Have an Alienated Teen? Most Make an Adjustment as they Mature
At 15, Thomas wears dark clothing, listens to gangsta hip hop and heavy metal music with violent themes, and has several strange tattoos on his neck and arms.
Lisa, who is 14, wears very masculine clothing, has several rings on her face, chest, and stomach, and she views herself as an outcast at school. She says she hates the other girls at her suburban school because “they are all stuck up.”
Sixteen-year-old Mario disliked school from the time he was in elementary school. He hated school work, was aggressive toward other children, and by middle school knew he would drop out as soon as he could. He hangs around with older teens who have dropped out of school and with whom he feels he has something in common.
All three of these adolescents are alienated from school, the community, and even their families. Their parents and their siblings don’t understand them and wonder why they are so estranged from mainstream values and middle class society. However, there are many – perhaps millions – of young people in this country who similarly feel like they are different and that they don’t fit in with conventional society.
In any high school, you’ll find groups of kids who go by various changing designations. They may call themselves or be called by others such names as goths, skaters, metals, punks, emos, gamers, geeks, hip hops, or gangsters. Of course, every adolescent is trying to fit in with some group – whether it’s with other athletes, debaters, musicians, cheer leaders, or high achievers. Often such groups provide “homes” for teens who don’t fit in elsewhere. And these groups of kids can be temporary or transitional, or they can be a group or a gang which will serve a purpose for several years. Whether these various groups co-exist or have rivalries and hostilities, they serve as a stew of different identities to help often vulnerable young people find an identity and their own place in the teenage world.
Unless you work in a high school or spend a great deal of time with adolescents, you may be unaware of these various subgroups. And until you have a son or daughter who finds a strange group of alienated and disaffected young people to call their friends, it‘s easy to avoid or ignore the all-to-common groups of estranged young people we have in our society. It’s when your teen shows up with rings in their face or bizarre tattoos or ritual scarification on their body, that you might become concerned. It’s then when you might start asking some serious questions about what’s going on:
“Why is my kid so alienated?” “Why does my daughter act like an outcast?” “Why does my son dress like that? It’s embarrassing!”
Why do teens feel alienated from mainstream society? And what does it mean? Is he likely to act in an aggressive way? Or is she psychologically disturbed?
These are legitimate questions. And they are questions that not only get asked by parents but also by sociologists and criminal justice experts?
Ask almost any member of a subgroup why they dress differently, listen to different music, or behave differently, and the answers will be fairly predictable: “I want to be an individual,” they might say. Or, “I don’t fit in with the popular kids.” Or, “I don’t want to be boring like everyone else.” For many kids who join a small and unpopular subgroup, they believe they don’t fit in with most other kids and they see themselves as different.
For some of these adolescents, alienation from the broader society began early in school. For some, it happened as early as the first grade. For these young people, school lacked relevance for them. They often didn’t see school as having a pay-off for them. Or they never hit it off with other children. They, thus, turn to other kids who feel the same way.
As we know from follow-up analysis of teens who were involved in school shootings, nearly all school shooters felt alienated and had been exposed to acute or chronic rejection from their peers. Recent research confirms that when alienated youth experience peer ridicule, teasing, and rejection, they are more likely to aggress against those who have made life miserable for them.
However, most alienated youth find a more positive and more conventional social group as they leave high school and enter the adult world. If your child is estranged from mainstream society during the turbulent adolescent years, it doesn’t mean they will feel (and behave) like an outcast forever. The majority develop a better sense of who they are and how they fit in with a positive group of friends as they mature.
As a parent, you can aid their transition to a more conventional life style by avoiding confrontations and lectures, offering acceptance (despite your fears and concerns), and by celebrating their uniqueness. It’s not easy, of course, but railing at them for being so unconventional and different is more likely to lead to more serious alienation and a rejection of you and your values.
What Can You Do When Your Teenager Runs Away from Home?
Mary Lynn, age 14, ran away from home because she said she didn’t like living with her parents. However, for several weeks prior to running away, her mother and father were aware of changes in her personality. She was more withdrawn, was skipping classes at school, lied frequently, and was angry much of the time. It wasn’t until she ran away that her parents discovered she had a boyfriend and she was involved in drug use.
Boyd, age 16, left home after an argument with his stepfather. The argument became physical and his stepfather punched him in the face. Boyd stormed out of the house saying he was never coming back. Before this argument there were several altercations between Boyd and his stepfather, with several resulting in his stepfather hitting Boyd with his fists or a belt. Boyd had been determined to stick it out at home because he loved his mother, but he just couldn’t take the abuse by his stepfather.
Lejeanne, age 15, ran away after she was slapped by her mother during an argument about her school grades. Lejeanne said she wasn’t going to live in a house where she was abused and she preferred to live with people who loved her and respected her. Leajeanne and her mother didn’t have many arguments, but their arguments when they occurred were often intense that often left both of their crying.
It is not uncommon for adolescents to run away from home. Often, they return home within a day or so, and the problems leading to the truancy get worked out. However, in general, teens run away from home because of communication problems between themselves and their parents.
But sometimes, as in the case of Mary Lynn, there can be other factors that lead adolescents to want to leave home. Many teens are abused by a parent. This is especially true for girls who experience physical or sexual abuse. For some, like Mary Lynn, they have difficulty making the transition to adolescence and may get involved with older boys, seek out peer relationships with negative peers, or may begin using drugs or alcohol. These same adolescents may find the rules at home too restrictive and prefer to live elsewhere so they have more freedom and independence.
Sometimes, because both the teen and his parents need a cooling off period, allowing them to spend a few days with a friend or a relative can lead to a successful reunion when they return home. This was true for Lejeanne, who accused her mother of abusing her. While their argument clearly got out of hand, there was no pattern of abuse in the relationship. When Lejeanne had a few days to calm down at her grandmother’s house, she realized this and returned home. At home both Lejeanne and her mother apologized to each other and talked about ways to keep their disagreements and arguments under better control.
But suppose your adolescent doesn’t want to return home?
This is exactly what happened with Mary Lynn.
Her mother recognized that they needed to rebuild their relationship with each other and talk about what she was experiencing and why she ran away. However, before she returned home, she began hanging with her previous friends who were older, more involved in drugs, and uninterested in school. While Mary Lynn’s mother thought they were making progress in their phone conversations, Mary Lynn told her mother she wasn’t coming back home. She said she would run away again if forced to live at home or with a relative.
When a teen is below the age of 16, they really don’t have much choice but to return home and try to work out the problems. A teen can be reported to the police as a runaway and a complaint can be filed with the juvenile court. Obviously, teens are minors and incapable of making decisions about their life. But the purpose of a police report and a juvenile court complaint is not to punish a teen or get them in trouble, but to force them to return home and for the family to get help.
A runaway adolescent should be regarded as a symptom of a family problem and the help should involve the parents and teen seeing a therapist. If you file a complaint in the juvenile court and the case is accepted, the adolescent is likely to be placed on probation with specific restrictions. Since parents can’t stop a determined teen from running away, some back-up help is needed. That’s where a juvenile court can be helpful.