Kids Who’ve Lost the Family Lottery


The stories I write are about kids who come from difficult family situations. Their parents are negligent, abusive, or so caught up in their own problems that they fail to put their children first.  When you’re a kid in such a situation, sometimes you don’t even realize that anything’s wrong. Your family goes out of the way to make you think that you don’t have it so bad, that your life is normal.  Advice columnist Carolyn Hax had this to say about the phenomena: “Controlling people are dangerous, especially to children, because they block the flow of natural information to their victims, which then gives the victims a distorted emotional view.”

Several things can happen when you grow up with a distorted emotional view. You can become convinced that you’re useless and powerless—that you will never succeed, even if you’re given ample opportunities to do so, such as through scholarships. You can develop depression and anxiety that will stick with you throughout your life. You can pass all this down to your own children.

A few lucky kids will have an “ah ha” moment when something they see at a friend’s home, read in a book, or hear from a teacher will crack the shell of their artificial reality. If they’re smart and strong they might peck their way out of that shell, the way a baby chick does, and go on to build a healthy, productive life.

I was one of those kids, and I feel for them. I want to create an online outreach that will accelerate their learning curve and give them a sanctuary.  I want to show them that they are the masters of their own destiny and that they can create the family they need through their friends, teachers, and mentors.

But can I connect with these kids? Will their need to keep the peace and show loyalty to their messed-up relatives override their need to find a “tribe”? Will they be able to recognize that they need help? I think the desire to be normal might keep them from taking advantage of such an outreach. On the other hand, teen angst causes many kids to think that they’ve got it worse than reality indicates. So maybe some of them would take refuge even if they didn’t really “need” it.

Experience has led me to believe that we all have some level of dysfunction in our families, so I’ll put the question to you. If there had been an online source of support when you were young, would you have taken advantage of it? If so, how would your family have reacted if they’d found out? (My mom would have shot the messenger.) Do you have any advice or insight that might be helpful as I consider this idea? Could you recommend expert sources, books, or classes that might allow me to learn more about adolescent psychology?

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9 Responses to Kids Who’ve Lost the Family Lottery

  1. Katy Skinner says:

    There might already be a number of places on-line where troubled kids can go and get help. They probably are thru already established institutions. But I wonder how hard it would be to find a real troubled teen pen-pal? How about volunteering in real life with real faces? You live close to the city; there are probably a number of teen outreach type things. My brother Robert worked at one for a living. What about that big-brother-big-sister thing? You say you want to create an on-line sanctuary; I wonder what that would look like.

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  2. susanls says:

    Great post, Lisa. I’d talk to Jenny about resources seeing as she’s the goto girl for that kind of info in the state. But I did online outreach to lesbian Christians for years through yahoo groups. Maybe just starting such a group, figuring out how best to market it, and let it start. I found, over time, that some really smart women joined my group and became “co-pastors” with me and that often women who wrote about their struggles found lots of support just from folks on the list. It’s worth a shot. Maybe you could get some of your blogger/author friends to help support it through blogs, links, etc. Need a catchy name…..Lisa’s Losers? HAH! I’m not speaking to you until Wednesday. Great idea though.

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  3. susanls says:

    Typing, btw, is not talking. You might also want to design a fun website with stuff kids might like including resources for kids who are struggling. (IMHO, that is every teen on earth though. They ALL think their family is abnormal and annoying. Just ask Maggie!)

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  4. susanls says:

    Oh, yeah, I know someone at Clackamas County Mental Health who works with kids. Treat me nice (ie. take my side against Jenny) and I might cough up an intro. And Mariah is another resource. Being a therapist, she’s got connections and resources. You might also approach Greenhouse Project, SMYRC, etc.

    BTW, more rain is on the way so we ordered some sandbag-substitute things that you fill with water. I know, counterintuitive to fight water with water, but, hey, they’ll do the job.

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  5. I think I would have liked an online refuge when I was a teen. The one thing I’m not sure though is would I go to a site identified as such? Maybe not…pride, embarrassment, and denial are powerful things. But I know for sure I would have sought out sites of authors I liked, and if I found a group of like-minded teens there, I would’ve stuck to it like velcro. If a list of resources was provided there, I probably would have explored them. Maybe I would’ve learned a few things years earlier than I actually did.

    A supportive place for kids who identify with your protagonists and what you’re writing about…that would be very, very cool.

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  6. lisanowak says:

    Thanks everyone.

    Katy, there are websites to support teens, but the ones I’ve found are more of a general clearing-house for all teen issues. I want to create something that specifically deals with family. My thought is that the community of my website will become a surrogate family in a way these more comprehensive sites can’t. I’ve experienced such bonding on message boards myself.

    Susan, you have some great resources, and I’ll be in touch about them. Jenny is one of the number one people on my “experts” list. I’m organizing my ideas and will be sending emails out to these people soon. I like the idea of discussing this with Mariah. She rocks! BTW, a website with resources for teens is exactly what I have in mind. And I was thinking of inviting teen authors and my other “experts” to participate if they felt so inclined.

    Chris, you’re addressing exactly the issue that I’ve been concerned about. I’m wondering which is stronger, the need to connect and gripe about your problems, or the need to appear normal and not rock the boat. Interestingly, a high-school classmate and I who have gotten back in touch through Facebook shared many family issues but never knew it. I was afraid of rejection by my peers and she was trying to hide her family problems, so we never connected. This lends credence to your theory. Now the question is, how do I get around that? I like the idea of tying it into my own writer’s website, the problem is, I don’t want to wait until I’m published to make this happen.

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  7. Bridget Zinn says:

    Great idea! I’m glad you’ve had so many commenters with good suggestions. I like the idea of having teen authors on your site — it could drive more teens to you who might not have thought to search for something like this, but would end up liking it.

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  8. Carolyn A. says:

    Coming from an abusive home and struggling my whole life to be successful at breaking those dysfunctional rhythms and practices, I can say I only wish there had been something like you describe for youth who feel isolated and vulnerable, when I was growing up. I’ve worked in social services and especially in early childhood care and education for 20 plus years. It’s been very healing for me. Some of the best connections can be made in formats such as you are considering impelementing, Lisa. I started a support group for ages 14-24 for those living with chronic illness (most of which didn’t SHOW). Up until that time, in the state where we lived, there was nothing and no where for these young people to feel they fit in. The community support was invaluable and successful beyond anything I could have imagined. Before the existence of this group (which were face-to-face, bi-monthly gatherings)these young people had hid their frustration, depression, joblessness, ostracization at school, abuse at home and so many other issues they were dealing with 24/7. After a trust level was reached with each other, the email addresses and specific contact info were shared among them. After we moved back to Oregon, the group was strong enough to sustain itself with another person taking over as moderator/facilitator of the group. I applaud your efforts and will try to come up with some resources that might be helpful with what you are planning. I hope it gets off the ground and running.

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  9. susanls says:

    Wow! I’m not chopped liver after all!

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