Tripping Over the Ordinary

Youth Specialties
August 14th, 2016

People in crisis trip over everyday things.

This is not always easy for teenagers to see, because everyday things is still a rapidly shifting category for them. But for people who know what to look for, these stumbles over the ordinary can be the first signs of trouble … clues others may recall only later, when they’re trying to make sense of a crisis: That should have told me something was wrong.

When people get tangled up by things everyone knows they do every day, and normal routines grind to a halt, their friends can see that something’s wrong, right? We can teach teenagers to recognize patterns that reveal when a friend needs help. They can learn to see that a crisis can make an organized person disorganized … turn decisive people wishy-washy … incite wishy-washy people to startling, even dangerous, choices.

Crisis can cause what may look like lapses of memory, embarrassing omissions, head slapping mistakes when they first appear … until one day, we think, Who is this? I don’t even recognize this person. Help teenagers understand that when competent people stumble and sprawl over ordinary things, it’s a signal to pay attention.

What sort of things…

Disrupted Sleep: Teenagers in crisis can’t get out of bed …

  • they sleep too much
  • or they sleep too little, laying awake at night, hyper-alert, or panicky, or just staring at the dark
  • then they’re exhausted all day

Abnormal Eating: Crisis can drive teenagers who have been healthy eaters all their lives to suddenly engage in binge eating …

  • or starving themselves
  • or swinging back and forth between the two
  • or binge eating and then purging or exercising beyond reason

Distorted Thinking: Anyone can have a bad day, but crisis can trick a teenager who is reliably sensible most of the time into saying and doing things that are irrational …

  • unreasonable
  • non-logical
  • against his best interests

… and not because he thought it through and decided it’s worth the risk … not because, reacting to a real emergency, he’s rushed in to save a toddler from a house fire … He makes high-risk decisions impulsively, and later, when a friend asks, “What were you thinking?” all he can say is, “I don’t know. I just… I don’t know…”

Or, at the other end of the spectrum, a normally curious, even adventurous person—someone who often swings for the fence—seems …

  • stuck
  • afraid to move
  • unable to make decisions
  • paralyzed

Disorientation: Teenagers in crisis seem as if they’ve lost their sense of direction, wandered off into the tall grass and got lost … They may not be themselves for a while. If a teenager who has always been trustworthy, loyal, brave and true …

  • suddenly turns on friends
  • lies to them
  • tries to use friends to get something that now seems more important than anything else

… does that prove she’s in a crisis? No, but it certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable to regard those behaviors as signs that she may have gone off course. If something big happened, it’s easy enough to make sense of the disorientation.  But if someone seems to wander off for no good reason … or no apparent reason … if the shift is gradual or occurs out of sight, even attentive friends can miss the signals.

Switching Off: Crisis can stop even highly motivated teenagers in their tracks …

  • reduce decisive individuals to inaction
  • leave them bogged down, maybe indefinitely

Teenagers in crisis say things, like, God, please don’t let this have happened … and may then waste so much energy wishing something different had happened that the next obvious step isn’t obvious to them at all.

Switching off looks like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations … Stuck in a dark room … wishing for a better ending … looked after by servants, but not friends. In fairness, being swindled and jilted at the altar isn’t an ordinary breakup … Miss Havisham didn’t fall—she was pushed. But feeling abandoned and brokenhearted is certainly not unheard of in high school. Pretty much every teenager knows someone who’s taken a breakup very badly. So, maybe the point stands: For a teenager in crisis, without attentive friends, there may be no obvious next step, let alone the energy to discover one.

Drifting Away: Ask teenagers if they’ve ever seen friends abandon a pattern of dependability … suddenly throwing themselves into something that consumed an out-sized share of time, attention, energy, or money? How did they make sense of that? It’s easy to spout platitudes. People explain away a friend’s abnormal decline in school performance … or an uncommon retreat into secrecy … or an unexpected obsession with a curious behavior by saying, “It’s just a phase.” or, “Well, people change.…”

It’s natural to look at unexpected changes of habit and try to explain them simply:

  • the shift is a reaction to failure
  • or it’s an overreaction to success
  • or it’s a ripple effect from a change in relationship status

Falling back on simple explanations is not just a teenage thing—youth workers do it too …

  • He used to come around all the time
  • I guess he just changed

But that’s only guessing, isn’t it….

Help teenagers understand that significant change seldom happens in one swift step. Sure, there are tipping points when new thinking, beliefs, attitudes, and relationships give rise to new behavior — maybe healthy and maybe not. And sometimes the flow works in the other direction, starting from new behavior and moving toward new thinking, beliefs, attitudes, and relationships. Either way, such moments — to the extent they are actually moments and not something more like snapshots that leave out what happened before and what happens next — may not be repeatable, let alone sustainable.

Real change most often happens over time, in a series of small steps. From a distance, those small movements may give the impression of one giant step. But if we look closer, we don’t often see a person who simply stepped away one day … what we see is a person who drifted away, inch by inch, while we were looking elsewhere. That doesn’t mean it’s our fault … it is what it is … now what?

Shutting Down: Teenagers in crisis experience denial, fear, anger, wonder, regret, confusion, embarrassment, doubt, isolation … it can be a lot to sort out. Even the best and brightest tend to falter if they sense control slipping from their grasp. When the system overloads, non-essential functions may shut down, at least temporarily.

What that looks like in real life is emotional numbness. Bad feelings may become so painful that a person tries to close down the whole operation … even the good feelings … to protect against the bad ones. Shutting down may include …

  • withdrawing into excessive sleeping
  • downer music, poetry, and visual art
  • alcohol and sedative abuse
  • comfort eating
  • prolonged brooding

… all clues a close friend might investigate to find out if all is well.

Anyone may pull an all-nighter from time to time … or sleep past noon … or lay around all weekend… On occasion, just about everyone eats way more than necessary, over-indulging on turkey dinner, ribs, ice cream, endless bread sticks … or decides to cut back for a few days because they feel bloated, or maybe to observe a period of religious fasting. Even reliably sensible teenagers sometimes act without thinking, leap first and hope for the best … or struggle to make a choice between competing alternatives … Mostly, these episodes are passing expressions of ordinary humanness. But sometimes teenagers will see a friend who doesn’t function normally for weeks at a time. Help teenagers understand that, when they see that, it’s not a sign their friend has suddenly and inexplicably changed … chances are, it’s a sign their friend is in trouble. And maybe they can help.

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jim HancockJim Hancock writes books, designs curricula and makes digital movies for youth workers, parents and teenagers. A lot of his work is at thetinycompanycalledme.com. Jim attended his first National Youth Workers Convention with Youth Specialties in 1980. Since then, he’s missed just three conventions.

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