhaps someone they love has died.  Our well-meaning, compassionate hearts start to say, “they have been through so much” and as a result, we set looser and looser boundaries.  We let them stay home from school too much, we let them speak to us in disrespectful ways, we make excuses for their unhealthy behaviors.  In doing this, we are treating them as if they are fragile, like they cannot handle looking at their lives and walking through their pain.  We need to find a way to keep attachment and connection online with our kids while still holding them accountable and setting healthy boundaries for them.  The more we can set healthy boundaries while still keeping attachment and connection intact, the less stringent the boundaries will be. It is all too common that I find a parent in my office that has an adult child, living in their house at the age of 30, still sleeping until 1pm, abusing drugs and alcohol, not working and now they are at the point of having to let them go to jail or kick them out of the house.  Better to set boundaries now.  This is not to suggest that grounding and punishment are effective forms of discipline- they’re not, but that is another blog post.

Do teenagers need a sense of privacy, freedom, voice and empowerment? Absolutely, AND they also need a sense of structure, guidance, healthy boundaries, adult protection and nurturing.  If a child has trauma in their background, it cannot go ignored.  It is interesting to me that people say, “we are being too sensitive” when we talk about trauma.  However, tip-toeing around a child’s trauma, not talking about it because we as the parents are uncomfortable, and/or having either too strict or too loose of boundaries in the family unit are all ruled by emotion mind and is rooted in hyper-sensitivity.  Being able to stay emotionally regulated, grounded, connected while still clear with boundaries is BRAVE- not hypersensitive.  Do you want to know what the majority of people that come in for therapy report as being the WORST of the trauma? It’s that “nobody ever talked about it.” “Nobody believed me.” “Everyone pretended like it was normal.”  Our kids can handle looking at their pain. With our love and our guidance and our own commitment to healing, we can all reclaim our power and learn to live with strength, compassion and integrity, but it will not happen by crossing our fingers and hoping “it’s just a phase.”

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