For a number of different adolescents struggling with Teen Mental Health or Substance Abuse Disorders, relationships can become a central challenge in their lives. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, it’s extremely common for adolescents that are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse to withdraw from their peers, in an effort to hide from others and avoid judgment. In some instances, this withdrawing from others can progress to a place where teens are virtually isolating themselves as much as possible. For instance, they might still be attending classes but not talk to any classmates and might also spend any free time they have alone. At home, they often spend increasing amounts of time alone in their own space, not wanting to be bothered to interact. They may even avoid having to engage in simple social situations or contexts, such as walking into a store, because being around others makes them feel vulnerable and anxious. At times when they are around other peers or family members, they’re likely to be silent and/or extremely resistant to engage, this is why building social skills is important, as it increases confidence and reduces loneliness.
For parents, friends, and family members of teens, this lack of communication and engagement can be both stressful and frustrating. Especially for parents who are trying to help their teens, the disengagement can be seen as a form of rebellion or stubbornness. However, it’s important to understand that this withdrawal and disengagement are symptoms of the larger issues at play. Because we understand that these social interactions are a common struggle for teens, we incorporate intentional methods of helping to re-introduce teens to social situations and provide guidance to them as to how to engage people in their relationships again, in a healthy way. This Social Skills Curriculum is incorporated into teens’ overall treatment plans and tailored to serve their individual relational needs and challenges, by implementing tangible practices for the teens, on a daily basis.
The Social Skills curriculum looks different, according to every teen. For some teens that have been struggling with substance abuse, the challenge might be to re-learn how to participate in social events, sober. For other teens who have developed a strong underlying belief system that they’re constantly being judged by others, it can be very challenging to engage with their peers again, because they have such overwhelming anxiety and fear that they will be mistreated. This can be especially true in instances where teens have experienced bullying in some way or form. In these instances, we work with teens to identify tangible steps they can take toward healthy peer interaction, while also working with the teens to recognize the falsity of their beliefs, so that they begin to escape the anxiety of judgment that they’re believing, and therefore, limited by. Other teens may just need basic relationship help and guidance, such as how to have healthy conversations, read social cues, how to participate in group activities, and how to make friendships. Though these social skills come naturally to some teenagers, to others, especially those who’ve felt isolated because of their Mental Health or Substance Abuse struggles, these relational steps can feel overwhelming and difficult.
One of the many wonderful attributes of the size of our small treatment center is that teens have the benefit of peer interaction in a small, manageable peer group. So much of the progress of social skills practice and growth can occur best in this type of setting, where teens can sense that the peer environment is safe enough to make efforts. The combination of individual and group work that we do with teens, including both therapeutic work and more recreational and supplemental activities, provides our teens with a good balance of time to themselves and/or working one-on-one with our team members, and time in small peer groups, where they can practice some of the work they’ve been doing in sessions. What we find is that this positive work and growth that teens can experience in social contexts is very powerful to help re-build teens’ confidence and overall belief that they have what it takes to live a functioning, healthy life. Because teens are so affected by their peers, both negatively or positively, the growth that can take place in our small setting can be instrumental to the teens having the courage and belief necessary to re-engage in the relationships of their lives, believing again that they’re worthy of good relationships.