Voicelessness: The Depressed Teenager

A recent Boston Globe article ("Data on suicides set off alarm," March 1,2001) reported that 10 percent of high school students in Massachusetts made some kind of suicide attempt in the past year, and 24 per cent had thought about it. These are stunning figures. While many of these self-reported "attempts" could best be characterized as gestures (e.g. swallowing six aspirin), unquestionably, alienation and despair is widespread among our children.

Why is this? If the subtext of life is survival (for this is the ultimate outcome of natural selection), and our emotions are supposed to facilitate this process, how can so many young people, a quarter of the teen population, be contemplating their own demise?

While hormonal changes certainly play a role, this is not likely the full explanation: biology and environment do an intricate dance, and it is often difficult to separate the two partners. Furthermore, there seems to be no genetic rationale for suicidal teenagers (the genes of those who succeeded would be quickly weeded from the population)—with such a large percentage affected, the explanation must be far more complicated.

In a sense, the teenage years are no different than any others: every period of our life involves a quest for emotional survival. But the teen years are particularly difficult. For the first time, children are asked to define and prove themselves in the outside world, and competition is intense. This can and does lead to inordinate cruelty—gay and "nerd" bashing are notorious examples. But even in the absence of overt cruelty, the teen is often on the defensive as classmates try to aggressively assert their place in the world. The community reflects this pressure with close-knit alliances and concomitant exclusion, the rapid and often unexpected switching of friends to maintain position and status, and the constant comparison between self and others. It is, perhaps, a wonder that any of us survive our teen years without considerable distress.

Listen to the voices of depressed teens: "I am worthless, ugly, a failure. No one listens to me. No one sees me. Everyone is selfish. You'd be happier if I were not alive. Everyone would be happier if I were dead. You don't care. Nobody cares." Often, these feelings accurately reflect the subtext of messages they are receiving from peers, resulting from the sometimes brutal competition for resources in the teen community. Yet, some teens are deeply affected by these messages and others are not. Why do the messages stick to some teens and not others? In my experience, it is the "voiceless" teenager who is most affected.


In "Giving Your Child Voice," I suggested that "voice" is a critical component of self-esteem and the emotional well being of children. Because it is different from love and attention, voice must be defined clearly:

"What is 'voice'? It is the sense of agency that makes a child confident that he or she will be heard, and that he or she will impact his or her environment. Exceptional parents grant a child a voice equal to theirs the day that child is born. And they respect that voice as much as they respect their own. How does a parent provide this gift? By following three "rules:"

  1. Assume that what your child has to say about the world is just as important as what you have to say.
  2. Assume that you can learn as much from them as they can from you.
  3. Enter their world through play, activities, and discussions: don't require them to enter yours in order to make contact.

I'm afraid this is not as easy as it sounds, and many parents do not do it naturally. Essentially, a whole new style of listening is required. Every time a young child says something, he or she is opening a door to their experience of the world--about which they are the world's foremost expert. You can either keep the door open and learn something of value by asking more and more questions, or you can close it by assuming you have heard everything worth hearing. If you keep the door open, you are in for a surprise--your children's worlds are as rich and complex as your own, even at age two.

If you value your children's experience, of course they will too. They will feel: "Other people are interested in me. There is something of value inside me. I must be pretty good." There is no better anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-narcissism inoculation than this implicit sense of worth. Children with voice have a sense of identity that belies their years. They stand up for themselves when necessary. They speak their mind and are not easily intimidated. They accept the inevitable frustrations and defeats of life with grace and keep moving forward. They are not afraid to try new things, to take appropriate risks. People of all ages find them a joy to talk with. Their relationships are honest and deep.

Many well-intentioned parents think that they can create the same effect by saying positive things to their children: "I think you're very smart/pretty/special etc. But without entering the child's world, these compliments are seen as false. "If you really felt that way, you would want to know me better," the child thinks. Other parents feel that their role is to give advice or educate their children--they must teach them how to be worthwhile human beings. Sadly, these parents reject the child's experience of the world entirely and do great psychological damage--usually the same damage that was done to them." (From "Giving Your Child Voice")

Children who receive "voice" from their earliest years are less susceptible to the damaging subtext of teen competition and cruelty. They have a genuine, deep-rooted sense of value and place, and they are not easily shaken from this. While they experience the pain of rejection and exclusion, it does not penetrate to their core. Therefore, they are well protected from despair and alienation.

But what if your teen did not receive "voice" as a young child? Unfortunately, teens (and especially "voiceless" teens) are hesitant to share their thoughts and feelings with parents. As a result, parents often feel helpless. Luckily, a good therapist can earn the trust of a depressed teen and counter the sense of voicelessness. Medication may also help. Treatment is available and may be life saving.

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: The Four Questions

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, October 17). Voicelessness: The Depressed Teenager, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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