treating teen abandonment and divorce issues

Treating Teen Abandonment & Trauma

The single most common factor in adolescent behavioral problems is a sense of abandonment

Teens Struggling With Divorce and Adoption

October 22, 2015

It is almost impossible to ascribe every adolescent behavioral problem to a single cause, but according to the Treatment Team at Elk River Treatment Program, a very common factor is the sense of abandonment resulting from family-related problems such as persistent quarreling, divorce and revelations about adoption.

According to the American Psychological Association, the divorce rate in the United States is around 40% to 50%. The mental health professionals at the Elk River Treatment Program (ERTP) know that children are not the only ones affected by these troublesome statistics — millions of American families are suffering as well.

ERTP Clinicians Jane Baker and Dr. Wayne Wilson presented “Treating Adolescents in the Residential Milieu” at the 26th annual ATTACh (Association for the Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children) conference in Orlando.

Whether a child’s feelings of abandonment are fact-based or only perceived as such, ERTP’s diagnostic, assessment, and intervention program helps adolescents:

  • Identify feelings of abandonment
  • Uncover the root cause of those feelings
  • Understand why they feel the way they do
  • Find ways to come to terms with those feelings so they can move forward building positive relationships in the future

The apprehension and anxiety associated with feelings of abandonment can pervade every aspect of a child’s life, negatively affect family relationships, the ability to interact socially, and engage in personal relationships and intimacy.

By constructing an environment built around respect, acceptance, accountability, and logical consequences, enhanced by individual, one-on-one counseling, group counseling with peers and family therapy, the residential program at ERTP helps teens overcome their abandonment issues. They learn to care for themselves, communicate their needs from a calm perspective, and build trust in themselves and others.

The Trauma of Divorce

Outside of the death of an immediate family member, divorce along with the events leading up to it, is most likely the most traumatic event a family will experience, according to counselors at ERTP. The separation from one or both parents brings a child's world (as they know it) to an abrupt end.

Although divorce does not always involve permanent abandonment, a family in trouble and facing divorce, goes through a series of adjustments that can last years. During the early stages of marital problems, many parents are preoccupied with their own anger and hostility towards each other, during which their parenting skills suffer as a result. Many children begin to feel ignored and rejected, culminating in feelings of guilt about being the cause of the problems. School performance declines and attention to homework and interaction with other children become unimportant to them.

During this period, children tend to fantasize that their parents will reconcile. When it does not occur, feelings of great loss, combined with anger and sadness, often contribute to a child’s fear of losing the love of one or both parents. Insecurity and loneliness may manifest in risk-taking behaviors, defiance, truancy from school, drug and alcohol use, sex, self-harm, theft, and even violence.

This is often the time that parents turn to professionals for help. Both Dr. Wilson and Ms. Baker worked in private practice for many years before joining ERTP. “As a therapist in private practice, I made many referrals to Elk River because of their success with children with abandonment issues,” Ms. Baker said. “When I referred a child here, they got better. The beautiful thing about this program is that we’re able to address not only the child’s needs but also the family's needs. I think that is really the core strength of why this program is so different and much more successful,” Ms. Baker said.

“When the opportunity came for me to work here, I thought that would be a good transition for me to be able to take what I had been doing in private practice and work with a team of clinicians and a team of people that are just as skilled as I am in being able to look at that grief, and loss, and family dynamic piece. It’s really nice to be part of a team that can address all of that for these families,” she said.

“Group counseling with other teens in their peer group, is one of the most effective tools for discovering, affirming, and dealing with feelings of abandonment,” added Dr. Wilson who has worked with families and teens for more than 30 years.

The “Lucky Ones” Adoption Myth

Several abandonment issues may arise among adopted adolescents, usually related to self-esteem, a sense of isolation, questions about being ‘different’, and resentment towards the birth mother. The most common questions teens ask once they are old enough to understand adoption or discover they are adopted are:

  • Why didn’t my birth mother want me?
  • What would my life be like if I hadn’t been adopted?
  • Where is my birth mother now?
  • Who was my father?
  • Do I have other siblings and where are they?

Many adopted children are constantly told they are “lucky” to have been adopted, but as they mature into young teens with all the natural questions adolescents are faced with such as Who am I and what is my place in life, many adopted children are left with more “unknowns” than a child who knows their birth parents.

Already separated from their birth parents, adopted teens may develop fears of rejection from their adoptive parents — especially if death or divorce strikes that family. “They may experience lack of self-esteem due to physical characteristics pertaining to heritage. They may suffer from a lack of self-confidence due to genetics such as blonde hair when everyone else in the family has brown hair. Every time they look in the mirror, it triggers feelings of isolation from their parents and non-adopted siblings,” Ms. Baker explained.

ERTP uses a variety of therapeutic tools to help teens identify the driving factors behind depression, anger, substance abuse or other negative behaviors. With therapeutic intervention without distractions, teens begin to understand the relationship between their issues and their behaviors.

“There is a lot of reward when you see families and children be able to overcome trauma, adversity, grief and loss, and be able to put those pieces back together and to go on and have a reasonably healthy family life existence. Very often we see children with so much grief, so much locked down, unidentified grief. They just know that they think the world is really unsafe and adults are not safe and there is no one they can really trust. Their behaviors are just screaming all over the place about how deeply wounded they really are. So when you see a child able to finally get ahold of that – and work through that, and then be able to go home and finish their life pretty well – that’s huge. You really can’t put words to that,” Ms. Baker said.