Outside the Box Kids

Tue, 01/26/2010 - 3:09pm
By: The Citizen

By Dr. Dana Spears
Special to The Citizen

Did you know that as many or more children in Fayette County participate in the arts as in sports? Community theater and dance companies, orchestras, choirs, bands, and private music and art lessons serve thousands of youth in our area. But after the school day, there are too few gallery, rehearsal, or performance facilities for the artistic, “outside the box” kids, while top-notch community sports complexes abound.

Why the disparity? I don’t think it’s a lack of sophistication in our area. I think in part it’s a lack of understanding of the needs of artistic youth and how to serve that group best. Creative kids, especially the sensitive ones who I like to call “dreamers” are often misunderstood. Dreamer characteristics include a fear of failure, dramatic and moody behavior, idealism, day dreaming, fear and anxiety, and insomnia. They may be perceived as weird by adults and peers alike because they have a need to be different. They feel confined by group norms of style, so their hair may be green one week and purple the next.

But not conforming to peer norms can be a very good thing. I was once at a cast party for a theater group. Teens were gathered around a piano singing show tunes. Weird, huh? But who says weird can’t be good? There need to be more gathering places for the kids who love music, or acting, or anime, because all youth need a place to belong, a place to find “kindred spirits.”

Creative youth need adult role models to mentor their gifts. Otherwise, they often congregate in angry groups where dark music, make-up, poetry, and rebellion become the common theme. As a counselor, I see students who struggle with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, addictions, attention deficit disorder, self-injury, and dramatic mood swings.

These children and teens need encouragement to pursue their passions and to believe that they have gifts. They need both community support and family support. Sometimes, they need counseling to understand themselves and their families better.

How can you help dreamers avoid emotional struggles? It is critical that you be your child’s biggest fan. Well-meaning adults often squash their children’s aspirations, calling creative fields “risky” and “impractical,” which the child interprets as, “I am a loser and a no-talent.”

Although it is true that most creative youth will never win “American Idol” or become movie stars, they are more likely to fail in career fields that they aren’t passionate about than in riskier creative fields. Safe professions aren’t safe if they aren’t a fit for a person’s gifts.

In pursuing creative careers, young adults are likely to have some hard knocks along the way. It’s painful for parents to watch sensitive children being hurt by life. But if those hard knocks come from outside the home and the family is the shelter from the storm, the safe place, then the creative youth or young adult is more likely to stay emotionally healthy and to accept the values they were taught at home. This keeps them grounded and better able to avoid emotional crises and addictions to drugs, work, or relationships as they face the stresses of life.

So what can a parent do when they see their teenager pursuing a field that is very competitive and in which the child appears to have only moderate talent? First, realize that many skills can be learned with the right instruction. If Juilliard accepts your child into their music program, chances are high that they see potential that you don’t see. If the student isn’t accepted into a particular program or college, you didn’t keep them from knowing whether or not it was possible, and they are less likely to resent you for it.

Second, let the experts provide the creative guidance. If your child should really be a song-writer instead of a singer, the professors will tell him that. All creative fields have lots of different career paths. You may be aware of only a few.

Finally, your job as a parent is to encourage and nurture. You can’t and shouldn’t prevent all pain. If a child feels rejected or unsupported by a parent, it’s much more painful and catastrophic than if that same rejection comes from a stranger or even a mentor. Learning to face and overcome disappointment needs to happen early in life when the parents can provide comfort and perspective.

Interestingly, some dreamers succeed precisely because they’ve been rejected in the family or school. They become angry and spend all their energy showing everyone that they were wrong. Only half of what makes a person successful in a creative field is about talent and training. The other half is motivation.

Angry people can be very motivated and can cling tenaciously to their vision for the future. But if that anger includes a rejection of family or community values, then some very self-destructive behavior can result. A better path is for the motivation to come from a desire to use ones gifts and rise to the expectations of those who have encouraged and believed in you, whether that be the family, school, or community.

So, when you have opportunities to encourage creative youth, please do so. They often feel very misunderstood and alone. Creative kids need to stay busy and they need to feel connected with others with similar interests, not only at school, but also in the afternoons and evenings. You can help make that happen by volunteering your time and resources to the young dreamers around you. And if dreamers in your family struggle with anger, depression, addictions, sleep issues, or cutting and other self-injurious behaviors, please seek help immediately. Dreamers struggle with these issues more than their peers, but they can be happy and successful people with family and community support.

Dr. Dana Spears is a Licensed Professional Counselor at A New Start Counseling Center in Fayetteville.

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