False Heretics: Adolescent Attachment and Religious Rebellion

“I’m a Satanist,” smirked the 14-year-old as she faced her devout Catholic mother during a family therapy session.

I, the therapist, did my best not to smile. I had seen this coming. For the past month, the adolescent had taken drastic steps to alter her appearance. She had dyed her hair black with dark red highlights and styled it to cover half her face. Her wardrobe had changed from band t-shirts, blue jeans, and Converse shoes to various shades of black, boots, and shirts held together by safety pins and paper clips. When visible, her glaring eyes were framed by heavy black eyeliner.

David Jacobs, "A quick sketch"

Her 50-year-old mother looked at me, trying to remember what she should say. I nodded slightly, knowing that she was afraid and that she didn’t need to be. The mother quivered, held back her tears, and said, “I’m glad you told me. I’ll bet that wasn’t easy. Tell me, what it is about Satanism that you like the most?”

I smiled. Good job, mom. The mother had worked with me for weeks rehearsing for these types of scenarios.

“What? You’re OK with this?” the daughter asked.

“I’m OK with you. I love you,” her mother clarified.

“Fuck you!” the girl yelled and abruptly left the office.

It’s not uncommon for adolescents to question religion, especially beliefs taught by their family or culture, during this natural time of rebellion. This process enables children to build a self-concept. However, adolescents sometimes fabricate these rebellions. “False Heretics” arise when the child’s motivation is not the creation of a more unified self, but rather the sabotage or testing of relationships.

Weeks later, the adolescent returned carrying a shoebox and wearing a long white dress, head wrap, and beaded necklaces. Sitting beside her mother, she smiled at me and asked, “Do you want to see what’s in my box?”

“Of course,” I replied, excited to see what was in Pandora’s Box.

She opened the box and placed each item on the coffee table directly in front of her mother: candles of various colors, a rubber chicken’s foot holding a red crystal ball, small scrolls, straight pins, a small white doll with black hair, and bottles filled with pure oils.

“Neat stuff,” I said.

She smiled as she looked at her mother. “Yes. I’m a voodoo priestess. See, mom?”

Her mother looked at me for reassurance, and I nodded. “I think they’re neat. I especially like the oils,” she said, picking up one of bottles.

The girl’s smile quickly faded. “What’s wrong with you?” she yelled. “You’re supposed to hate this! You’re supposed to hate me!” She threw her voodoo kit across the office and then coiled into the fetal position on the couch. For the second time, her mother had not given her the reaction she wanted. By pure instinct, her mother moved next to her, holding her as they both cried.

Instead of seeking self-discovery, this false heretic had used religious rebellion to test her mother’s attachment and whether it could be sabotaged.

The adolescent had been adopted at age five from a neglectful Ukrainian orphanage and had struggled to attach to her mother. She had attempted various methods to disrupt the attachment — defiance, drug use, promiscuity, elopement, and false allegations of abuse supposedly perpetrated by her mother. Appearing to become a “Satanist” and “Voodoo Priestess” were additional attempts resulting from the same motivation: to see if her mother would judge, neglect, and eventually abandon her. However, her mother remained steady.

Religion is a hot-button for most parents and guardians, and their children know it. False heretics know that, if they push this button, they will likely get a reaction. Some parents don’t just react, they put on a Broadway show. They scream, lecture, cry, plead, and make dramatic gestures with every part of their bodies. In such moments, adolescents see themselves as successful, because in their minds these reactions are proof that their parent or guardian does not accept them and that there is a risk that they could be rejected or abandoned. In this case, the daughter knew the importance of religion to her mother and hoped that her Satanic or Voodoo persona would do the trick. When they failed, though, the adolescent and her mother were then able to explore the core issues motivating the appearance of the false heretic: the girl’s fear of attachment.

The mother had to fight every one of her instincts in order to help her daughter. She wanted to yell, pray, plead, invite a priest to therapy sessions, and even douse her possessed daughter with holy water. Luckily, none of this needed to occur. The mother was receptive to receiving education about attachment and learning interventions to utilize in therapy and at home. Her daughter’s Satanism quickly gave way to Voodoo, which quickly gave way to progress in attachment therapy. I asked the mother, as I would any parent in a similar circumstance, to utilize the following interventions:

– Remain calm: If you do nothing else, remain calm. She or he wants you to lose your cool.

– Seek to understand: Ask nonjudgmental questions. Remember that understanding does not equal agreement. Ask such questions as, “What is it about [Satanism] that you like best?” “What are these Voodoo tools used for?” You might find that false heretics know little or nothing about their supposed “new religion.”

– Avoid common pitfalls: Do not lecture, give advice, plead, argue, or debate. These methods are the least successful interventions to use with adolescents who lack attachment.

– Communicate acceptance of the adolescent: You can accept the child without accepting the religion, and it’s important to communicate acceptance. You can say, “Did you make all these Voodoo dolls yourself? You’re extremely creative. That’s one of the many things that I love about you.” The acceptance needs to be sincere, not condescending.

Adolescents who lack attachment are more likely to assume the role of the false heretic than those who have successfully attached. Often, false heretics expect abandonment or rejection, so they use religious rebellion to create situations to sabotage or test the strength of their relationships. Clinicians, parents, and guardians should be prepared to pass these tests and avoid supporting the adolescent’s efforts to sabotage.

So bring forth the dark Satanists, mysterious Voodoo Priests and Priestesses, and terrified parents. I’ll expose the false heretics with acceptance and understanding. I’ll also try to overlook the fact that one of those Voodoo dolls they’re carrying bears a strong resemblance to me.


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