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Opinion & Essays - Dec, 1996 Issue #43 

Child's Play
By Lon Woodbury 

The life of a teen with behavioral/emotional problems is serious business. Think about it! 

If a child does not have a good grasp of cause and effect, he/she must always be on guard for what seems to be arbitrary actions, by people the child sees as simply wanting to be mean. That's a very confusing, unpredictable and unfriendly world to live in. 

If a child uses illegal drugs, he/she runs the risk of associating with some very unsavory characters who are capable of anything, including violence, to enforce whatever personal code they might live by. I've talked to many teens who had been terrified of what their drug source might do to them. This is to say nothing regarding the fear of being busted by the police, or feelings of helplessness at depending on a dangerous crutch. 

Rebellion usually consists of fighting and arguing with parents, and has to be hard on a child. The family is the ultimate safety net. When a child rejects his/her family (or feels rejected by their family), that child feels he/she has nothing to fall back on. It doesn't make any difference where the rejection comes from, or if it is based on reality. To the child, he/she will feel forced to accept help from any source, no matter how questionable or dangerous. 

Failure at school can have grim consequences in our society. No matter what the reasons are, or how the failure is handled, the message often heard by a child is, "you are not good enough." Furthermore, most school dropouts realize they do not have much of a future, and feel angry and frustrated at the "unfairness" of life. When they protest that they 'don't care,' that is usually just a cover. They usually care and hurt very much. 

The world view of actively rebelling and out-of-control children is not pleasant. The picture is one of a struggle for survival, against the odds. Something that looks to the rest of us like play is actually the serious business of desperately trying to survive, in ways they think they have to. 

Children who live in this self-imposed grim world have the idea they alone can solve their problems. Outside help, especially from parents or "the establishment," is seen as a blow to their self esteem, and is strenuously rejected, at least initially. They feel they have to take on full adult responsibilities without experience, guidance, or adult help. Sometimes the sense of loneliness is overwhelming. 

For a child living in this world created by their fears, there is very little time for play. "Kicking back" or "hanging out" or "getting high" is more serious than it looks at first glance. They actually are trying to express or hide from their anger, and/or build relationships they can use/abuse as resources, and/or desperately put together ways to survive. They quickly learn to compromise themselves if that is what they think they have to do. Some essentially sell themselves, and some even make choices that make them a danger to others. That usually is not how they started, but sometimes the choices they make lead them to a life where violence is a way of life. 

When a child enters this world of rebellion, total independence and "Handle it themselves," there's not much time for play; and that's sad. 

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