Working with teenagers for as long as I have, I realize that many of them come with various challenges, from emotional and educational challenges to family issues that seem to drag them down. However, in a majority of the cases I’ve worked with, the teens themselves are usually the ones who are getting in their own way of success and happiness.
They often don’t see it that way and will blame their family, their friends, their environment, any and everything, but themselves and it will take many sessions before I am able to help them realize that they themselves are indeed the cause of their problems through self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors and thus are also the answer to their problems.
Most people who have been around adolescence know that many times they get in their own way and do things that are self-defeating or self-destructive. Self-defeating behaviors are behaviors that get in the way of constructive action while self-destructive behavior generally causes some type of harm to the person.
In early adolescence for example, teens often start focusing more on friends, fighting with their parents and other adults as they try to discover their own identity and may end up struggling in school in response to paying more attention to friends than to their grades.
During this time of conflict, (ages 9-13), it is common for certain self-injurious behaviors to start occurring, such as cutting as a way to deal with much of the psychological conflict and pain, especially with teenager girls while teenage boys may do things such as punching walls, getting into fights or destroying property even if it’s their own.
During mid adolescence, ages 13-15, friends are generally ultra important and so is being accepted by your peers. This is the age that teens are going to high school for the first time and can be overwhelmed by the pressure to fit in.
When a teenagers faces feelings of inadequacy about their self-image they may shy away from their peers and develop anxiety issues and/or depression or even self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
During late adolescence, ages 15-18, teenagers may engage in self-defeating behaviors that include more risk taking such as drugs, alcohol, and sex simply for the excitement of it and not considering the dangers that can happen.
This is the age that I worked with the most to either help them stop drinking or using drugs, or to help them with issues surrounding sex including pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and even rape.
As someone who has worked with teens for a long time, it can be very frustrating to see a young lady with endless potential, waste it because she wants to be liked by her friends or a boy or she doesn’t like herself. The same rings true for many of the young men I worked with who were more concerned about having a “tough guy” image, than actually doing something positive with their lives.
Parents indeed find this self-defeating and self-destructive behavior frustrating, but what can they do? Often times teenagers are too defensive to actually take and listen to advice from their parents so parents often would bring their children to me and then wonder what it was about me, or what did I say that got through to their teenager that they couldn’t and I would always tell them that they had to practice objective parenting.
They had to work on not telling their teenager what to do and think or what not to do or think, to not judge, but instead simply draw conclusion between their choices and the consequences of their choices in an empathetic and objective way, and then let their teen decide to either continue the behavior or to try something different.
This is often hard for parents to do because they would like to control their teenagers choices, but they can’t. They have to allow their teenager to make their own choices, however, parents can continuously attempt to put healthier and more constructive choices in front of their teenager for them to accept or not to accept.
The more healthy options you place in front of a teen, the more likely they are to accept at least some of them. As a therapist that is what I did. I would know that I wanted a teen to stop doing a particular self-destructive or self-defeating behavior, I would share my observations about what they are doing and what they are getting (or not getting) from their actions and then attempt to continuously give them multiple alternatives in hopes that they would try at least one.
For example, one teenage girl was obsessed with trying to get pregnant simply because she wanted a baby. I tried to help her see how having a baby would hinder many of her plans and goals for the future, but she didn’t really see that. I then gave her many other things she could be doing instead of trying to get pregnant and she finally decided to try one which is playing softball. She tried out for the team, made the team and two years later graduated from high school with a scholarship to play softball and never got pregnant.
While her mother thought I had worked some type of miracle (she was sure her daughter wouldn’t finish high school without getting pregnant) all I did was give her an opportunity to try something new and that ended up being self-affirming and she basically did the rest.
As a therapist, it is easy for me to be non-judgmental, to allow teenagers to continue making mistakes and learning from them while still giving them healthy alternatives until they finally realize that what they are doing isn’t working and are ready to try something different.
For parents, it’s hard for them to have that same amount of patience because the attachment they have with their teen makes it much more painful for them to witness their teenager continuously sabotage themselves by making poor choices. It’s very difficult for them to be as objective as I try to be.
Because this is very difficult for most parents to do, seeking help from a therapist is often the best solution, especially if the behavior is self-destructive such as cutting, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, etc.
A book I recommend for teenagers who are constantly self-sabotaging themselves is How to Get Out of Your Own Way by Tyrese Gibson.