Understanding teenage traumas

Dr. Miriam Adahan

When Shira (no real names are used) called me, I asked about the banging and shouting I heard in the background. “I told my 20-year old that I had an appointment and couldn’t give him the car,” she said, “and he came after me so angrily that I raced into my bedroom and locked the door.

He’s like his father; they both have short fuses. They can be so sweet and helpful when they’re in the mood, but when they’re frustrated, they explode. This morning, I thought I’d surprise my 18 year old by cleaning up her room, but she went ballistic when she came home from school and saw what I’d done. I can’t wait ‘til they get married and move out! I’ve done everything to be a good mother and feel like such a failure.” As I held the phone, I didn’t know if I should focus on Shira’s feelings of failure or find some way to tell

her that it is a criminal offense to marry off an abusive child off to an some

unsuspecting young boy or girl, knowing that they’ll have to live their lives with

someone who never learned to control their childish temper tantrums.

A while later, Malka called and confided to me, “When my daughter was 15,

she rebelled against religion and began dressing immodestly. Everyone told me that if

I would just love her unconditionally, she would return. So I never said a word about

her dress or behavior. I swallowed the pain and shame, daavened for her and gave

charity in her name. Twenty years later, she was still flaunting her anti-religious

lifestyle and making fun of rabbis and religion. Eventually, we lost all connection.

I’m left with a hole in my heart where a relationship should have been.”

There are many wonderful teenagers who glide through their teenage years

with grace and gratitude. But others have a far more difficult time. When anguished

parents call to ask how to deal with their “difficult” (to put it mildly) older children,

I’m glad that my work focuses on helping parents of young children, under the age of

nine. I give each mother a “tool kit,” including a set of “sanity cards” and victory

notebooks to encourage the development of self-control. I encourage them to talk

about our own victories and write down their children’s victories each day to prove

that everyone has the power to control harmful impulses and be courageous and kind.

There is no better way to build good middos.

But if young children are not taught to express their anger in a respectful

manner and to recognize and be proud of their acts of self-control, they may turn into

hostile teens who are impossible to handle. This is especially of those with the “B”

[Bully] gene – i.e., extremely stubborn, argumentative and even cruel toward anyone

they perceive to be weak or emotionally sensitive. The teen years can be a terribly

stressful time, and the popular “hope dope” (“It’s just a stage and things will get better

their own.”) doesn’t always work.


To understand the behavior of teens, it helps to understand how the brain

works. In fact, we actually have three different brains. The “reptilian brain,” located

at the base of the skull, is fully developed in utero by six months. It registers basic

fear and pleasure and is responsible for reflexive, impulsive urges and survival needs.

The next to develop is the limbic system. This is our “emotional brain,” a walnutsized

area in the middle of the brain, which allows us to express the full range of

human feelings – jealousy, pride, shame, resentment, love, etc. – by the age of three.

The limbic system is the repository of our memories, superstitions and emotional

beliefs, including our sense of self-worth. This section of the brain also deals with

compassion and conscience. If underdeveloped, the person will be oblivious to

people’s pain or think it’s funny to hurt them. In contrast, the limbic system is more

developed in people with a high E.Q., emotional intelligence. The last section of the

brain to develop is the neo-cortex, located behind the forehead. The center of impulse

control, moral judgment, intellectual scrutiny and concern for future consequences,

the neo-cortex reaches its maximum number of neurons until the age of 25!

Thus, when the flood of hormones causes vast physical and emotional changes

around the age of 12 and 13, the average teenager turns into a pressure cooker, hungry

for stimulation and action, craving independence and autonomy, but lacking the

intellectual maturity and inner discipline necessary to manage his moods or control

the risk-taking, addictive urges. [Knowing their neuro-biology, car rental companies

do not rent cars to drivers younger than 25, since before that age, the lack of impulse

control is a major factor in most accidents.]

During the teen years, symptoms of mental illness become more pronounced,

such as depression, bi-polar disorder, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorders), food

disorders, APD (Abusive Personality Disorder) or Borderline Disorder (frightening

outbursts alternating with charm and compliance). Those who turn to drugs or other

addictions may do so in an attempt to gain some sense of control over their lives or

calm their inner storms or satisfy their desire for excitement. Those most at risk are

the types who don’t fit in to “the system” due, perhaps to:

1. ACADEMIC FAILURE: Non-academic or learning-disabled children feel

like failures because they are in a school system which lauds the brilliant or

at least above average intellectually. Non-academic types crave action and

practical interaction with the physical world (business, sports, food,

carpentry, people, etc.). If the average adult had to sit in a classroom all day

and listen to what to him is totally irrelevant lectures, and he, too, would go

out of his mind and see the school more as a prison than place which

encourages a passion for learning!

2. ADD/ADHD: Children with learning disabilities are easily distracted,

quickly bored, emotionally chaotic and disorganized. In a standard

classroom situation of 35-40 kids, they are overwhelmed by stimuli and

simply cannot focus. Lacking outlets for their energies, they often lose all

motivation when realize that they can never live up to their own

expectations or the expectations of their parents.

3. ABUSE: Few parents are taught how to assert control in a non-abusive

manner. Instead, they resort to the primitive methods of yelling insults,

hitting or punishing. This teaches them that cruelty is the way to solve

problems. Then, when the parents are not around, these children will

imitate this bullying behavior on younger siblings or weaker children in the


4. NEGLECT: Today’s children suffer “time hunger,” having little positive

contact with parents. A hundred years ago, 90% of fathers worked close to

the home and almost 100 % mothers had constant physical contact with

children. Today’s parents race off in the morning to work and return

exhausted, grumpy and impatient. Many children are left with uncaring or

indifferent caretakers or older children who are forced to care for their

younger siblings, but often do so by bullying them. Many parents tell me,

“What with work, shopping, cooking, cleaning and community events I

simply don’t have time to love my children. Yet I would feel bored and

unfulfilled if I had to stay home all day.”

Without oxygen, a human being suffers brain damage. Without love, the ability to

connect in a positive manner is damaged. And with all the parenting theories being

bandied around, many parents are conflicted, feeling guilty no matter what they do,

fearful of being told that they are too permissive and spoiling their kids or are

neglectful and mean.


No two people have the same brain configuration, which is what accounts for our

differences. These differences become more pronounced in the teen years, as children

seek their own identity and independence. The following can help you keep your

cool, which is what helps teens keep theirs:

1. Set limits with compassion. Teens definitely need firm limits and adult

involvement, because they do not have good impulse control. When you

set limits, do so with compassion; i.e., “I know this is a big disappointment

to you, but the rule is that there are no overnights on school nights. You

won’t get the sleep you need.” “I know it’s hard to accept, but I am

overwhelmed right now and cannot give you what you want.” You reap

what you have sown. If you used primitive, external control tactics when

they were small – hitting, yelling and criticism – you’ll get it back, 10-fold,

since external force creates enormous internal resistance. It won’t be easy

to create a trusting relationship if you never had one before, but it’s

important to try.

2. Have a zero tolerance policy for disrespect. Tell your child, “I want to hear

what you have to say, so say it again, but with respect.” Help him state his

feelings respectfully if necessary. If he balks, walk away! Refuse to talk

or negotiate! Never give in to demands or threats, as this encourages more

of the same. If he threatens to take drugs, kill himself or harm you or

someone else, get help!

3. Treat the teen in more adult manner. Sit and negotiate like mature adults

about issues such as money, cleanliness, homework, and which friends or

extracurricular activities are appropriate. Show them how you decide what

to buy or resist buying in order to stay within your budget.

4. Don’t force religion. Daavening should be an act of love between a person

and Hashem, not something forced from outside. Teens need to develop

their own relationship with Hashem, to see what’s most real and honest.

The more external pressure is exerted, the less they can figure out their own


5. Listen empathically. Their feelings are so profound that it is difficult, if not

impossible, for them to focus on yours! If your teen shares a feeling with

you, just listen! If you lecture, moralize, judge or shame, they may never

open up again! Just validate that they have a right to feel what they are

feeling. Never argue with feelings; it’s like fighting the weather.

6. Understand sleep difficulties. The teen brain takes longer to produce

melatonin, which means that they like to go to sleep later and wake up

later. If they really can’t get up in the morning, see if you can find a

learning framework which allows them to arrive later. If they are not

academic types, find a less stressful situation so that they do not develop a

hatred for Torah, chas v’shalom.

7. Build your own self-respect. It takes wisdom and maturity to set firm

limits with patience and compassion. Setting limits builds your self-respect

and helps your children feel secure. However, if you experienced physical

or emotional abuse as a child, you won’t know how to command respect

from your children because you are used to being disrespected and rejected.

Thus, when your children misbehave, your own childhood wounds are

triggered which can so overwhelm you with rage and shame that you

cannot respond from your neo-cortex and, instead, may fall back on your

“lower brain” responses, i.e., flee, fight or freeze. If you’re a peoplepleaser,

you think your needs and feelings don’t count. If you were

neglected as a child, you may be overly indulgent in an effort to give what

you never got. If you are divorced or in an unhappy marriage, you may

have turned to your children for the love you never got from your spouse.

Saying “No” may seem impossible, because it requires the willingness to

bear a child’s anger, disapproval and rejection. If you are bullied by your

own spouse, it is impossible to demand respect, because your children will

inevitably think that yelling, ridiculing and scorning is acceptable, normal

and even “fun.” Children cannot develop emotional health in an

atmosphere of disrespect. Assertiveness training can help you develop the

self-esteem skills.

8. Accept the power of genetic coding. Children often behave in a manner

typical of other family members with the same genetic predisposition; and

genes are a lot stronger than we think! Whatever the child is doing -

bullying behavior, OCD or depression – is most likely seen in other family


9. Be creative. Human beings need to feel successful as well as loved. If

your child does not feel successful or loved, he is at risk! One solution,

which helps both the overly sensitive “wimpy” types as well as the bullies,

is self-defense training. Vast research on at-risk teens shows that there is no

better way to calm the brain and help them acquire self-discipline and selfrespect.

A Jewish system called ABIR is being taught in Israel, based on

ancient JEWISH sources! (Call 052-2476867)


I teach choice therapy, which validates our lower brain realities (I call it the Child

Mind) and then chooses a Spiritual Truth. Each “even if” starts with a Child Mind

belief and is followed by a new, positive, spiritual choice. This helps to keep us calm

and non-reactive around our children. For example:


· “Even if I feel bad about what I did in the past, I choose not to spend the rest

of my life apologizing for my imperfections. The faster I forgive myself, the

faster I will be able to release the negative feelings I have toward my child.”


· “Even if I think I should swallow my pain and let myself be abused in order to

maintain the relationship (or pay for my past ‘sins,’) I know that the best

thing is to refuse to tolerate any disrespect in my home.”


· “Even though I still want to control my child’s life, he is on his own soul

journey and my control over him is very limited. I can model positive

behavior, but I cannot force him to model it in return.”


· “Even if my child never respects me, my task is to respect myself.”


· “Even if my child never forgives me and never gets over his anger toward me,

I can keep a soul connection alive by accepting Hashem’s will with love.”


· “Even though I wish I could have been a perfect parent, I know how hard I

tried and that my job now is to love myself as I am.”


· “Even though I think it means something about me that this child is (addicted,

off the path, emotionally unstable, etc.) I deeply and completely love,

appreciate, forgive and accept myself.”


· “Even if I think this child could do better, I remind myself that every child is

always doing the best he can with the tools he has.”

May Hashem bless us all with love, compassion, understanding and patience!

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