In my years of experience being an adolescent and then working with them, I have found transitions to be the most important moment when adolescents need to practice the survival skill of independence and the moment when they are most in need of guidance. This poses a bit of a dilemma, as the desire for more independence in this transition usually outweighs any of the adolescent’s fears, concerns or alternative decisions that would require adult guidance. Therefore, adolescents tend to find a way to push these feelings or ideas into their subconscious and plow forward saying, “leave me alone, I can do this on my own,” while fears, worries and alternative decisions are kept hidden. During my search for a way to guide adolescents in these important times of transition while avoiding anything that might challenge their independence, I discovered the magic question.
After over two years of being forced to live in a treatment facility and undergo intense group and individual treatment, one of our greatest adolescent leaders, Samantha, went on an extended home-visit just before she was going to graduate from the program. She picked this final trip home–after many successful trips home–to sneak out of her house to meet a boy whom she had just met. When you take this incident at face value, it seems like a normal adolescent impulsive decision that deserves a consequence: She will stay here longer and her graduation date will need to be pushed back until she has demonstrated wiser decision-making. Without my magic question, I would have easily been tricked into believing that this consequence would teach her a good lesson and would have missed the opportunity to address her hidden desire to be guided.
I asked Samantha, “why did you do something that you knew would result in you staying in this program longer when you supposedly hate this place?” She began to cry hysterically saying, “no, no, no, any consequence but that. I can’t stay here longer. I’m going to die if I have stay under these rules for one more day. Two years of my life have already been stolen from being put in this place. I didn’t mean to do it. I planned to just hang out on the lawn with this guy. I promise I will never do it again, please, please, please, just let me out of here!” As much as I want to give into her pleading and try to convince the rest of the treatment staff to let her graduate and go home despite this situation, I know from experience that I must ask myself the magic question, what do her actions communicate about how she is feeling about this transition? Her action of sneaking out just before she returns home for good, screams, “I am fearful and scared to return to my unstructured chaotic life with my family. I don’t think I can tolerate being home with all of that freedom yet. I’m scared to leave a place that has made me feel more confident and proud of who I am than I have ever felt in my life.”
Sure enough, once Samantha was in group process with the support of all her peers and counseling staff–who have grown know her better than anyone–Samantha began to realize her fear that despite how bad she did not want to live under the program’s rules anymore, she was still afraid to lose the confidence and progress she had gained in the program by returning home.
In my experience, adolescents will respond to transitions using their actions to express their subconscious fears and worries, as it is not congruent with their survival instincts to follow guidance from adults. By asking the magic question: What do her actions communicate about how she is feeling about this transition? I was given a window into her true needs and desires, which allowed me to gently guide her in the direction she truly wanted to go without challenging her independence. I have noticed that adolescents often know the best direction in which to head, but their survival instinct for independence confuses their decision-making process when deciding the best way in which to get there.
After years of working in institutions, I would constantly hear from the captive adolescents, “I can’t wait to get out of here,” but then I would observe how most of their actions resulted in longer stays, where they supposedly did not want to be. I realized that their hidden fears of returning home were valid and needed to be addressed in a more global way. For instance, in regards to Samantha’s situation, I believe that the program she was in lacked a plan for returning her back to her family in a healthy supportive way that would not have been as scary for her. One of the many components of the Create A Program is “Family Guiding” because guiding the family in their process of improving their dynamics with their adolescent is imperative when returning adolescents home after years of residing in a program/institution. As for all adolescents, the more you can prepare them ahead of time, the less you will need the magic question.