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Assisting Adolescents

One of my passions is in helping young people sort out the confusion in their lives. Here is an article of mine that appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the Student Assistance Journal:

Measuring the Future
By Jaelline Jaffe, Ph.D.There is an old Chinese proverb: “Tell me, I forget. Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.” Kids are often visual and kinesthetic learners. Talking at them, or even with them, is usually not nearly as effective as getting them involved in something concrete before going to the abstract.

In conducting a counseling program for adolescents, I hear an unfortunate number of them talking about their lives without hope for the future or as if they’ve given up on living. This girl feels like a failure because she doesn’t have a boyfriend. That boy is drinking and using heavily. Those over there are running with a tagging crew or a gang. Some cannot imagine living to age 25.

To move these young people toward visualizing long and productive lives, I engage them in an activity. Many kids are strong visual and kinesthetic learners, and I find it is much easier to connect with them and to get an idea across if they can see it and experience it, than if they just hear it.

In group or individually, I ask them, “Who is the oldest person in your family?” or “How old was your grandpa when he died?” The answer is usually around 75. Then I lay two yardsticks end to end, saying, “Let’s imagine each inch represents one year. How many years do we have here? Right — 72. So if your grandpa was 75, he lived longer than the length of these two yardsticks.

Let’s see, you are 14 (or whatever their age is). So that’s right here on the measure. Hmm, just over one foot, and there are six feet here, so you are only about 1/6 the age of your grandpa. You know that longevity tends to run in the family, so it looks like you have a long way to go unless you get hit by a car or a bullet or get really sick or something. Did you ever ask grandpa what his life was like at 14, whether he had any idea how long he’d be around or what kinds of things he thought might happen in his life?”

Just going this far with the activity can have a big impact. I have seen that proverbial light go on, when students actually see the length of their lives laid out before them.

From there, we often go to another activity, creating a timeline. First, a sample is drawn on the board or a sheet of paper, to give them the general idea of the project. Working independently, they draw a horizontal line across the middle of a sheet of paper, at least 8.5 inches by 14 inches or larger. The left end is their birth and the right end is the present. Then they add perpendicular lines above and below the timeline. Lines going up are for positive experiences and down are for negative ones. A shorter line indicates a good or bad event that made a relatively small impact on their lives, while a longer line in either direction denotes something that had more of an impact on their lives. Each of these lines is labeled to show what it represents: starting kindergarten, getting a pet, a sister’s birth, going to the hospital, moving to a different school, etc. If desired, drawings can be used in addition to or instead of words to identify each event.

These timelines are then shared with the group, with each person describing as much (or as little) as they feel comfortable disclosing. In this way, they discover commonalities as well as differences in their perspectives. For example, Dad leftcould be a huge negative for one person but a positive for another. At the end of the session, collect their papers.

The following session, the papers are returned to them. Now they are instructed to work either on the back or on a new sheet and draw another timeline, this one starting with the present and projecting into the future, to the age of the oldest person in their family. (This is an important instruction, because otherwise, some will show their life ending at age 21 or so. Another extension of this activity is to discuss what choices or chances could lead them to live a longer or shorter time.) Again, they make lines indicating what they anticipate will be the high and low points of their lives if they were to live to that age.

This, of course, is more difficult for some than for others and leads to discussions about dreams, goals and anticipations. A natural follow up is a series of activities on goal setting and steps to achieve goals.

Psychotherapist with psychotherapy office serving Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, Valley Village.