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Wounded and confused adolescents – some pastoral markers

This essay focusses on the pastoral guidance of adolescents who struggle with emotional wounds which, in many instances, were inflicted during and have continued to exist since early childhood. The woundedness of young people is related to the nature of adolescence. The process of growing up is further complicated by the trauma, crises and emotional wounding of young people during this phase. One of the consequences is that they, in turn, tend to wound those around them. Breaking this cycle of negativity poses a major challenge, as it is often accompanied by resistance in these young people because of their having learned harmful survival and coping mechanisms.

Against this background the following question was considered: To what extent can pastoral counselling eventually achieve healing in wounded adolescents?

Regarding methodology, the theoretical framework of the study is based on an integrated eclectic approach that draws on the fields of pastoral care, positive psychology, inner healing, the so-called strengths perspective and the inner child perspective, as well as insights from the growth model and recovery movement.

It has been shown that the early formative years of a person’s life are crucial. If a child’s most basic needs are not met, this lack may result in emotional wounding with lifelong effects. For example, people need unconditional acceptance and love. They also need the assurance that they will not be hurt, harmed or rejected, for them to feel protected against physical, emotional and material hurt. Furthermore, they want recognition and positive affirmation of their gifts and abilities, along with the constant assurance that others will support and guide them. The decisive influence of the formative years is also apparent from unresolved pain carried forward into the adolescent years and from there into young adulthood and adulthood itself.

In adolescents emotional wounding usually leads to a number of characteristic behavioural patterns, which may be categorised into two major groups: reactions that either “act in” (inwardly) or “act out” (outwardly). Adolescents who act in would, for instance, keep their pain to themselves. They do not confide in, or discuss their problems with, anybody, hoping instead that these problems will disappear of their own accord. Others react by acting out their feelings and pain in their behaviour, words or attitudes. This often manifests in impulsive acts that are attempts to release accumulated internal tension. For example, bullying, aggression, rebelliousness and vandalism are sometimes the result of adolescents acting out their inner pain.

Regarding general guidelines for counsellors, the emphasis in this article is firstly on creating a secure therapeutic climate in which wounded adolescents are allowed to express their anger and negative emotions verbally. Confidentiality is a cardinal issue. Furthermore it is important to lay out the relevant facts; some wounded adolescents may find it meaningful to express their feelings in writing. Certain key questions may also lead to a breakthrough, such as establishing where adolescents learned their acting-out behaviour, whether they have been wounded by such behaviour, and how such behaviour has impacted on them, their families and their friends. It is also important to ascertain the consequences of acting out for the adolescents themselves, and whether their friends were or are involved in this behaviour in any way.

Progress in the process of healing is dependent on adolescents’ willing and active participation. This implies a return to God. Emotionally traumatised young people often experience God as being absent, which may lead them to distancing themselves from God. In a religious context counsellors may point out to such youths that God greatly desires to heal the wounds of those who turn to him.

Emotionally wounded adolescents probably have dysfunctional images and impressions of themselves because of having heard stories about, and having been exposed to certain events in, their childhood. All these aspects need to be traced and eventually eliminated. Guiding principles in this regard may include identifying negative life patterns, identifying negative rules that have helped them to survive in times of crisis, making time to listen to their stories, looking out for any symptoms of posttraumatic stress, revisiting the original trauma during conversations under the guidance of the counsellor, focusing on defusing harmful emotions, replacing, with the true facts, all the inaccuracies that have been established over the years due to lack of guidance and sometimes overwhelming trauma, and making new choices and decisions regarding such misconceptions.

Acknowledgement is a further step in adolescents’ active participation in the healing process. The counsellor needs to encourage them to acknowledge the harmful nature of the ways in which they have tried to weather the storms of life in the past. The wounded inner child often tends to be angry, hurt and vengeful. Within a religious context adolescents should receive the support that will enable them to remove their masks and to risk seeing themselves as special, unique creatures of God. Adolescents may also be encouraged and assisted to visualise their wounded inner child, which will serve as a symbolic act of self-acceptance and self-love. In some cases it may also be necessary to guide young people through a process of bereavement regarding unresolved pain and loss in their past.

By this stage in the therapeutic process, adolescents usually realise that unhealthy behaviour serves no further purpose and should, therefore, be replaced by healthy patterns of behaviour. This insight generally causes them to search for spiritual maturity, which is determined by religious values and content. Spiritually mature young people have come to accept their strengths and weaknesses. Their own identity, which may have been repressed for years due to emotional pain and rejection, usually takes shape during this stage in the process. Professional guidance and facilitation will become necessary at this point to establish and identify new boundaries.

The final step in weathering the storm requires that wounded adolescents open themselves up to the joys of life once more and that they embrace with gratitude the healing that is being realised in their lives. The abovementioned guidelines should put emotionally wounded adolescents on the path towards increasing discovery and eventual realisation of their God-given personality, with all the gifts and talents it includes.

Keywords: young people; adolescents; emotional woundedness; pastoral counselling; eclectic approach; acting in / acting-in behaviour; acting out / acting-out behaviour.

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