Adolescence is a time of incredible cognitive development, the advent of identity, the advancement of the consciousness, and the beginning of the belief that they are invincible. These all coalesce to make a dynamic, exhausting, and confusing process of therapy. I’ve been told several odd things by teenagers over the three years of clinical work that constitute my career thus far.
For instance, I’ve had my masculinity questioned, which was a splendid way to build a strong working alliance with my patient. Our clinic was under construction, so we were forced to meet in a clinic room typically reserved for orthodontists. That meant I got to sit in a teeny tiny rolling chair while my fourteen-year-old patient got to lean back in a cushy armchair that nearly absorbed his tiny frame. To keep my computer balanced while taking notes, I tossed my left leg over my right, with the hinge of my left knee resting neatly on the cap of my right knee. In the middle of what I believed was turning into a deep moment of breakthrough, he paused, pointed straight at my apparently disfigured body, and said, “Wait, I thought only girls sat like that.”
Something else adolescents will do is talk to you straight. My year working with adult clients involved trying to create several opportunities for them to share their feedback about our work, and rarely did they take the chance to share anything honest. Teenagers, though, go right for the emotional jugular, draining self-esteem and confidence dry and leaving a husk of a defeated therapist. One of my patients told a co-worker–who graciously offered to fill in and do some psychological testing with him—that she looked like she “was new at this.” Subtext: you kinda suck at this. Another patient told me I reminded him of his friend, and when I curiously inquired, “Really? How so?” he ravaged my pride and sent me into a spiral of self-doubt by casually stating, “You talk too much.” Confused, I sputtered some nonsensical reflections of his statements, and fell silent.
Teenagers just have this way of keeping you humble. Sure, they tear you down, but sometimes, they toss out these nuggets that I still cling to. I keep them in a jar in my mind, and when I need a pick-me-up, I sift through the jar and soak in the memories and the evidence that my work can be meaningful.
My favorite nugget is from a thirteen-year-old boy who I worked with during my time training at a detention center. He was charged with assaulting a school employee, who had reportedly attempted to physically restrain the boy to bring him to a principal’s office. Our first meetings together, he was reticent and withdrawn, reluctantly responding to my questions. I changed my approach, easing up with the questioning and just letting him relax for a while.
As he began to open up, he described to me how he felt ostracized at school. He was one of the few black students at his school, and it kept sounding more and more like he was punished for things he didn’t do, given more severe punishments for mild infractions, and generally singled out by peers and staff. Of course it took time for him to be honest with yet another white guy. Eventually, we completed our work together, and he was released from the facility.
I called his mother to follow up on the results of the testing I had done. He had been on my mind constantly over the span of weeks, and I had been so worried about whether the tests would serve to advocate for him in the face of the prejudice that he experienced every day. During the call, his mother dropped the nugget I’ll carry forever. “He told me he didn’t have many friends in there. But he said you were his only friend, and you made him feel happy.”
Clinical psychology isn’t about making friends, making people happy, or getting these bits of affirmation. But it sure makes the tough days much easier to manage when you cling to those memories. And there’s something about the words of a teenager that make it all the more palpable. All too often, people fail to give teens enough credit. They’ll cut you to the core, but they’ll also invigorate your soul.
Matt Coldagelli (’14) majored in English writing and psychology at Calvin. He’s currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on children and adolescents. He watches an absurd amount of TV and is a certified craft beer snob. Matt lives with his lovely wife in Oak Park, IL.