Existential Fear In Teenagers

Existential fear is fear arising from a growing and undeniable recognition that death is inescapable. It is more than a logical realization. It is the deep, gut level personal truth that feels the fact that almost everyone who has ever existed is now dead and that the same fate awaits me and everyone I know. When teenagers have this experience it can be very frightening and parents can be very helpful in assisting their teenagers to cope with it. 

Young teenagers in particular can be very distressed by the visceral realization that they will one day die and may start speaking a lot about death, macabre subjects, and generally exploring the darker side of life. The important thing for parents to keep in mind is that this experience is normal in teenagers. It is a developmental stage that encourages the development of the teenager's individual way of understanding the nature of life and creating a personal, meaningful philosophy about it. This can be a rocky phase for teenagers but parents should allow their teenagers to explore this and be open to talking about it. Some parents feel that conversations with their teenagers about the darker side of existence is harmful to the teenagers but the opposite tends to be true. If death is something that cannot be openly discussed you may create a sense of taboo in your teenager that can interfere with their attempts to understand and cope. 
Expressions of love are very important at this time. Feelings of being loved and important to parents takes some of the edge off and allows the teenager to explore their fears in a more productive way. It can be helpful to speak to your teenager about the ways in which you as an adult cope with the certainty of eventual death. This can take the shape of religious or spiritual beliefs or whatever philosophy or strategy is helpful to you. Say these things as an example of how one person deals with death but don't get pushy or preachy. Do not pressure them to cope in the same way you do, especially if you feel resistence. You should say that it is everyone's personal quest to answer the question of how to cope with the knowledge of their own deaths and that you as a parent will be there to support their efforts to do this with love and acceptance. 

A certain amount of brooding and time alone thinking is normal when teenagers face this challenge. Some light and loving checking in with them might be all that is required here. However, if you notice that grades are dropping, that they are loosing interest in things, that they feel stuck, have stopped socializing or talk about killing themselves it is a sign that your teenager needs extra help. Psychotherapy can be very helpful to both teenagers and parents in this situation and there is no responsible reason to postpone starting. 


Better Advice To Help Teenagers Socialize

I often see teenagers who have difficulty socializing with their peers.  Anxiety is often at the heart of this difficulty. In general, these teenagers are occupied with ideas of being judged, rejected, or attacked in some social sense (For example: having rumors spread about them). After having this problem for a while teenagers usually seek help or someone notices them struggling and tries to help them. This help usually comes in the form of advice about how to start conversations, keep them going and avoid silences.  Although this is well intentioned I believe that it can do more harm than good. 
Teenagers who try to take this kind of mechanistic advice on conversations start to see talking to their peers as a task that is done well or done badly. They spend time before and during conversations trying hard to prepare for what they are going to say next, how to react well, how to keep the person they are talking to entertained and they loose sight of the real function of conversations! The real function of talking to people in casual, non-goal oriented ways is to establish an emotional connection. So, instead of feeling for a connection, something that may or may not happen (and it's OK if it doesn't happen), these anxious teenagers spend their time evaluating their performances and even if they are successful in these attempts they end up missing an important point and it can end up feeling fake. So, even if they end up making a friend that person is not friends with the real them! 
Friendships and emotional connections are not forced. They are not jobs well done.
Better analogies for helping teenagers understand conversations are improvisational art works like jazz, unstructured dancing, rap battles, and visual art with an element of randomness and chaos. It's not about forcing it, making it happen or doing a good job. It's about allowing the experience to unfold in a spontaneous, non-intellectual, non-rational way. The outcome of these kinds of artistic expression is not know before it has already started to be created. Even novels are often written in this way. 
Trying to predict where improvisational art is going to go and what is going to come out of it is obviously a ridiculous task! You'll never be able to! So the message is this: don't try and don't try not to try. There is no way to prepare for a genuine and spontaneous conversation that results in an emotional connection. 
Explaining conversations to teenagers in this way can help them to shift their attention and stop them trying to make cumbersome advice work. 
Some teenager may be afraid that this kind of approach to conversations leaves the door open to may too many mistakes. Here the common anxieties kick in. Fears of rejection, judgement, offending, attacks. One of the most helpful things to tell teenagers when this comes up is: Yes! Those things will eventually happen to you. They happen to everyone. Forget about avoiding these experiences. Surrender to them. Going through experiences like that can be very helpful to improve your conversations if you allow yourself to suffer them, think about them, learn from them, and talk to trusted people about them. Again, this is something you don't have to try to do. It happens automatically when you feel fully, reflect on, and come to an understanding of your experiences. 
This way of explaining conversations also undermines a common fantasy related to the idea that conversations are jobs well done and it is this: If I do this job well enough I can avoid everything that I am afraid will happen in the conversation. This is totally wrong and the opposite tends to be true. The harder you try, the longer you're stuck in a situation where these things are likely to happen to you. At this point parents can be helpful and say something like: Yes, you will get hurt. But, you're strong! And you can take it!


Help! My Teenager Thinks Psychedelics Are Healthy!

Hearing your teenager tell you that psychedelic drugs (For example: LSD AKA Acid, hallucinogenic mushrooms, DMT, mescaline AKA peyote, as well as various mind altering plants and synthetic compounds) are helpful can be extremely disturbing and shocking.  Common justifications include ones that boil down to the two arguments left over from the 60's counter culture - taking psychedelics offers consciousness explanation and spiritual enlightenment.  When I hear parents tell me their stories they are often convinced that their teenagers have been brainwashed by what friends and the internet have to say on the subject.  It is usually the more curious teenager, willing to do some research that is at risk of coming to the dangerous conclusion that not only are psychedelics harmless and worthwhile but that they themselves should take them for their own good or to find answers to their problems.  Although it is true that people have had positive and helpful experiences under the influence of psychedelic drugs and that there is research to support this the reality of the situation is much more complex than that and there are serious risks that every teenager interested self-experimentation with these powerful drugs should understand.  
I believe that teenagers become convinced that they personally should try psychedelics in an effort to heal or better themselves as a result of incomplete research on the subject. When judging risks teenagers naturally tend to emphasize the positive and downplay the negative. This is not something to be angry with them about but it is an opportunity for you as a parent to help them understand this complex subject more fully. Starting with a sentence like, "Wow, you've discovered something very powerful and interesting and there's a lot to this story you should understand." can be a positive way to start a conversation about psychedelics with your teenager.  An excellent book detailing the risks and rewards of LSD psychotherapy in research settings is called Realms of the Human Unconscious by Dr. Stanislav Grof. This books makes the dangerous risks of unsupervised self-experimentation with LSD very clear and I believe that the conclusions can be applied to other psychedelics. 
The first thing that teenagers should understand about the major psychedelics is that there has been A LOT of research investigating these chemicals and that there is a very real dark side to the use of these drugs. This is particularly the case for the most common and available ones, like LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Teenagers who know there has been research on these drugs have usually read a few articles that may have extolled the "amazing benefits" of them in clinical research settings or in other settings with strict medical and psychological supervision. Parents should highlight what "clinical research and supervision" actually means.  It means that the drugs used in the study are verifiable pure and free of contaminants (not the case on the black market where there is a real risk of amphetamine and other kinds of contamination). It means that there are knowledgable people standing by in case of emergencies both physical and psychological (not available outside a research setting). It means that specially trained people have been there actively participating to make the experience for the person a helpful one (also not available outside a research setting). The main point being that positive research findings with these powerful compounds do not just happen without the active participation of highly trained professionals.  A additional point to mention is that there have also been experiments conducted where participants have NOT had the advantage of specific psychological treatment during and after psychedelic sessions and those studies FAILED to show positive effects.  LSD and other psychedelics are powerful drugs that work as intended when administered by experts and the research is still being done.  A useful analogy would be self - experimentation with anesthetic drugs. The side effects of self experimentation with anesthetics could be disasterous but in the hands of a capable anesthesiologist they make life saving surgery possible. Being honest about the reality of the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics is important. To dismiss these facts can damage your credibility in the eyes of your teenager and make it very much easier for them to dismiss everything you have to say on the subject. You're job here is to continue to educate them on the whole story, not shut everything down. 
Professional assistance during psychedelic research is essential to guard against what are called "prolonged reactions" these are the dreaded flashbacks, depressions, anxieties, regressions, worsening of symptoms, and reckless and dangerous behavior that can result from psychedelic experiences that go bad - the lasting and potentially terrifying effects of "bad trips". It also been my personal experience with patients that these effects can qualify as traumatic. These are exactly the risks inherent in self experimentation with psychedelics and they are powerful. 
Another useful way to understand psychedelics are as psychological amplifiers and defense mechanism dissolvers that allow unconscious material to blast through into consciousness. An important point to make about this is that things are unconscious for a reason. Unconscious material includes aspects of an individual person's psychology that the person him or herself will find deeply disturbing and unacceptable. We all have unconscious skeletons in the closet! Under the influence of a psychedelic one risks coming into intense, overwhelming and unavoidable contact with the most personally objectionable parts of oneself. This can be helpful if there are specifically trained mental health professions around to help you work through it but if they its just your friends there you risk opening up deep wounds with no way to heal them and producing an intensely negative and unhelpful prolonged reaction that may last months or years. The message is: your good intentions can seriously backfire. 
Teenage interest in psychedelics also implies that there is a genuine and essentially healthy interest in the teenager to learn, grow and heal. Having a conversation about what he or she would like to better or improve in him or herself can be very eye opening for parents and make it much easier for parents to help their teenagers. The good news is that these concerns are perfectly addressable in psychotherapy without the risks associated with the use of powerful psychoactive drugs. 
So, yes. There is a potential for therapeutic use of psychedelics when administered by knowledgeable and specially training professionals, but the vast majority of mental health professionals available today are totally unqualified to do this very specialized work. These potentially useful techniques are still being researched and there are no easily available ways out side of a research study to benefit from them at this time. A fuller understanding of this may also help teenagers who are tempted to see psychedelics as magic bullets that will cure them of all their problems see the bigger picture. Psychedelics are not magic bullets.  Amateur use of any powerful tool is a risky endeavor fraught with the possibility of things going bad in ways you never expected. 

Is My Teenager Emotionally Strong? Or Bottling Up Feelings?

It's a common belief. Being strong means not showing emotions, pain or vulnerability. In reality the habit of bottling up feelings tends to be based on fear of what might happen if you let the feelings out. For teenagers who do not have much experience in managing unpleasant or painful feelings this can be particularly difficult.  Further complicating the situation, teenagers can be going through a phase where they believe that their reactions are being very closely watched and judged by everyone and they can feel intense self-consciousness, making it even more difficult to take the chance of trying to express their feelings. Teenagers may also not have been exposed to the rationale of expressing feelings. Parents can be very helpful in addressing this unhealthy state and there are several things they can do to teach their teenagers the value of opening up. 

It can be important for parents to review how they may have contributed to their teenager's tendency to bottle emotions up. Being honest with your teenager about these and apologizing when appropriate can make your teenager feel a lot better about opening up. Some common ways parents unintentionally contribute to bottling up feelings are:

1.  Trying to convince your teenager that they should not be feeling a particular emotion or that some emotions are wrong. 

2. Getting angry at teenagers for feelings certain things or giving them the cold shoulder when certain feelings come up. 

3. Dismissing certain feelings as unimportant. 

4. Telling teenagers that their feelings are too intense or that they are being dramatic when they express pain.

5. Trying to solve the problem instead of allowing them to share their feelings and trying to understand. 

6. Telling them directly to be strong (meaning do not show your feelings).

Every parent sometimes makes the mistakes listed above, or says these things at the wrong time. Being honest about your mistakes can have a great breaking-the-ice effect and make talking about feeling much easier.

It's helpful to remind yourself as parents that emotions are not decisions. They are involuntary reactions and in that way they are never "wrong". The appropriate way to deal with emotions is to see them as being entitled to full expression followed by attempts to make sense of them. Treating emotions in this way will allow them to take their course, be processed and contribute to the emotional maturity and intelligence of your teenager. This is a much healthier approach than bottling emotions up and raising the risk of an explosive and unhelpful release when they can't take it anymore.  

It may also be very helpful to talk to teenagers about their fears regarding opening up. These tend to be fears related to feeling weak, being judged, being attacked, or a lack of trust. There may be a lot of work to do surrounding trust before your teenager feels able to share certain things with you. Gently reassuring them that you will do your best to treat them well when they express their feelings can be enough to get the ball rolling as well as asking them directly to trust you. There is also a lot of value in being able to respectfully wait and earn their trust if they are not ready to give it right now. Explaining that real strength is not in avoiding powerful emotions but in facing them might also help.

When speaking to your teenager about opening up emotionally it is also very helpful to remind them that sometimes they are right to put their feelings on hold and that it does reflect a strength they have, but that there is also a time and place to express and understand emotions and that doing so is essential for their own mental health. Tell them that you as a loving parent would like them to feel comfortable sharing their emotional lives with you and that when you are interested in making time for them to do that. 

While it can be clear to parents that their teenagers are having trouble expressing their emotions it is useful to pay attention to certain signs that this is happening. 

1. Their facial expression does not match what they are telling you. 
    If your teenager is crying or frowning and telling you that they are fine they may be making a strong effort to bottle up their feelings and avoid the painful task of expressing them. Gently calling them out and encouraging them to share can be very helpful in these situations. Let them know that they do not have to hide their feelings from you and that you want to understand what they are going through. If you have been able to help your teenager cry and share what is upsetting them your only task is to try to understand them and offer tender emotional support. Trust me this can be enough! 

2. If your teenager almost never shares feelings of sadness, pain, hurt, disappointment. 
    Even for the most well adjusted and psychologically healthy people there's no avoiding psychological pain. Mental health is not characterized by an absence of psychological pain it is characterized by the presence of strong and effective ways of managing that pain. Nobody is happy all the time. So if this is how your teenager is telling you his or her life is they may be very good and convincing people that they never struggle emotionally. It is safe to assume that there is pain there somewhere. It is possible that they may be genuinely unaware of their pain but the only other alternative is that they are having trouble expressing it and end up bottling it up. Talking to your teenager about the value of opening up and sharing feelings will let them know that when they are ready you will be there interested in helping them do that. 

3. There are periodic emotionally intense explosions.
    This is a clear sign that things have been building up. It is helpful to remind teenagers that they do not have to wait for the situation to become unbearable before they allow themselves to talk about it or seek emotional support. Tell them that they should take their emotions seriously when they come up and make efforts to express it and talk about. It's these seemingly small and manageable chunks of emotion that build up to produce overwhelming emotional situations. 

Of course sometimes we all get in over our heads and the best most sensible advice doesn't help. If you find yourself in this spot with your teenager don't be afraid to seek profession help. Even if your teenager refuses to participate in therapy a capable therapist will be able to help you improve your ability to relate to your teenager and in time your teenager may be open to the possibility of working directly with a therapist. Having your teenager see you go to therapy and seeing things improve as a result sends a very positive message of being humble enough to get help when you need it as well as giving the message that they do not have to do it alone. 

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