Anxiety feels bad. Adolescents worry more than parents realize. They may act indifferent, bold, or even brazen. They can be caustic with words and insulting in their attitude. Sometimes adults make assumptions that certain behaviors mean certain things. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
I work with many teenagers. It is one of my favorite populations. I like the energy of a teenager. I like their openness to new things, as this will be useful in counseling. They are frequently quite open to looking at things of an emotional nature from anothers’ point of view.
Just because a teen acts angry, insulting, indifferent, or apathetic doesn’t mean this is the complete story.
I am often reminded of how the media news coverage of trials and jurors who have served on a jury comment on what they think the defendent in a case was feeling or thinking. Often these judgments determine whether the defendant will be found innocent or guilty. So, it is crucial to take care in our judgments.
I am a therapist and I don’t know what people are thinking or feeling. I can get an idea about what a certain expression or choice of words might mean, but I will really never know until I ask.
Back to the court cases for a moment. Three cases come to mind for me when I think about making judgments about people we don’t know and we have never met. These are the Scott Peterson murder case, the Amanda Knox murder case, and the Casey Anthony murder case.
Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife and unborn child. Amanda Knox was convicted of murdering a fellow student while living in Italy as a student studying Italian. Her case was later heard on appeal and the conviction was overturned. Casey Anthony was found innocent of murdering her toddler Caylee Anthony.
These cases stand out because of the media scrutiny that enveloped the television and computer screens. Reporters and journalists were frequently heard describing Scott Peterson as uncaring due to a lack of affect and expression on his face during the majority of the trial. People thought he must be guilty. (He may have been anxious and scared to death. I would have been.)
Journalists, especially Italian journalists, described Amanda Knox as promiscuous and without morals. This was because she was young, beautiful, and photographed kissing her boyfriend during the early days of the investigation. She was cast as a harlot. (Psychological studies show that being beautiful can cause people to hate you or to give you more chances.)
Casey Anthony was described as a party girl with an indifference to her child’s disappearance and death. Reporters noted her inappropriate laughter, her inappropriate affect, her reputation with men, and her frequent sightings at bars or parties when her child was missing and had not yet been found. (Reporters were heard to say that Casey Anthony’s behavior was typical of a psychopath or narcissist. I am always amazed at how people jump to the worst possible conclusions. What if Casey Anthony was overly anxious? People don’t behave very well when anxious. It is impossible to do so.)
Back to teenagers now. We don’t want to judge a child due to affect, inappropriate comments or behaviors, or by what they are doing. Just because they are difficult doesn’t mean they are guilty of condemnation, parental anger, or being cast away. We want to find out what they are feeling and this is an art form.
When I see these youth and they are kind, considerate, articulate, and they usually take responsibility for saying and doing things that they secretly regret. I did say secretly. They usually don’t tell their parents they are sorry. Often this is because they feel judged already and apologizing may or may not work. It depends on the family.
When your teen or child is acting in ways that cause concern it is best to set a calm time to talk. Handle the conversation by asking what the child is feeling. You may hear, “I don’t know.” I don’t know means I am not ready to tell you. It may be hard to talk about and they may need you to be less anxious, worried, fearful, or angry.
Kids won’t talk to adults who are not in control. Children won’t talk to parents who are overly anxious. They are smart and they do care. They don’t want to burden you with more than you can handle. So when your child’s anxiety blurts out in a flurry of words and behaviors let’s not be quick to judge until we understand what it really means.