October is dedicated to preventing bullying and domestic violence. However, as a psychotherapist who treats teenagers these two issues are related to a number of other teen issues. They are related to teenage suicide, cutting (self-mutilating), drug use and early sexual behavior. These are a few of the teenage issues that result from children exposed to bullying or domestic violence.
I have been working with teenagers for over 20 years. In those years I have seen many teenagers for many different reasons. However, when the teenager tells me why they are doing what they are doing, I often hear very similar answers for a number of different issues. It sounds odd and surprising, but when you look at it from the teenager’s point of view it makes sense.
What I have heard very often over the last 20 years is that the teenagers who are bullying, cutting, depressed, using drugs or having sex, do not feel loved by their families. In fact, they feel no one cares about them and no one cares how they feel or what they do. Therefore, they act out. They have decided negative attention is better than no attention. So if they are bullying someone, coming home high, threatening suicide or having sex, they will get attention for their negative behavior.
Furthermore, teens are now forming friendships with other teens who bully, use drugs, are suicidal or sexually active. This common bond makes them feel someone else understands and cares about them. This is how gangs form and pressure members to do things they usually would not do. The teenager feels they have a family and people who care about them. They are so desperate for love that they will do anything to stay as a gang member. They will do anything to avoid that lonely, empty feeling.
This really should not be surprising. We have seen and heard about this is in the popular media for years. The Disney movie, Frozen, mentions that people make poor choices and mistakes if they do not feel loved. The movies, The Breakfast Club & Good Will Hunting, both demonstrate the point of teens acting out and doing anything for friends so they feel loved. The play, West Side Story, is another good example. Also in her last show Oprah said that one thing she had learned is that everyone wants to know, “am I important to you, do you hear me, do you see me?.” The teenagers that I have worked with all tell me the same thing. Also it is amazing that when they test me enough and they see that I do care how they are willing to try to change.
The problem is that with society today everyone is concentrating on their own lives and they have little time to acknowledge the people around them. Parents are having to work two to three jobs to support their families. Parents assume that their teenagers will see how hard they are working and know their parents are working that hard because they love them. However, teenagers’ brains are not fully developed yet so their reasoning skills are not like an adult’s reasoning. Teenagers need to hear, I love you, from their parents and need one on one time with their parents.
Parents cannot be the only people letting teenagers know that they are important. We are asking too much of parents to be the only ones. Teachers need to show they care by staying after school to help teens who have questions or are confused or need to talk. We need to look at the movies, television and music that teenagers are listening to. Also we need to look at society. Society gives a message of looking at for number one. There are not a lot of role models encouraging teens to accept one another as they are and to support each other. Just look at the election this year and how minorities and women were insulted.
What is the answer? We need to change our priorities and tell our teenagers and children that we love them and care about them. Schools need to bring in programs such as Challenge Day which teach teenagers to accept each other and care for each other. We need to encourage our teenagers to follow the Harlem Globetrotter’s program. They refer to it as the ABC program. A is for being assertive, B is for being brave and C is for compassion. In other words, when you see someone being a bully or harassing someone, speak up and say it is wrong, report it and show the victim some compassion. If every time a teenager notices that someone in their class seems down and they ask the person if they are alright we can make a big change in these negative behaviors such as suicide, bullying and drug use. Also if parents ask their teenager how they are doing without judgement or fear of punishment we could change a lot of these negative statistics. Think about it, why would a teenager say yes I have been using drugs or cutting if they are afraid of getting into trouble?
Summing it up, if we are going to solve issues such as bullying, domestic violence, suicide and cutting to name a few, we need to all work together. We need to let people know that we care and show it. We also need to be brave enough and assertive and speak up when we notice someone being bullied or report when we have noticed someone vandalizing someone’s property. We need to provide teenagers with positive role models and insist that our schools use programs such as Challenge Day and Alive & Free. We all need to work together and speak up about things that are wrong if we want things to change.
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist in private practice with over 20 years experience working with teenagers and children. He is considered an expert in the treatment of teens and children. For more information regarding his work or private practice visit his website www.rcs-ca.com or visit his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/drrubino3.