Out of the Woods
Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens was written by Hauser, Allen and Golden in 2008. Seventy deeply troubled teenagers spend weeks, months, even years on a locked psychiatric ward. They were not just failing in school, not just using drugs. They were out of control—in trouble with the law, unpredictable, dangerous and violent or suicidal. Their futures were at risk. How did they turn their lives around?
The doctors found that early childhood experiences are important. Resilience once was thought to be someone who was invulnerable, invincible and a super kid. The authors redefine resilience as someone who is able to lead a fairly normal life after depression and abuse. What are the risk factors for kids in trouble? Poverty, racism, divorce, illness, early parent loss and abuse. What protects kids from getting into trouble? Wealth, beauty, intelligence, optimism and faith. While isolation can create problems for teens, learning how to connect with others can save them.
Many of the teens complained that no one loved them, not unconditionally anyway. But they had to go beyond realizing that feeling to move on. Being able to reflect upon their lives and their feelings critically was important. They had to come to feel they had agency in their lives—or that they mattered and had power in their lives. Many of the teens felt like their behavior was detached from themselves. They didn’t feel their actions had meaning. Meaning needed to come into place for them to change their ways.
When the teens were in therapy the doctors noticed something important. Everyone has a narrative they tell about their lives and themselves. If the narrative was coherent then they had a better chance of understanding their problems and fixing them. A breakdown in coherence meant that the teen was in a very unhealthy place and therapy wasn’t going to be helpful. Glib generalizations and glazing over the negative thoughts, feelings and actions made it hard to help them. Why was this? Well, the less feeling a person can tolerate the harder it is to keep an emotionally intense narrative organized.
The teens that were resilient had a thirst for agency and they were very much self-aware. They learned from their mistakes and could be optimistic about their futures. They were able to redefine their understanding of things and change their perspectives. Resilient kids and teens don’t focus on escape. Rather, they utilize survival skills. They were able “surf” their anger instead of letting their anger control them. However, the doctors realized that a teen’s emptiness inside was far more dangerous than their rage. These teens suffered an appalling number of losses, abuses, inconsistencies, rejections and abandonments. Still, they were willing to keep looking for love and try new relationships. They didn’t shut off or shut down.
It was no surprise that storytelling abilities turned out to be an important skill in being resilient. The first step, no matter where you are, is to learn to see in the dark. Only then can you find your way out of the woods.