Robert (not his real name) was 17-years-old and was always angry. VERY ANGRY!
His world had not been kind to him when he was growing up. Dad drank heavily and routinely beat the children for even the smallest transgression. Mom worked 2 jobs and was often not home.
One day, when Robert was 13, he decided he’d had enough and beat up his dad. Then he decided he needed a new place to live to he left and lived on the street for a while. The police picked him up and put him in a group home. That lasted 3 weeks until he attempted suicide they called the police to say “get him out of here!” The police threw him into the detention center until they could find foster parents for him. He ended up going through 13 foster homes in 4 years.
Needless to say, Robert continued his angry behavior and his various suicide attempts throughout his teenage years. When I met him, he was in a “last chance” school and not doing well. He didn’t trust any adults with anything, and was still very angry, but understood that if he “blew it” at this school, juvenile detention was the only option left. Robert was a big guy, so people tended to avoid him and certainly tried to avoid upsetting him.
A group of adult men took 16 teens to the woods for a weekend of self-exploration. Robert begrudgingly joined us. Halfway through Saturday, one of the men called me over and said I needed to go talk with Robert right away. I found him, and he was very heated and angry. He started yelling at me:
“You can’t tell me what to do! You don’t even know me!”
“You can’t help me, and I don’t even want your help!”
“I’m so angry I could punch something!”
I took a deep breath, and said, “Robert, you can be who you are and live the life that you have. Or, you can be who I see standing here, and have the life you really want. It’s up to you.” I turned and walked away.
At lunch, Robert came up to me and apologized. And he stayed for the rest of the weekend.
Robert is now married with two kids, he has a good job, is a good dad and husband, and is proud of his accomplishments.
Many teenagers (and some adults!) think that the life they’ve had is just going to continue into the future. This is the reason behind the large number of teens who think about suicide. “Nobody loves me, so I must be unlovable. And this is how it is going to be forever.”
As a teacher, I bet many of us know someone like that. Therapists might explore the past with these teens, often to no avail. Then the psychiatrist prescribes medications for the teen.
Don’t get me wrong. . . I’m NOT down on therapists or psychiatrists. But there is another way to intervene in this situation. But you have to be the one caring adult that “sees” the opportunity this teenager has to alter the trajectory of his or her life. The caring adult who understands that whatever he or she is going through, whatever they’re dealing with, they have what it takes to alter their life. They have what it takes to make that bold step forward, to own their own life, to be who they really are.
Adults sometimes struggle with this, too. Making a big change in your life is never easy, but it can be done. It always takes someone, a friend, a sibling, a pastor, a grandparent, a teacher, or an old guy who takes teens into the woods. . . SOMEONE who is willing and able to stand in the face of that teen’s life, and say, “I believe in you. You can do this. I’m here to support you.”
We can’t fix their past — and neither can they. It’s vitally important to help these students understand that their past doesn’t predict their future. The past is what was — it’s not about who they ARE now. And the past certainly isn’t about who they can become!
I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of kids in this situation. I have learned that these teens are strong and resilient. They are willing to stand in the face of adversity when there is someone who is willing to stand there with them. And I have learned that it’s almost impossible to create a future that’s distinct from the past without a person who believes in you.