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Teens Today: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

Hope for the New Generation

I took my private practice “on tour” earlier this month, working as the designated mental health professional for the Broward County contingent of the 2014 March of the Living. During this annual two-week program, thousands of Jewish teens from around the world gather in Poland where they visit sites significant to the Holocaust. The trip ends in Israel with a few days to decompress, to observe Israeli Memorial Day, and then to celebrate Israeli Independence Day.

Visiting concentration camps like the infamous Auschwitz and Birkenau – accompanied by two inspiring women who had lived through the unspeakable horrors of Hitler’s “Final Solution” – would be harrowing for most adults. I wasn’t sure how a bunch of 17- and 18-year-old relatively privileged American kids would react, even though in my mental health counseling practice in Weston, Florida, I work with a lot of teens, and in my personal life I have parented teens (one of whom went on this year’s March).

The cynical among us might predict that kids would be more interested in staring at a screen in the palm of their hand than at directing their gaze toward a survivor, seeing the Holocaust through her eyes. Was this true? Well . . . yes and no.

For the Cynics, here is one story: We were touring Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. Our visit coincided with Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s equivalent of Memorial Day. In Israel, the holiday is a more solemn affair than in the US, which for many Americans has become a day off from work to shop the sales and guzzle beer at barbecues.

Contrast that with our visit to Mount Herzl Cemetery, where we watched Israeli soldiers placing small replicas of their country’s flag and a Yartzeit (remembrance) candle on each grave. The reverential silence was broken with a question from one of the kids: “Is there Wi-Fi in the cemetery?” Joking inappropriately can be (and often is) a way of coping in a situation that prompts emotions too hard to deal with. In fact, noted Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl noted in “Man’s Search for Meaning” that some of his fellow inmates at the camps would use humor as an escape too. (Shopping sales and drinking Bud are other examples of this type of coping. Ahem.)

Whether our modern-day teen’s hankering for an Internet connection at such an inopportune time was an example of nervous humor or callous disrespect, we cannot be sure. We can only hope.

For the Optimistic among us, here is another story: The last stop on our tour of Auschwitz was the “Selection Platform” where Jews would exit the cattle cars that brought them to the camp. It was at this spot that each person was directed either to the left – which meant immediate death in a gas chamber – or to the right – a temporary reprieve by hard labor in the camp. As the guide concluded his comments, two of our boys quietly moved to stand on either side of one of “Our Survivors,” as the kids had come to call them. Each took one of her hands in their own as the group turned to leave. More than a foot taller than this sprightly 84-year-old lady, both of the boys bowed their heads to better hear the survivor’s commentary as they walked. They asked questions. They listened to her answers with rapt attention. They looked ahead to make sure they would guide her steps over the uneven ground. Teens at their best.

What’s the take-home from all of this? For me, it was about meeting each teen right where they are, for good or for bad.

It was heartening to witness so many of the kids dive into the process. Entering the gas chamber at Auschwitz, pressing their palms to the walls and crying for the untold numbers of their forebears who had breathed their final breaths in that same space. Sitting in quiet reflection at the edge of the incomprehensibly enormous ditch at Majdanek, which had been the mass burial site for Jewish inmates when the Nazis rushed to liquidate the camp as Allied forces closed in 70 years before.

One teen came to me in distress, worried that he “didn’t feel anything”, terrified this was a sign there was something terribly wrong with him. I reassured him that noticing the numbness was exactly what would lead him to feel more deeply, when he was ready to do so and not before. Later, I saw this same young man spontaneously embrace a sobbing friend. This time, he stood firmly in a rush of unpleasant feelings, and discovered he would not be swept away by them. Wow.

Let’s be realistic though. Yeah, I must admit some of the kids seemed to approach The March as just another Teen Tour, a chance to hang out with peers, posting Selfies for their friends back home and scheming to break curfew at the youth hostel. Kids will be kids. Nothing wrong with that (as long as the staff did its job to keep these “young rebels” safe, which I am happy to report that we did).

It saddens me that the teens in this category missed an opportunity for self-discovery. They denied themselves the experience of outrage, compassion, sorrow, Jewish pride, a sense of belonging or whatever else came up. Moving through strong emotions in a supportive environment (such as that provided on The March) leads to a stronger sense of self. This is also what we strive to accomplish in therapy, especially with teens whose life-stage task is to forge a unique identity on the path to adulthood.

Call me Pollyanna, but I choose to believe The March planted that seed even in the recalcitrant kids, whether they are aware of it or not. Like Anne Frank famously wrote at the age of 15: “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” Sometimes, they just need a little time, a little space and a little support to find that goodness.

Do you know a teen who is could use some help figuring out who they want to be? Let's talk. Call 954.494.3848 e-mail vzaffos @aol.com

Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health therapist at Self Empowerment Counseling in Weston, Fl, working with teens and adults, individuals, couples and families.

NOTE: To protect the confidentiality of individuals described in this post, identifying characteristics have been omitted, modified or partially fictionalized.

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