The Existential Lives of Teenagers
Who am I?
What am I doing here?
I feel so alone…what’s the point?
These are all questions I have heard from the youth that I have been fortunate to work with over the years. These are hard questions to ask at 12, 13 or 17 years of age. But this is what they were asking.
How can we help adolescents find answers to these questions? By looking beyond their actions, behaviors and diving into the work with them of dealing with the existential givens in life.
Steven Berman's 2006 study found that yes existential anxiety concerns were "highly prevalent" in their sample of youth. This included concerns about depression, identity and anxieties about fate and death, meaninglessness and emptiness, guilt and condemnation. It may seem like a heavy load for kids these days but honestly it is not according to Berman’s research conclusions.
What if we were to consider an approach to helping adolescents navigate life that may help them to answer some of the deeper questions in life?
An article published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, An Existential-Integrative Treatment of Anxious and Depressed Adolescents, by David Schumaker presents an excellent case for an approach that incorporates Existential-Integrative (EI) therapy as a supplemental approach to helping our youth. EI is focused on bringing to light what is at the heart of our experiences being human. The work between a therapist and client is to dive into what it means to be living at this moment; dealing with all of the anxieties, awe, the limitations and the freedoms of being here on earth.
In this work of what it means to be human, questions can arise, usually dealing with meaning, intention, and choices for example. Adolescents are searching for their identity and are asking "who am I" and "who should I be". Teens are at the cusp of discovering their place in life and are searching for meaning to their own existence. For some, facing the newness of creating their own identity and life is anxiety inducing.
In his article, Schumaker suggests in therapy adolescents may come with their expressing their concerns of feeling alone among the crowd or questioning who they are. I recall one young woman who came into a session with me, incredibly sad. Her grief filled the room. Why was she sad? Because she could no longer play the games or do the things she could do just one year ago. She was mourning the “death” of her childhood. That’s hard. This was a perfect opportunity, as Schumaker argues, to integrate work on the existential concerns. Death is not a foreign concept to our youth and it is in their (and our own) best interest to work with them to help them mourn and be present in their feelings of loss.
Teens are often faced with the ending of their childhood. They're no longer the young child who could "get away" with certain behaviors. They are faced with making life altering decisions. They have to choose their friends carefully. They have to take responsibility for choosing not to drink and drive or to have unsafe sex. They have to manage their friendships and deal and possibly deal with feeling alone if they are ostracized by others kids.
Bringing EI into work with adolescents does not have to replace current techniques or best practices. EI can be brought into the sessions or work with our kids. Allowing adolescents the space to explore the givens in life can be just a valuable as giving the skills they need to make better choices in life. Existential concerns are core to the human experience. Why would we believe these issues suddenly manifest only at adulthood?
We grow into ourselves from birth until death. During that time, we may be fearful or anxious about what this growth is and where it’s taking us. The concerns of meaning, choice, responsibility, and anxiety are just as likely to be present when we are 15 as they are when we are 60.
If we can help kids learn to navigate through the existential concerns at a much younger age it may help them transition into adulthood with greater awareness and empowerment to deal with the anxieties and beauty of what it means to be human.