Cover image for Teens in turmoil : a path to change for parents, adolescents, and their families
Teens in turmoil : a path to change for parents, adolescents, and their families
Maxym, Carol.
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New York : Viking, 2000.
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viii, 273 pages ; 24 cm
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HQ799.15 .M372 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Parenting

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More than ever before, it seems, we're discussing teenagers and their problems. But for all the talk, there have been few books offering any answers...until now. In ns in Turmoil. Carol Maxym and Leslie York offer parents a process through which they can become catalysts of change for their troubled adolescent. In a very accessible style that includes quizzes and charts, and illuminating family stories and examples, the authors guide parents toward making an honest assessment of their teen, themselves, and their family. Parents are then shown how to apply their increased knowledge and insight to everyday life where they can begin to implement positive change. The final section offers an extensive guide to making decisions about therapy, professional programs, and local or residential placement, along with resources and recommended reading.Teens in Turmoil is a timely book that will speak to everyone who has worried in silence over the fate of their adolescent, and will help parents restore their adolescent's future while reclaiming their own lives.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Maxym, a psychotherapist who specializes in adolescents, and York, an educational consultant and mother of a formerly troubled teen, pull no punches in this practical yet compassionate handbook. The authors caution that the information may be hard for some readers to take but claim that only by confronting the unvarnished truth will one be able to effect change in oneself and, ultimately, the teen who is causing familial anguish. First arguing that "changing who is in control in the family is one of the crucial issues parents need to deal with," the authors then offer tools for making such a change. The headings are indicative of the authors' clear and forthright approach (the first part, "Understanding Where You Are Now," has chapters titled "What's Happening All Around Us: The High Stakes of Teen Culture," "What's Happening in Your Family: Beginning to See with Clarity" and "Taking Stock: The Big Five of Acting Out"). Lists, quizzes, sidebars, scenarios and action plans round out this exhaustive and timely treatise. The thoughtful assessment of positive and negative aspects of each school and treatment program listed in the resource guide is an extra boon. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The turmoil of the teenage years is a problem many parents have battled. Maxym, a psychotherapist, and York, an educational consultant, have written a book that not only identifies the issues in today's teen problems but also offers parents options in dealing with them. Included is an outstanding section called "Resources and Programs" that lists programs parents can turn to in dealing with various teen problems. A strong theme throughout is that a teen's turmoil is not limited to the child; it affects the family. What makes this book especially appealing is that York brings her personal experiences raising three children and being a foster parent to scores of troubled youths, giving readers a parent's perspective. The book's language and style of are very parent-friendly. Highly recommended for any library.--Mee-Len Hom, Hunter Coll. Lib., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One What Is Happening All Around Us: The High Stakes of Teen Culture It is obvious to us all that parents and teens face a national crisis. One need only read the newspaper, watch a TV newsmagazine or talk show, listen to the radio, or even just walk down the street to know that. We all realize that younger and younger kids use drugs and alcohol, but what many parents do not realize is that the drugs kids get today are more potent, varied, and virulent than even a decade ago. Typically, kids experiment with lots of different drugs until they find the one they like best. In a mindless frenzy just to get high, some kids, usually the younger ones spurred by peer or media pressure, seriously endanger themselves by inhaling one or more of the approximately 100 everyday substances kept in most homes.     Teens spend $122 billion annually, mainly on "badge items," designer clothing, shoes, and sunglasses, just to fit in. Nowadays kids begin to be sexually active when they have barely entered their teens; AIDS and a host of other sexually transmitted diseases remain only one mistake away. Gangs have come to the best suburbs as well as to quiet rural areas, and they have brought their guns. Nice kids carry weapons to school--and perhaps keep them in your house. The U.S. Senate has investigated the music teens listen to, the movies they watch, and the video games they play to try to determine their relationship to teen violence and suicide. Millions of teens are labeled with various disorders, many of them are prescribed various forms of powerful psychopharmaca to combat depression, anxiety, and difficulties with their attention span, and many of these kids are using their prescription medication in combination with street drugs.     These are our realities. They are not pretty, and no one likes them. It's no wonder kids are frightened. It's no wonder parents are frightened.     We all look for the causes of the reality we deplore: Are they cultural, a product of parents' disenchantment and cynicism from the sixties? Of the new rules and mores of the seventies? Of the affluence of the eighties and nineties? Do more kids spin out of control than before? No one has the answers because the questions are too global. Parents can only address these questions in a family-by-family way. What we do know is that the crisis is real and that parents approaching, near, or in crisis do not have time for theoretical solutions--and ones that will take years to implement. Hundreds of thousands of parents like you find themselves caught in a very personal crisis--one that threatens their family and their teen and his or her future.     Language, clothes, behavior, and attitudes have all changed, and parents' fear and confusion trying to understand isn't just about a generation gap. Some of it, of course, can be related to the special need teens have to fit in to be accepted. Parents can accept some of that, but it becomes different when they must wonder about their child's safety and future as he tries to fit in, be accepted, be popular, and grow up. The stakes for teens are higher nowadays than they were even half a generation ago. What kids have to do now to be "cool" is not only more costly, it is simply far more dangerous than it used to be. We dare not look for quick and easy answers because our children's wellbeing, and even their very lives, may be at stake. "In Control" Teens     Many teens make their way through adolescence without getting trapped in a cycle of failure, loneliness, and despair. They are able to use their strengths to avoid serious problems or to manage them successfully. If your son or daughter gets in trouble sometimes, it does not mean you have a crisis on your hands. At the same time, it doesn't mean you should ignore your teen's behavior. One rule of thumb for deciding if your teen may be in or heading for trouble is to notice whether he or she learns from mistakes. The teens who insist upon repeating the same behavior and displaying the same attitudes that got them into trouble before are the ones whose parents need to pay particular attention.     Among professionals and laypeople alike, there is no commonly used, accurate term to denote the broad spectrum of teens whose parents will be reading this book. Because many of these teens have worked with counselors and therapists, they often have been labeled as having one type of problem or another: attention deficit disorder (ADD), problems with attachment, difficulties due to adoption, etc. But Leslie and I have both observed that when the parents we work with describe their situation--whether or not their teen has been labeled this way, whether or not their teen is just beginning to cross the line from acceptable to unacceptable behavior, or whether or not their teen has already moved way beyond the line--they all share one thing in common: The teen controls the family life and their parents' lives. We often refer to these teens as "in control." (In fact, the concept and reality of kids in control of the family is as applicable to toddlers and their families as it is to teens--and I have met more than one family in which it was still true when the child was twenty-five, thirty-five, and even forty-five years of age.) Changing who is in control in the family is one of the crucial issues parents need to deal with. No More Safe Places     Home should be the one unconditionally safe place in everyone's life. But when a frightened adolescent is in control at home, then home hardly feels safe. It becomes characterized by a potentially destructive combination of entitlement, resentment, immaturity, fear, and self-centeredness. Home becomes a sort of war zone, characterized by chaos where teens view parents as the enemy. The result is that security and safety stop being a part of a teenager's life. Instead, home becomes a place where tension and anger, hurt, recriminations, lack of trust, and scant belief in anyone's honesty, loyalty, or love permeate and infect the atmosphere. No one feels secure and safe.     When that happens there is no absolutely safe place in the whole world, not for teens, for their siblings, or for parents. When home stops being the place where things are just okay, where love is a given, and where understanding and caring happen as a normal part of life, then everyone begins to feel tight, tense, and unhappy. Unhappiness breeds unhappiness. Parents of teens in turmoil generally describe an atmosphere that feels always charged, like living in a thunderstorm that pauses, but never stops. In one way or another everyone in the family is waiting for the next explosion, the next lie, the next catastrophe. Everyone walks on eggshells, trying to avoid the next confrontation, the next argument, or the next slammed door.     Unfortunately, the other traditionally safe place in a teen's life also can no longer be taken for granted. For kids today school can be a threatening place--even the "good" ones in the "good" neighborhoods. Can a place be called safe when there are police in the halls and/or metal detectors at the doors and when some kids carry weapons? Is it a safe place if girls and boys report verbal rape or assault, and kids are afraid to go into the bathroom? Too many schools are now places where gangs recruit and drugs are sold and used.     With no place that feels completely safe, and with no adult whom teens trust, many teens find living responsibly hardly inviting. For teens what makes sense is the immediate and the tangible: having fun, buying something new, going to a concert, taking risks, getting high, or getting laid. Odd as it may seem, those behaviors and attitudes are experienced as safer than trusting adults, the future, life, and themselves.     Dreams of success, honor, and respect are distant because they require perseverance, diligence, and the courage to keep on caring. I think of Jeremy, who had always wanted to be a marine biologist; but in the second semester of his freshman year, his biology course required more work than he had ever done; he became scared he couldn't do it, so his answer was to cut class, telling himself that he hadn't ever really cared anyway. I think of Cathy, who was fourteen when I met her. She was smart and pretty, but she lost track of her dream of being a teacher when weighing only 100 pounds became all she could think about, talk about, or do anything about because it was a more immediate and realizable goal. And I think about Randy, whose best answer to his profound existential questions was to avoid them by sleeping through life, sleeping through his future.     When I talk with teens like Jeremy, Cathy, or Randy, they give scores of "logical" reasons why seeking positive goals doesn't make sense or why those goals no longer matter to them. But no matter how they may pretend or protest to the contrary, on some level most teens do remember their dreams: wanting to be a doctor or a teacher, helping others, or traveling the world. Sadly though, those dreams become less and less achievable as kids lose themselves in their own personal downward spiral. The Downward Spiral     Everyday adolescent life is a fast-paced confusion of fantasy and reality that teens, by virtue of being between childhood and adulthood, naturally lack the experience and maturity to negotiate, either psychologically or emotionally. It is no wonder that many of them spin out of control: They have almost no firm ground beneath their feet.     As these teens watch their opportunities melt away, their attitudes become more and more paradoxical. Kids I have worked with realize on some level that they are making their own opportunities disappear while on other levels they seem oblivious to that fact. That is when some of them seem to want to fail with a vengeance, skipping school like Jeremy did, or quitting the cross-country team as Randy did, or, like Cathy, exchanging her meaningful activities for drinking and drugging as though there were no tomorrow. Thousands and thousands of kids all over the country do similar things. Others--and I have worked with so many of them--pretend to, or even try to, pull it together, working hard in school for a couple of weeks or even a month or two, until something difficult comes along, and they give up, rationalizing all the way. It reminds me of Paul, who said, "If I had tried, I could have, but ..." followed by the hundred excuses why it was better to give up because there was always another time, another chance, or at least the possibility of saying, "I didn't really care anyway."     Often and unwittingly parents help their teens rationalize. Jeremy's parents told each other, "School is so hard these days. Kids need to have some fun, after all. Freshman grades don't really matter all that much." Cathy's mother could not help but think her daughter really did look great in a size 2. Randy's parents took him from specialist to specialist, trying to find the cause of his malaise, never thinking it might be fear combined with laziness.     As teens begin to spiral downward, often taking their families with them, they start intimidating parents or teachers or siblings, acting even more entitled and defiant. Somehow, it seems, the mess that is his or her life must be someone else's fault. Taking responsibility is overwhelming partially because it implies living in everyday reality. And everyday reality is boring (a favorite teen word used to describe almost anything they don't like or can't handle), but even rationalizations have consequences. Teens like Jeremy, Cathy, and Randy don't like to acknowledge that.     As life spirals downward, the future begins to look increasingly ominous. Teenagers tend to react with anger or depression or both. Parents do, too, and it affects everyone else living in the house, not to speak of the teen's future, the parent's career, and everyone's belief in life. As one problem begets another, families feel as though the spiral is whirling faster and tighter, and escape begins to seem impossible. But, strange as it may seem, the spiral downward can become if not exactly comfortable, at least familiar. When just about everything in life is uncertain, familiar ways of behaving and experiencing the world have the advantage of being, well, familiar. Chaos     Sometimes family life begins to feel as though it is structured only by chaos. Chaos is wild and full of energy, but it is an energy that just scatters in the wind like leaves in a late autumn storm. In the whirlwind of chaos emotional numbness seems protective, feelings hardly exist, and that seems better. Because it is so powerful and self-propelling, chaos helps parents and teens avoid noticing how bad things are. The teen tries to drown out bad feelings by creating more chaos, and again, wittingly or not, parents often end up playing into it, perhaps even helping to create it. Sometimes it plays out like a melodrama, as in sixteen-year-old Allie's family, where tears and accusations of "You don't even know me!" punctuate daily life. In other families, like Jeremy's, explosive outbursts divert attention from his impending failure. An eerie quiet prevails at Randy's house because no one is sure what is wrong, but everyone is afraid of disturbing Randy. No matter what the manifestations, chaos always feels about the same in the gut: tense, anxious, foreboding.     Chaos becomes a metaphor for the way many adolescents feel about life: It's more than they can handle, it hurts, it betrays, it's menacing, yet its energy is seductive. Chaos and all that it brings can become a sort of addiction unto itself and can take on a rhythm and momentum of its own. The ultimate distraction, chaos makes it easier to quash the feelings of hopelessness, depression, despair, guilt, shame, anger, failure, and loneliness. Acting Out, Acting In     Some teens direct their inner conflicts and their frustration about the world as they perceive it outward, and some direct these feelings inward. This acting out or acting in manifests in three general ways: anger, wild behavior, and/or depression. Most teens display aspects of each, but the trouble starts when the anger, outrageous behavior, and/or the depression take over the teen's personality, until parents and even friends feel they don't know him anymore.     Angry kids get right up into everyone's face to intimidate; wild ones intimidate with their energy and defiance of all caution, and depressed ones by maintaining a cold, dark, and silent distance. These three manifestations of inner turmoil may look different, but they usually overlap in some way. An angry adolescent is usually also depressed; a depressed adolescent is usually also angry. And all of them are wild and defiant in one way or another. I understand that parents crave the now-elusive peace and family pleasures of earlier years.     Because the manifestations of the problems define their teen's life and their family's life, many parents seek mainly just to eradicate the most obvious symptoms, such as poor school performance, drug or alcohol abuse, apparent depression, uncontrolled, irresponsible behavior, or disregard for family rules. Often parents resort to trying to control their teen's behavior, attitude, and worldview in the vain hope that it will make their teen change, really change, and become once again that kid they used to know.     However teens act out their feelings, parents and professionals often mistake the manifestations of the problem to be the problem itself. They often believe that if they could get the symptoms (bad grades, undesirable friends, foul language, use of alcohol and drugs) to disappear, the problems would vanish. Consequently, parents, professionals, and even the teens themselves fight the smaller battles and ignore the larger issues. For example, Jeremy's problem was not that he began to skip school--that was the manifestation of his deep belief (read: fear) that he really was not intelligent enough to realize his dreams. Cathy's problems were related to her self-image and her fear of her own extraordinary potential. Randy began to doubt himself and the meaning of life, and instead of actively seeking new answers to these profound existential questions, he became demoralized. While his parents and the professionals they consulted dealt with Randy's symptoms--sleeping all the time and appearing depressed--they missed the deeper issues.     Teens in turmoil often substitute short-term conformity for real changes in behavior and attitude, further confusing their parents and the professionals who work with them. Boys like Jeremy may begin to go to school regularly and improve their grades, but their newfound energy often falters once the going gets rougher. With some counseling, girls like Cathy may turn their obsessive interest in their weight and sexual relationships back to their future in order to regain the privilege of using Mom's credit card, but they will not have changed their worldview or self-concept, and then they quickly revert to the old behavior. Randy may agree to go to therapy and take (or pretend to take) his medication, but he will not have begun to seek the real answers to his questions about life and its meaning. Short-term conformity is too often mainly a convenient way to "get my parents off my back!"     Behavior is a metaphor, a way teens have of acting out the real problem. The real problem is the teenager's attitude toward herself, toward others, and toward life. However a teen is acting out, beneath the surface of the actions and attitudes lurk the teen's self-doubt, self-disrespect, and self-hatred, providing the rationale for behavior that is self-sabotaging. These teens accomplish the unstated and unconscious goal of finding reasons to hate themselves by engaging in a wide variety of behaviors along a continuum that can range from innocuous to outrageous, self-destructive, and very dangerous. The behaviors can be as small as not completing a paper for school, or as large as having unprotected sex with several partners.     Self-doubt, self-disrespect, self-hatred, and a strange sort of self-indulgence become part of a vicious circle in which, because the feelings are overwhelming and define a teen's inner reality, she must do things to make those feelings make sense. She feels as though she has to be still more hateful and self-destructive, stifling her better, truer feelings in order to be who she believes she is. In the ensuing vicious circle, self-sabotage breeds failure, and failure breeds loneliness, despair, and anger, which breeds more self-sabotaging behavior. The circle pulls tighter, engendering resentment toward rules and life in general, all nurtured by the feelings that keep the circle in frantic motion. Hard as it may be to accept, this "rationalizing" process makes inner psychological sense to the adolescent caught in the vicious circle of self-perpetuating self-hatred. The Rush     One of the favorite ways teens try to drown out the irrationality, inconsistency, and deep-seated unhappiness of the vicious cycle of being hateful to justify feeling worthless and then having to lie and manipulate to cover it all up is by seeking the rush. The rush is a passionate search for a single moment of feeling intensely alive, in tune, powerful, ready, and able to experience life as no one has ever done before. The teen looking for that rush seeks risks to challenge the very meaning and essence of being alive. Using drugs and alcohol, having sex, driving fast cars, and seeing how far the rules and the law can be pushed all contribute to achieving the rush and that feeling of being invincible. Even if a teen feels worthless, surviving self-destructive attitudes and acts like driving drunk and surviving or having unprotected sex and not getting a sexually transmitted disease or pregnant is also a rush. It fools kids into believing they really are in charge, invincible, and immortal, and for some kids, that risk taking is the same as being heroic. It's a modern version of Russian roulette played by kids who don't believe there is such a thing as the future and surely couldn't trust themselves if they got there. For kids who don't really care about their lives--or are afraid to admit they do--being self-destructive (and that includes lying, manipulating, basking in self-hatred, seeking failure, etc.) yet surviving is a tremendous rush.     But no matter how good the rush is, it never lasts more than a moment, and then depression, alienation, and loneliness suffuse the teen's soul. Common Threads     The irrationality of the vicious circle and the teen's quest for the rush is often hard for parents to understand, but recalling similar feelings from their own teenage years helps. Underneath the behavior and attitudes there are some threads common to all teens having trouble negotiating their growing up. Teens in turmoil take it to a different level, and although it is sometimes hard to admit, their parents know their teen is doing or feeling all or most of the following behavior-attitudes. Common Behavior-Attitudes of Teens in Turmoil 1. They don't like themselves. 2. They feel like failures. 3. They are demoralized and react with an I-don't-care or "fuck you" attitude toward school as well as other things. 4. They are frightened and resentful. 5. They are self-absorbed, self-centered, and self-indulgent. 6. They lie. 7. They manipulate. 8. They test limits. 9. They are struggling with profound existential questions. 10. They are sabotaging themselves, their future, and their family. 11. They are self-destructive.     Of course, no parent wants any of these behavior-attitudes to be true of his or her teen. It is tempting to rationalize or cover them up by means of rationalizations, excuses, and explanations. But it is fear, not reality or truth, that leads to the rationalizing. And it is fear that makes teens--and their parents--act in ways that seem to justify behavior and attitudes that everyone knows cannot be justified. But kids change, and parents can be the catalyst. Clearly, outrageous, self-destructive, sabotaging behavior needs to be stopped, but teens like Jeremy, Cathy, and Randy can't stop their self-sabotaging behavior until their attitudes change. But changing attitudes without eradicating self-destructive behavior is virtually impossible. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario--in which it isn't ever possible to say exactly whether the behavior begets the attitude or vice versa. In either case, though, kids can make positive change with parents as the catalyst.     But in order to change, parents need to recognize and acknowledge the part they have played in creating the feelings of unbounded entitlement in their kids. For so many kids who grow up believing Mom or Dad can and will bail them out of life's scrapes, when they have to start producing on their own, life becomes too challenging. Like Jeremy, who gave up once the going got tough in high school, many kids do fine throughout elementary school, maybe even into middle school. But when diligence, perseverance, and some maturity need to be brought to the table as the work in high school becomes more demanding, they don't know what to do because they have no experience to guide them. The focus on self-esteem has schooled many teens to believe that rewards and praise need not be won by hard work and real achievement. It is easy to understand why a teen like Randy, who preferred sleep over seeking answers to his questions about the meaning of life, turns tail and runs emotionally, psychologically, and in reality, blocking out life when it seems too demanding.     The reality that success and happiness come from hard work, honesty, perseverance, and self-discipline strikes many teens as old-fashioned and unfair. Designer clothes, loud music, medication, street drugs, and rationalizing unacceptable behavior will never give any kid hope, but many teens don't want to believe that. Cathy uses the mirror and pseudosophistication of promiscuous sex as her way to seek hope. She manipulates men even much older than herself into believing whatever she wants them to believe. She just doesn't understand that she never will find hope in promiscuous sex or the momentary rush or transient sense of power she gets from it.     So much of what teens hate and fear is the product of hopelessness combined with fear and more hopelessness, fed by peer pressure and the commercial adolescent culture. Some teens, however, remain connected with their families and the friends they have known since they were small, and navigate the difficult years almost without a hitch. Others make mistakes, get frightened by their own behavior and the results of it, and change course quickly and effectively. But some kids don't. Some kids just keep on doing the bad stuff and the crazy stuff until someone notices, intervenes, and forces them to stop.     When adolescents find that the last bauble or the last high didn't alleviate or even mitigate despair and questioning for long, those feelings quickly mutate into fury: rage born of feeling betrayed. Somehow it must be someone's fault, they believe, so they yell at parents, siblings, teachers and blame the world. Often enough, to get the anger and despair out before it suffocates them inside, they destroy things--their room or other parts of the house, sometimes a car, sometimes a relationship. What they are really trying to destroy is the self they have become. But it doesn't solve the problem. Often it is a loud cry for help. Is Your Teen Asking for Help?     The behaviors listed below can be warning signs. Do not let yourself rationalize, justify, excuse, or ignore any of them. A decline in their teen's grades is one of the most common reasons parents come to us for help. When we begin to talk, we find that several other issues were also at work in the teen's life.     If your son or daughter has sent you even one or two of these messages, he or she may be in more trouble than you think. It is now time for you to get more information about what your teen is doing. Consult with teachers, school counselors, a therapist, or clergy. If you feel your situation is more urgent, see "Red Flags" on page 51 and consult the Part IV section for more information about professionals and programs to help your teen and yourself.     Pay close attention when your teen: · Wants you to buy lots of Gatorade, mouthwash, aerosol products, or household cleaning agents. These can be used to cover up drug use or as recreational drugs themselves. · Begins to stay up alone and late at night. · Comes home and hurries to his/her room. · Is glib or evasive when you ask about unexplained charges on the phone bill such as calls to 900 numbers. · Leaves drugs around where you can't help but see them. · Leaves incriminating letters and notes open where you will find them or has incriminating phone conversations within your earshot so you can't help but understand the content. · Binges or eats secretly. · Changes appearance abruptly: hair color or cut, clothes, jewelry, body piercing, tattoos. · Shows consistently and increasingly poor school performance and correspondingly poor grades. · Gets suspended or expelled from school, especially if it happens repeatedly. · Asks to be home-schooled. · Is ready to settle for a GED or tries to convince you it would make sense (or the school counselor suggests it as an alternative to staying in school). · Suddenly quits a sports team, drops out of clubs or activities, or changes friends (particularly if this happens in conjunction with any other items on this list). · Stays on the Internet for hours. · Suddenly loses or gains a lot of weight. · Appears with lots of new things (jewelry, clothes, and so forth) without having asked you for money or incurring any credit card charges. · Is physically threatening you and/or siblings. · Exhibits a change in behavior toward the family pet or other animals. · Has unexplained scratches, burns, or bruises on his or her body or always wears long sleeves and trousers, even in warm weather. (This may indicate self-mutilation.) · Starts seeing a man or woman many years older than herself or himself. · Spends hours alone, especially in a dark room, maybe writing depressing or even suicidal poetry. · Listens to music which glorifies suicide and/or death and/or violence. · Uses the Internet for sex. · Is being sexually promiscuous. A New Understanding of Failure     One of the most indistinct but heartwrenching cries for help is a teen's frantic search for success, taking the need for success and the success itself to absurdity, moving nonstop from more honors classes to being the best in several sports and president of a club or two. These teens strive to be not only the best at everything but also truly "perfect." They need to be the best dressed, have the perfect body, be the most popular, and seem completely in control of everything in their lives. Watching them can leave you breathless--and wondering what they are running from and to.     The drive for perfection that permeates these kids' lives may come from outside, but just as often it is self-imposed. High ambitions aren't wrong or harmful, but striving for perfection is, by definition, a self-defeating, self-destructive project. The push toward perfection can begin early in a child's life, as he strives to meet every challenge until one day the proverbial straw breaks the camel's back. Greg, for example, had always played baseball, been involved in his church youth group, and been an A student. Early in his eighth-grade year, he forgot to study for an important quiz and failed it. "I felt so ashamed," he told me, "I never did any homework again. I quit baseball and just kind of gave up. It made sense to me, then. I felt like a failure, so I had to become one."     Aaron didn't seem to need Ritalin (or any other medication) until he was sixteen, but then, worried he could not cope with the pressure of SATs, Advanced Placement courses, college applications, and basketball, he hoped a little extra boost would help. Anna was fourteen when she decided it would be okay to use speed to lose that last eight pounds she felt sure she needed to shed. Lara was always the star of everything until her senior year when she began to feel overwhelmed by the pressures of getting into college and the prospect of having to keep up the work at an Ivy League school. She rationalized that cocaine would help her through exams, and she promised herself she would use it only when she "absolutely needed it." Unfortunately, that became more and more often, and before she had even heard which colleges had accepted her, Lara had a serious drug problem to deal with.     Sometimes a divorce, parents' separation, or a death in the family can be the catalyst for kids to give up. And sometimes there is no discernible catalyst at all.     The pressures involved in being the best of the best in different and possibly conflicting spheres is enough to convince some kids that giving up altogether is a much better, or at least a more achievable, goal. After all that striving, finding themselves unhappy and unfulfilled anyway is devastating. Feeling betrayed, fearing they cannot be the best of the best, they may become overtly resentful. Some kids then choose instead to be the worst of the worst. Sometimes this drama plays out in a family context. Ted had three older sisters who were athletic as well as academic stars. Afraid to compete, he reacted by giving up when he was only thirteen, choosing for himself instead the role of class clown. Dora, afraid she might outdo her older sister, first quit playing piano, then stopped playing tennis, and eventually settled for Cs in school. Hank, realizing he could never be an all-state football player like his brother, opted instead to be the wildest, biggest failure the school had ever seen. Failing, after all, isn't that hard to do, and teens usually don't see the risks to their future that failing implies.     Some kids find that the only thing they can do really well is to be the class clown, the biggest screw-up in the school, or the most depressed and lonely kid ever. Some kids who are failing at school are mainly bored by it, either because they are very bright or very lazy or because school really is boring. These teenagers seek their challenges elsewhere--getting over on parents and teachers, breaking the rules, procuring drugs, being secretive, being a dealer, playing the gangster. All of these behaviors and attitudes provide interest, excitement, and--above all--risk in what otherwise seems like a very boring, bland life. It seems easier to be the kid with the new gear, the drugs, the newest CD, or the newest information from the Internet than to write up the chemistry lab results or finish the English paper. The satisfaction is immediate, and teens generally aren't looking ahead to the longer-term consequences.     Teens who are caught in any of these downward spirals prove time and time again to themselves and to everyone around them that they will fail--in school and in relationships. No matter how far anyone lowers standards for them, they still manage to fail. The goal they have set for themselves is failure, and their failure paradoxically becomes a measure of success. The whole project, obviously, is inherently irrational. Able to trust themselves only to fail, they apply their self-imposed standards to the rest of the world. As these kids reach the age where growing up and taking responsibility is the next step, they don't believe they can handle it. In a way, of course, they are right. Anger, depression, and looking for someone or something to blame for the state of their lives are common, easy responses. These kids expend enormous amounts of energy blaming everyone else without really examining and experiencing feelings, meeting responsibilities, or overcoming challenges.     Failure can become a sort of addiction, and like all addictions it begins to take over the lives of the teen and his family as everyone in the family becomes involved in excusing, rationalizing, and trying to stop the failures. But rather than try to "fix" the teen's failures, it is far more important to recognize the meaning of the failure and to see it for what it is: a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and self-centered act borne of fear. Copyright © 2000 Carol Maxym and Leslie B. York. All rights reserved.