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Troubled Teens: Swimming with the Sharks

One of the true gifts of being a therapist is having the opportunity to work with adolescents and young adults who are struggling with a variety of serious issues.

Trust me when I say that being a teen now is no cakewalk.

If you’re an adult and can’t remember back to when you were a teenager, please try…you may recall it was one of the most exciting, confusing, challenging, but interesting phases of your life.

When people in their 30’s and older are asked if they’d like to go back to being a teen again, the overwhelming majority respond with “no thanks.” Why is that?

Aren’t those teen years supposed to be some of the “best years of your life?”

As a teenager, it’s hard to process all the changes going on inside and outside of you, to figure out who you are in relation to all the people in your life, and to get some grasp on what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.

And that’s without having to deal with something like an alcoholic parent, an eating disorder, being raped, losing a parent or sibling, being bullied, coping with severe anxiety, depression, or a serious physical health issue.

When you add some of these things into the mix, you can go from life being tough to being completely overwhelming pretty fast.

It’s one reason why teen suicide is still the third leading cause of death for teens in this country.


When I’m sitting across from a young person who is trying to figure out why something horribly traumatizing has happened in their lives and what they can do about it, I feel their feelings of unfairness and confusion, too.

I don’t know why they have to go through what they are going through.

Nobody gave me the game plan, much less the rulebook.

What I do know for sure is that kids don’t have the ability to control what their parents do.

So when parents drink too much, abuse or neglect their kids, confuse them…teens don’t have any real ability to change the situation.

They usually can’t leave the situation…they don’t have many options.

If they do just leave home, that leads to being labeled a “runaway” or a bad kid.

Most kids try to adapt to whatever is happening, and try to deal with it the best way they can (which might include a host of unhealthy coping skills including drinking, doing drugs, acting out, cutting themselves, and abusing food).

Some cope by becoming “superkids” who outperform at school and in their social lives, so that no one would ever be able to guess the private pain they feel and trauma they are dealing with.

They’re just trying to survive into adulthood.

Just as when “bad things happen to good people” when they are adults, when bad things are happening to good kids, they look for some meaning in all the chaos.

They need to believe things are going to get better; they need somebody to tell them it’s going to be okay someday…they just have to make it through this rough patch.

The idea that “if your childhood and adolescence are horrible, your best days are all ahead of you” can be like shining a light into a better future to give them some hope so they don’t give up before they have a chance to get there and experience it for themselves.

And you don’t want kids to give up…feeling hopeless and contemplating suicide as a solution to present pain means they give up the chance for that better future.


I often talk to teens who are struggling with really painful, difficult situations about the way I think of being a teenager.

Being a normal, regular teen (whatever that is!) is like getting up everyday and having to swim 100 laps in a pool, over and over.

It can be a grind…school, sometimes work, sports, parents, the drama of friendships and relationships, the constant conflict and confusion about who and what you’re supposed to be.

Every day.

Put your head down and start swimming.

Back and forth, over and over.

Doesn’t matter if you’re tired…gotta do it.

You can get out and have a break, have some fun, too…life as a teen isn’t all bad. So, that’s normal teenage life…in the swimming pool.


Now, if you also happen to be dealing with your house burning down, your parent’s drinking too much, your dad hits you, you’ve been sexually abused or raped, you’re being constantly bullied at school, someone you love dies, you’re gay, you develop an eating disorder or drug problem…Okay, now you’re not just going to get in the swimming pool every day to do your 100 laps.

You get to do it by jumping off the pier into the ocean

You’re swimming against the current, there are jellyfish, sharks, all sorts of things you have to dodge and hope don’t harm you (too much).

It’s going to be a lot more challenging, to put it mildly.

There are days you aren’t going to want to jump off that pier into the ocean and face it, especially when it’s bad weather or you see fins circling.

But, you gotta jump in.

You can wish all you want that you could just do your laps in a nice, clean swimming pool like the other kids.

But, that’s not where you are. You’re in the ocean.

So, you gotta swim.

And just like Dory, you gotta “keep on swimming.”

You can’t give up.

On the really bad days, when the waves are smashing over your head and you can’t even make any headway, you at least have to keep your head above water.


If I were to ask you who would probably be the stronger swimmer after five years of doing 100 laps/day in a swimming pool or the equivalent number of laps in the ocean, what would you say?


The person who has weathered the currents, the waves, the stinging jellyfish, the close calls of predators…and who has survived…is the stronger swimmer.

And if, by some chance, you could put that person side by side in the swimming pool with the other swimmer and let them do laps, who do you think would be the better swimmer?

Well, it’s possible that since the person who has had more experience swimming in a pool might know a few tricks of that environment, they might beat the ocean swimmer.

At first.

Until the ocean swimmer figures out the new environment.

Because that ocean swimmer has been truly tested, survived, and can figure out how to manage a swimming pool.

And if you decided to throw some jellyfish into the swimming pool…interesting idea, don’t try this at home…I’d be putting money on the ocean swimmer to figure out how to deal with that better, too.


The idea here being that kids who have been through really rough childhoods and teen years, IF they can survive, come out stronger in many ways than kids who haven’t had to deal with trauma and tragedy.

This is not a selling point for introducing trauma into kid’s lives.

No one wants to try to be justifying abuse, certainly not me.

But if we can help a teen figure out how to cope well enough to survive the rough seas to get to adulthood, they are often in a place to be able to not just keep surviving…but they can begin to actually thrive, succeed, and soar as adults.

The important piece is helping them to learn whatever it is they need to know to be able to cope, to “just keep swimming.”

Therapy can be one place to help them…but teachers, coaches, youth pastors, family members, and neighbors can all be important resources to help teens be resilient in the face of extreme challenges.

It’s helpful for us adults to remember, that in spite of the behaviors and attitudes we see sometimes in troubled teens, they are doing the best they can often to keep their heads above water.

And if you’re ever in the position to be someone who can throw them a life vest…do it.

It makes it a whole lot easier to finish those laps.

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