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Teenage Breakdown

August 21st, 2015

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Newspaper articles and other media sources referencing teenagers and their ongoing struggles are common enough (e.g. Five Things Adults Get Wrong about Teens, by Rachel Vail, The Toronto Star, October 13, 2014), as are those citing more serious issues (e.g. More Canadian Girls Inflicting Self-Harm, Hospital Admissions Double, by Tristan Simpson, November 18th, 2014, The Globe and Mail). Parents are rightfully worried and concerned about how to tell when it is time to be really worried, when the troubles they are seeing in their children are representative of more serious signs of emotional disturbance. The youngsters in the latter category are the young people whose emotional lives, and in many cases actual lives, are seriously at risk. I am referring to those teens who should not be left alone with the unreal hope that they will simply “…grow out of it”.

Each developmental period has its own special characteristics and each has its own special contribution to life and development. In adolescence, there is a new and particular kind of stress, whereby the earlier ways of being male and female are put under a different type of pressure. Some adolescents are unable to feel that they have the means within themselves to manage these pressures, and as a result, are unable to maintain an adequate level of equilibrium. The way in which the troubled adolescent gives expression to his or her struggle, and the accompanying internal stress and turmoil, varies a great deal. Some become withdrawn or socially isolated, while others may for example, engage in self-harm, act out violently or aggressively, develop serious substance abuse issues, eating disorders, debilitating depression and anxiety, or become promiscuous or feel overwhelmed by other sexually-charged conflict. A suicide attempt in adolescence represents a sign that there is a massive distortion related to ones’ feelings about oneself. In these instances, the young person has lost touch with his or her mental life. These ‘signs’ or outward indicators are given impetus by the need in the teenager to keep out of consciousness the feeling that something is seriously wrong. When I refer to these signs as indicators of adolescent or ‘teenage breakdown’, I do not mean a ‘nervous breakdown’ as it is commonly understood, but rather something more specific. This is not a transitory crisis, but literally a breakdown in development. Hence, a suicide attempt (as opposed to passing and temporary ideas about suicide) in adolescence is always a sign of serious breakdown requiring immediate help and psychological treatment.

Signs of developmental breakdown are a signal that something must be done now and urgently. By taking teenagers’ concerns seriously we can provide an opportunity to intervene. Even if the despair and conflict with which the teenager has been struggling subside, my experience is that it invariably shows up again, usually during later adolescence or early adulthood, but certainly during adult life at some point. Many serious later ‘disorders’ can be prevented if we act by responding in a timely manner, seeking out good professional help when we suspect or worry that an intervention is required.

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