Into (and out of) the Inferno

Dante’s Inferno is the inspiration for this post, specifically this description of his 5th Circle of Hell:

The river Styx runs through this level of Hell, and in it are punished the wrathful and the gloomy. The former are forever lashing out at each other in anger, furious and naked, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth. The latter are gurgling in the black mud, slothful and sullen, withdrawn from the world.

Reading it made me wonder whether Dante had teenagers.

Long before I became the mother of a teenager, I had the opportunity to work with teens and their parents in therapy. I thought those experiences would inoculate me from turning into one of Dante’s wrathful when confronted with the slothful and sullen teen who’d replaced my daughter. I was wrong.

As a therapist sitting with teen clients, it’s easy for me to empathize with the challenges they face as they try to navigate the complex and multi-layered transitions involved in adolescence. The only other time in life that brain development undergoes as much change as it does during adolescence is in the period from birth to age 2. Along with changing brains, teens are also dealing with changing bodies, complicated peer relationships, as well as internal and external pressure and expectations. Since today’s teens are doing all of this under the intensified scrutiny that the virtual fishbowl provides, occasionally withdrawing into the black mud doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

As a mother, parental wrath is also easy to understand. As one of my clients put it, “living with my son is like having the most demanding and least grateful house guest I’ve ever had, with no end in sight and no option to ask him to leave.” And what gem of a therapeutic intervention did I offer in response? I was all out of those so I instead tried asking her to insert a couple of words: at times. “At times living with my son is like having the most demanding and least grateful house guest I’ve ever had.”

Because the other thing the teenager’s brain has in common with the 2-year old’s is its inherent changeability. Week by week I watch my teen and young adult clients try different identities on for size, and experiment to find their own ‘right’ balance between individuation and connection. Like more life-seasoned clients, they work to discover who they are and decide who they choose to be, but teens’ turnaround time is much faster. They feel things more intensely, commit more convincingly, but are also able to release and move on more immediately.

While I’m not able to sidestep all the wrathful urges life with a teen throws my way, I try to keep in mind that – just like Dante – my visits to the 5th Circle of Hell will be a passage, not a life sentence. For Dante things arguably go from bad to worse (the 6th to 9th circles of Hell are no picnic either) but for most parents (and their teens) things dramatically improve.

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