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What’s Causing Your Highly Successful Teen to Struggle?

August 31, 2017


Guest post by Bruce Alan Kehr, M.D.

“What’s for dinner?” “Can you pick me up from soccer practice tonight?” “Is it alright if I have a few friends stay over on Saturday?” “I’m staying late at school tomorrow to study.” As kids grow into and through their teens, parents can reliably expect to hear questions or phrases of this type and may even find comfort in the ability to come up with an easy or satisfactory answer.

Now, here’s a phrase you might not ever hear—but one that is very real for more kids than you might imagine: “I’m having an existential crisis.” Loosely defined as a period of time in which an individual questions his or her very foundations and struggles to determine whether their lives have purpose or meaning, an “existential crisis” is often associated with certain milestones of adulthood, or used synonymously with “midlife crisis.” Some parents might even doubt the possibility of their children succumbing to this philosopher’s dilemma: How could a teenager, who can barely muster up an opinion on what they want for lunch, begin to grapple with such heady concepts as individualism, identity, and “meaning”? What does “identity” even mean for a kid still in the throes of development?

The fact is, a child’s teen years are critically defining when it comes to building an identity—and while kids might not have the terminology to express their difficulties or struggles in this department, their suffering can be very real. And unlike those routine questions that arise over the course of a regular week, many may struggle to address this issue with confidence.

Existential crises may inflict a diverse array of teens, but where I see it most often in my work as a psychiatrist is among highly talented young women and men who have a track record of tremendous academic and extracurricular success. Dramatically and without warning, these youths, often heralded of the “stars” of their team or their class, become depressed, angry, and lost. As they begin to seriously question their traditional values of a strong work ethic, academic excellence, predictability, and finding validation from the adults in their life, their lives as they and their parents know it grind to a startling halt—and often, the next stage is outright rebellion. By the time they enter therapy, they and their parents have often endured a great deal of emotional pain and despair.

Teens who tend toward perfectionism are very much at risk of falling into an existential crisis—and for parents, it can feel like there’s no answer in sight that can help them right the ship. Here’s what I want to tell you: don’t be afraid to reach for outside help when your child’s wellbeing is at stake. Working with a psychotherapist to get to the root of their suffering can be a critical factor in bringing life back to a happy, functioning equilibrium.

After a teen suffering from an existential crisis develops trust in their therapist, certain themes begin to emerge. Often, a history of hidden but intense fears and anxieties over the failure to perform at the very highest level begins to emerge. These fears, over time, can devolve into panic attacks—particularly when the teen didn’t turn in a top performance—followed by a period of serious self-loathing. In some respects, after a series of near-flawless outputs, they become their own “tough act to follow”: even a B grade can send them into a tailspin. Other fears include disappointing their parents, worrying about whether they would continue to be loved or if they’d be severely criticized if they let up even a little bit on their perfectionistic strivings. A history of emotional sensitivity and delayed social maturity characterized by challenges in dating, feeling unpopular, favoring adults over peers, and possessing an unusual degree of empathy, are also common characteristics.

A crisis like this can be precipitated by the failure of a love relationship, the death of a loved one, the transition from high school to college—or it may have no apparent cause at all. In one form or another, however, there is a “loss of an ideal”, and what previously provided meaning, guidance, and purpose suddenly feels empty.

So how can a teen find their way out of such a turning point in their values and belief systems? Treatment usually involves helping the young adult understand what has happened and assisting them in making sense of the dramatic turn of events in their relationship with themselves. As therapy unfolds, they begin to differentiate between values that they were taught and values that truly represent their core personality. With the help of a psychiatrist, they slowly are able to distinguish between the passions they previously shared with their parents and newfound passions that feel rock solid and are theirs alone. Rejecting a more traditional and secure path into self-sufficient adulthood, they experiment and explore. They make mistakes. Accordingly, their parents must learn to tolerate and accept ambiguity and uncertainty, recognizing that they must find a balance between beginning to let go while continuing to provide love and support.

While there may be many sleepless nights during this process, there are newly forged understandings. To the suffering teen, “falsehoods” they have been living out in the past give way to new perspectives that feel right and true. For them, this is the beginning of forging a new identity—and that’s huge.

Meaning, purpose, satisfaction, and happiness are discovered through self-knowledge and a greater understanding of ones’ place and potential in the world. With the help of therapy, the previously perfectionist teen learns how to play, and to love aspects of themselves unrelated to performance and stardom. With patient and persistent hard work, they eventually re-launch themselves—this time, with an aim that’s true.

Parents, if your child seems on the brink of a major identity crisis, don’t chide yourselves for not having the right answer. When it comes to making meaning and finding ones’ place, a balanced, neutral perspective, in the form of a psychiatrist or therapist, is a critical first step forward towards transformation.

Bruce Alan Kehr, M.D. has served as Founder and President of Potomac Psychiatry since 1981. Washingtonian Magazine awarded him their “Top Doctor” designation from 2012 to 2017. He practices psychiatry and psychotherapy using “The Biopsychosocial Model” to treat the “Whole Person,” by understanding each individual’s unique genetic, biological, psychological, social, and life-stage characteristics. You can pre-order his new book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love, by clicking here.

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