Loss in the life of a teen is like is an empty space in their heart aching to be filled. It can range from their loss of popularity to their loss of a parent. It can be an adopted child’s loss for not knowing his or her birth parents. If a teenager is working through the pain of loss, it will likely affect their behavior. Trying to fill that void with something other than what they really long for won’t work, even if what you have to offer is better. What’s necessary is to understand and to help them work through it.
Think about a child who has lost a parent through death or divorce. The child feels the loss of that parent. If the other parent has remarried, there may be nothing wrong with the replacement. But your child’s longing is to not have that loss, at all, and every time they are around their step-parent, they are reminded of what they no longer have.
If your child is adopted, then every normal family is a reminder to your child that his is a “different” kind of family. It doesn’t matter that you are a good parent and your family is supportive and loving. You remain a constant reminder that his birth mother gave him up, which is not what your child may have wanted. He may never have wanted to be adopted. These feelings won’t be there all the time, nor will they start until the child is a little bit older. But they can be intense when they do occur, and they can last a few months or a few years.
Losses tend to control teenagers by the needs they create. They can be either real or perceived. I describe loss as, “Not getting what I want, need, or hope for, or that which I am deprived of, that which I am unable to keep, that which I am unable to find, that which I fail to win, or that which once was, but now isn’t.”
Let me give you some examples. Loss can be felt from: missed opportunities, unmet parental expectations, bad decisions, an inability to do what I think I should be able to do, the loss of a parent or the cohesion of the family through divorce, or even the loss of one’s self-respect or sexual purity. Or perhaps your teen has experienced the negative effects of unmet expectations, not being heard or understood, not being loved and cared for, or not feeling valued or esteemed. Maybe your teen has unfulfilled dreams, has missed goals or opportunities, or longs for something unattainable. Or maybe they feel loss from uncontrolled happenings, a medical problem, something about their appearance (too thin, too fat, too tall, too short, etc.), or where they live bothers them.
The intensity of teen misbehavior or depression can grow as their losses build up in their thinking in the introspective teen years. And outside of true psychological or physical issues, a child rarely behaves abnormally without first experiencing some kind of loss. So, it’s very important for a parent to understand and begin to deal with the losses in their teen’s life if misbehavior is showing it ugly head.
Every child is unique in the way they respond to their losses. But let me list four of the most common responses to loss:
Anger. Anger is the emotional response to a teen not getting what they want. It is the number one response to loss. When teens perceive a loss, the resulting void is often filled with frustration or anger. The more intense the loss, the more desperate their behavior, and greater their anger. When you intervene in the life of your child in order to curb their inappropriate or unacceptable behavior, they can become even angrier. Identifying that the anger is resulting from a loss is imperative to getting to the bottom of it.
Minimizing. “It’s not that big of a deal.” Minimizing on the part of the teen reduces the importance of their loss so it won’t demand anyone’s attention. Or, they may act as if it didn’t happen, and convince themselves that everything is really “okay.” When a teen minimizes losses, it can build up in their life and come out in other ways. If you know your teen has experienced a loss, it is critical to find a way to get them to talk about it — if not with you, then with a counselor.
Guilt. Another common response to loss is guilt. Teens can have an ongoing sense of regret, and feel terrible about something that’s happened, or something they’ve done. They avoid dealing with it, especially if they were part of creating the loss to begin with. Underneath this thinking is the belief that dealing with their loss may cause something else in their life to fall apart, resulting in additional loss. When one domino falls, it knocks out the rest of the dominoes too. Instead, they just feel guilty and it can come to the surface in their behavior.
Shame. “I’m embarrassed that I couldn’t handle it.” They may wonder why they aren’t equipped to just deal with it, or why they didn’t see what would happen before it happened. Underneath this thinking is a belief that they should be able to take care of everything on their own, and know what to do every time trouble appears.
Fear. Fear is a strong emotion. Fear and anxiety grows significantly as losses occur in a teen’s life that can undermine their future or their relationships, especially as they get closer to the time they’ll be expected to step out on their own.
Uncovering Your Teen’s Losses.
As the parent of a teen, you are in a unique position to help your child by looking beyond they way they are behaving, and examining their needs and understanding their losses. Sometimes that requires a good counselor.
I remember counseling a 16-year-old boy whose behavior had suddenly changed. His parents were worried, so they contacted me. After a short time talking with him, he told me that he was having a sexual relationship with his high school teacher. His parents were shocked when they learned of it. They knew was something was wrong, but attributed the trouble with their son’s behavior to raging hormones and normal teen angst. They had no idea that the son was dealing with loss in the form of guilt and shame. Bewildered at finding out the truth, the parents asked their son, “Why didn’t you ever tell us what was happening to you?” Their son simply responded, “Why didn’t you ever ask?”
Parents often don’t like to ask such tough questions as, “Has anyone ever said or done anything that was inappropriate to you?” Parents often focus on their teen’s behavior, not what’s causing it. They can overlook the obvious, or attribute their teen’s bad behavior to other things like bad friends, problems in school, experimenting with drugs, even outright rebellion.
Do your parents know everything that happened in your life during your teen years? What makes you think you know everything that is happening in your own teen’s life?
If you see a drastic change in your child’s behavior, something else is going on, underneath it, fueling it. It’s important to ask, and keep asking until you are satisfied you understand what is happening in the life of your child. It may not be sexual abuse, but it may be something else, just as traumatic to your child’s unique soul.
Our role as parents is two-fold: Truth and Grace. There is a tough and tender side to being a good parent. Sometimes the truth is painful, but your child needs you to be strong enough to give it to him. The graceful side of parenting means you understand your child longings, and move toward him with compassion during the tough times.
During adolescence, teens are caught in the “Muddle in the Middle.” They begin thinking like adults in a discerning way, but they don’t know what to do with the resulting feelings. And understanding that God promises to help recover a person from loss is not something they can fully comprehend until they are adults. Parenting a child who has experienced deep loss is a matter of helping the child to work through the loss and the resulting feelings, and also waiting and watching for God to use every situation for His good in both your life, and the life of your child.
We talked about this issue in depth on our radio program called “Dealing With Loss.” To listen online look for the program dated September 10, 2011 at http://www.parentingtodaysteens.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.