Finding Resources In Working With Adolescents
I remember my teenage years as unbelievably fun, adventurous, traumatic, disorienting, scary, exciting, disappointing; basically an emotional roller-coaster which in retrospect appears to highlight the polarity and pendulation concepts I’ve come to understand through Somatic Experiencing® (SE™) and Organic Intelligence® (OI).
Adolescents: Emerging Nervous Systems
As a clinician at an adolescent inpatient/outpatient treatment program in West Los Angeles, working with kids experiencing problems with substance abuse and mental health challenges, I have the unique opportunity to watch these emerging nervous systems return to health and wellbeing.
Usually, when kids arrive at a place like Visions, where I work, there has been a considerable amount of disruption to the system; the inpatient kids are most likely relocated away from friends and family, often times the previous environment has been unpredictable, invalidating, sometimes abusive. Not to be outdone, the outpatient teens are often still in those unpredictable homes or with relatives, and coming to us on a daily basis for treatment.
Adolescents who have experienced a disruption in their nervous system typically have developed fewer tools or coping skills than adults. These “unresolved resources” can contribute to the challenges which become overwhelming for some teens. Fortunately, a young person’s resilience can be their greatest asset; and for the clinician, this can be your greatest tool. The essence to this resiliency lies in each person’s implicit need for coherence, the biological desire for rightness, found in each person, and adolescents have this resource in spades.
Friends and Music
While working to build a client’s capacity to renegotiate unprocessed events, I have found the two greatest resources for teens are friends and music. This wasn’t that surprising, as I drew on my own experiences as an “angst filled teen,” along with almost everybody I grew up with. What is exciting about this information is how concrete and accessible both can be, whether I’m working with a client who is inpatient or outpatient. A treatment plan utilizing both resources can usually be agreed upon with all relevant parties.
Friendship. Being in relationship with like-minded peers. Social engagement. Use of the ventral vagal system; everything about processing the emotional life-events of being a teenager with a friend is intelligent in the biological and somatic sense. (Of course the family and treatment team must control for relationships with peers whose influence will be in line with standards agreed upon. Also, different attachment styles certainly come into play here.) However, the end result is an increase in orientation, resourcing and an overall ability to tolerate and process dysregulation.
As teenagers, we often find hundreds of ways to differentiate ourselves from our parents and other adults. One of the most prominent forms of this is by music. Music defines who we are as young people — certain songs will recall specific memories, good and bad. Regardless of the associations, music is a way we can connect to the environment, it can take us out of our heads, solidify and potentiate connections between affect, thought, sensation. Encouraging this with teens has the power of strengthening coping skills, increasing the ability to weather the storms of the teenage world.
Much of the individual and family therapy that occurs where I work effectively tells kids how and why they are wrong. How they or their actions and behavior have harmed the family. Rarely are they given the opportunity to explore what’s right, what works. Basically why they are awesome. Organic Intelligence gives me chance to explore what the client’s jam is, where their mojo lives, what gives them hope for an amazing future.
Many times, while in a session with a teen, I’ll notice the eyes drift into a blank stare. I might track the dorsal immobility and watch the system go into shut down. It won’t matter what we are talking about; if they get tired of talking to me, then I’ve lost the relationship and there is essentially no work to be done. Avoiding this scenario is the joy and power of OI.
Over the last several years, I’ve found that one of my favorite methods of working with adolescents is in a group format. This gives me a unique perspective to observe and track the social engagement, watch for fight/flight and freeze in a different way than in individual treatment. This is also an ideal setting to begin to exercise the use of our identified valuable resources, music and friends.
Corbett Miller, LCSW, SEP, OIX is a Clinical Social Worker at Visions Adolescent Treatment Center in Brentwood, California and with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health in Twin Towers Correctional Facility. When not spending time riding motorcycles with his wife Brandi, he can most likely be found surfing somewhere between Manhattan Beach and Malibu.