Recognizing the warning signs to help a troubled teen
Two students on Valerie Ramsey’s middle school dance team seemed happy and confident, but earlier this year, both independently attempted suicide within two weeks of each other. “It’s hard to see the warning signs a lot of times, especially if they are happy to be around you,” says Ramsey, who teaches in the New York City public school system.
Troubled teens are experts at hiding emotional pain. Depending on what they are struggling with, however, there are often indicators when things are spiraling out of control. Learning those warning signs requires noticing unusual behaviors, asking difficult questions and intervening on a student’s behalf.
One major indicator of a serious issue is when a normally well-adjusted student starts misbehaving or being disrespectful during class. Troubled teens tend to be “more moody and emotional, have a hard time with feedback, have peer or teacher conflicts or have family turmoil,” says Dr. Nadine J. Kaslow, Atlanta Ballet’s psychologist and a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine.
Common, serious problems for preteen and teen dancers include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide contemplation. These behaviors tend to start around puberty, often as a result of pre-ssures at school, home or the studio. Students may isolate themselves from their peers, feel worthless or act impulsive.
Dancers are especially at risk for depression and anxiety because they are almost always in competition with their classmates, and because they tend to be perfectionists. They also can feel isolated from their school friends who are socializing while they are at the studio, Kaslow says. “Oftentimes there is tension between their parents, where one supports their dance dreams and the other does not because of the financial stress it puts on the family, or their siblings feel there is unfair attention,” she says. “And, family conflict that has nothing to do with the dancer can be very stressful.”
Cutting to Cope
One alarming trend among young dancers is a self-harm practice called cutting. They use a sharp object to make cuts on their wrists, arms, legs and torso as a way to cope with pain, anger and frustration. New Jersey–based teacher Kimberly Fiordimondo sees a lot of students who participate in cutting. She teaches at a private studio and leads the dance club at a public middle school. “It’s their way of trying to control something in their life that is out of control,” she says, adding that those students tend to have low self-esteem and come from broken homes.
Cutting can be linked to anxiety and feeling dissociated from one’s body, and it usually is not a suicide attempt. The act may bring a momentary sense of calm or a release of tension, but it’s usually followed by guilt and the return of painful emotions. “Typically, young people who engage in this activity are really struggling and having a hard time dealing with feelings and unstable family situations, and often we see those behaviors when there is a history of abuse,” Kaslow says. “Teachers need to take it very seriously.”
Females are at a greater risk of cutting than males, and those who have friends who intentionally harm themselves are more likely to begin self-harming. Ninth-grade girls are most at risk for cutting; they engage in the practice at three times the rate of boys, according to a 2012 study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Warning signs include fresh cuts or scars, explanations that involve accidents or mishaps, keeping sharp objects in their belongings and wearing long sleeves or pants—even in hot weather.
Make a Connection
Dance instructors can play an important role in helping a troubled teen, Fiordimondo says. “They want attention. They want someone to talk to,” she says. “Usually they are hurting because they are lacking something in their life, and that concern and care means a lot to them.”
Ramsey agrees, saying that sometimes dance teachers make a connection with a student even if they are unaware of it. When one of her students who tried to commit suicide returned to the dance team, the dancer told Ramsey she regretted her attempt, saying: “You make me so happy. I don’t think you know what you get me through every morning. You might be screaming about counts, but it’s OK because I know you want me to be a good dancer, and you push me because you care about me.”
Even just allowing your students to have access to the studio during off-hours can be helpful. Abigail Agresta-Stratton, a Virginia-based dance educator, also had a young student contemplating suicide. “She was not someone who wanted to have dance as a career, but being able to dance helped her to express things. It was therapeutic for her,” she says. “She told me after she graduated that using the studio during her study hall was such an important outlet for her.” DT
Hannah Maria Hayes has an MA in dance education, American Ballet Theatre pedagogy emphasis, from New York University.
How to Help a Troubled Dancer
- If you believe there is an issue, talk with the student and let her know you are concerned about her. Tell her what you’ve noticed, and ask the dancer if she would like to talk about what’s going on.
- Let her know she is not alone and that you are available. You might not be able to change her behavior, but you can assist the dancer with resources and offer support.
- Sometimes a dancer is too scared to talk to her parents about what is going on, and she may appreciate having a mediator to help break the news of whatever behavior she is participating in.
- Let her know that you plan to talk with her parents or that you are going to refer her to a guidance counselor, if your school has one.
- Whenever possible, meet with the dancer and her parents together at the same time. Have an honest discussion about your observations and concerns. Provide the name of a therapist or counselor who works with dancers, or suggest that the parents ask their child’s pediatrician for help.
- If you believe a dancer is in imminent danger of hurting herself or committing suicide, call 911 and her parents or guardians. Remain with the student or make sure she is under supervision by another caring adult until professional help arrives. Most public-school districts have procedures in place for when a student threatens suicide. If your school has a plan, know the steps in advance, and let the student know you are following them. —HMH