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Interpersonal Relationships and Social Problems

A simple conversation with a teenager and it will become apparent how important their peer group is to them. The well-known developmental psychologist Erik Erikson dedicated a developmental phase to this phenomena, which asserts that at this stage teenagers develop a self-awareness about how they appear to others and form their identify correspondingly.

Managing interpersonal relationship and coping with the problems that arise becomes a daily task for adolescents. Some teenagers can handle this with only minor drama; however, the threat of being ostracized by their peer group and resulting isolation can cause many serious mental health problems, including suicide. Teenagers who experience a high degree of distress related to social problems tend to be more at risk for mental health problems when they go off to college.

Problems such as social anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and alexithymia (a personality construct characterized by an inability to express emotions) can be caused or exacerbated by interpersonal problems. This statement may seem obvious, as it would be true for anyone at any age; however, among teenagers, the stakes are higher.

A lot of professionals blame the brain for this, and try to draw special significance about the teenage brain being different in its development. Certainly it is different; however, in his book, Blaming the Brain, Elliot S. Valenstein, professor emeritus at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, writes that there is a serious error of logic when a behavior is blamed on the brain, especially when drawing conclusions from brain-scanning studies. Attributing brain wiring to the cause of behavior or emotion is a fallacy of logic. Here is a link to an article on the topic.

A more holistic understanding of what your teenager is going through seems more relevant. From what I’ve observed in Malibu, California, which exists on the extreme part of the spectrum for teen culture in most other parts of America, is that teenagers are receiving mixed messages. There is a great push for teenagers to grow up, prepare themselves for the next stage of life, develop responsibility, understand adult consequences, and move into adulthood. While at the same time, more than ever, adults are afraid for their children and attempt to shelter them from the ills of the adult word, preserving their childhood. For many teenagers this is a tunnel with no light in sight, with the expectations often seeming unclear and ambiguous. Adults too are confused about the appropriate roles and expectations for their teenaged children, and as a result, teenagers rely upon their peer group as the barometer for what is normal.

Teenage culture can be a pressure cooker. Take social media into consideration, and imagine the insecurity your teenager is already experiencing, developing into an adult and finding their own two feet in an environment where their insecurities can be exploited and broadcasted to thousands of their “friends.”

Psychotherapy can be helpful. Even though with an adult, and not part of your child’s peer group, a trusting relationship with a therapist can help your teenager improve their ability to cope emotionally through these years and the years to come. Today’s buzzword is “self-soothe,” which is the ability to regulate emotions and cope on your own. This concept is very popular in our culture, as it goes along with the values of American “rugged individualism.” However, no one copes on their own, this is called isolation, which is the very thing your teenager is most afraid of. Teenagers improve their ability to cope by learning how to reach out and rely upon others. If they are unable to do so within their peer group, the safe and stable place of a psychotherapy office is a good alternative.