Resolving what is in the “seat” of our psychological functioning
6 MINUTE READ
I’ve worked as a Clinical Psychologist for over 20 years now. Like all of us in the health and helping industry, it requires lots of energy, but it can also be very rewarding. Some moments in my work have been really challenging, especially with teenagers, but often with those same teenagers are some of the most sacred moments I’ve experienced with people. I try to do with teens what I try to do with all people who come to see me. I try to help them resolve what is in their hearts.
The heart is a beautiful ancient word that to this day, thousands of years after it was written in Genesis, is still very much in currency. The Heart is the “seat” of our psychological functioning. It is that place deep within us from which come “the issues of life”, as it says in Proverbs 4:23. It contains what comes from our connections (such as worth, trust, honour, belonging), our identity or direction, our choices and our hopes. What happens in those domains of the heart naturally flows out. When those areas are disturbed, no one needs tell us to withdraw, we already have. No one needs to tell us to feel physically scared, we already are. We are centrifugal beings – the energy has an irresistible flow from deep within us into our thoughts, behaviours, moods and physical functioning.
Proverbs 4:23 would have to be one of the most widely known, but most rarely applied verses in the Bible. The NIV version starts the verse with, “Above all else guard your heart…” and in those few words it spells out explicitly that this is a real priority. The KJV is slightly different. It starts with “Keep thy heart with all due diligence….”. This wording conveys something slightly different than it being a priority; it tells us directly that it is a task that we are to undertake conscientiously. Bringing the two versions together, this verse tells us that guarding and keeping what is in our hearts is important and we are to do a good job of it. It implores us all to, in effect, be curators of what is in our hearts. Like how an art curator cares for, organizes, houses and keeps the art safe in a gallery, we are to be like that for what is in our hearts.
“Like how an art curator cares for, organizes, houses and keeps the art safe in a gallery, we are to be like that for what is in our hearts.”
We are to care for and organise what is in our own heart. As if responding to the question, “Why?”, the latter half of the proverb is similar in both the NIV and the KJV. “Why should I guard it or keep it?” because, the proverb says, “everything you do flows from it,” (NIV) or “from it flows the issues of life,” (KJV).
There is no more strategic time of human development to keep our hearts in mind than in our teenage years. The reason for this is because our teenage years are a time of heart-level transformation.
My wife Kylie and I have four teenagers at home. They are all different, but they are all lovely young people in the process of evolving into something quite different from what they were in their primary school years. We have gone from the sort of relationship where the priority was going on the swings in the park at the bottom of the cul-de-sac, to being driven to a friend’s house on the weekend. Emotionally, they’re going through the “stress and storm” phase, though I find that phrase a little trite. In reality, their hearts are changing. This is what is happening to all of us at this time in our development, which we refer to as adolescence.
The bottom line for the teenage years is that they want more of their friends and less of me. What they long for or look for has changed. It doesn’t mean they want none of me, it is just that they drift towards their friends more than what they used to. Their appetite has changed like that. Their connection has changed. Moreover, who they want to connect with has changed. In that single act, both separation from me and an affiliation with others has begun. This is the process that they must undertake for their identity to be properly formed. They are finding “their own people”. They are learning to separate themselves from me. They’re manifesting their own sense of direction. They’re recalibrating who they are. In practice, that is what it means to become a teenager in a nutshell: to search for your age-matched peers and separate from your parents.
As a parent, and as a Clinical Psychologist, what that means for me is to make some adjustments to the way I respond to my teens and to my clients who are teens. I offer the following suggestions:
1. Facilitate this process and don’t stand in the way of it. Nurture it and if you’re allowed, speak some loving wisdom into it. Like Baumrind’s parenting style, try to stay “authoritative” (that is warm and responsive to what is going on), but not authoritarian (cold, and judgmental) and not permissive either. Encourage teens to go out and be with their friends, but also to think of what a good friend might be. Tell them, “You don’t have to talk to me….but who do you trust? Who would be good for you to talk to? The Chaplain? Your Youth Worker?”
2. If you’ve done the first suggestion, you’ve fostered their movement away from you. It is then helpful to foster movement towards good guides in their life. Help them to judge what is good and judge who they can trust. Love from age-matched peers is essential, but they’re still impulsive and changeable because their frontal lobe is still under construction. They still need guidance – not dogmatic guidance, but rather informed and wise help that gives them space to form their own judgments.
3. Encourage them to ask themselves what sort of person they want to be. Ask them about what they think is right, what they think is true, what they are passionate about and what is important to them. Metaphorically, ask them to sit in the front seat of their own car and put their hands on the steering wheel. In doing so, you are helping them find their own direction and identity.
4. Lastly, encourage church involvement and open questioning about their faith. One of the greatest resources for our hearts is our spiritual relationship. That is true for teenagers, as it is true for us. As their hearts are changing, they will benefit from a spiritual relationship with a Creator who fills their hearts to the brim. A loving God who helps them to know that they are loved, that they are valuable, that they need not be ashamed, that they belong, that they are forgiven, that they have a new identity, that they are free and that they have hope.
I’m not an expert with teens – my wife will tell you that. Some of the biggest highlights in my own parenting history have been about me apologising to them. Yet, if I can remain connected with them and understand what their hearts are trying to do, I’ll be able to respond to them in a way that is constructive. We won’t ever go back to swings in the park, but there is the promise and great hope of having a deep and interesting relationship with young adults if we can get this right.
Dr Jonathan Andrews Dr Jonathan Andrews is a clinical psychologist who works in Brisbane. He recently authored a book entitled, “The Reconnected Heart: How Relationships Help Us Heal”.