Isolation and Parental Attachment in Adolescence: Young Adult Fiction as a Window by Madison Glennie

While the existence of trauma for adults is a major topic of study and accepted as a true issue, adolescents deal with their trauma while enduring the reactions of a society that does not believe in the legitimacy of their feelings. Youth are “more likely to experience impairment than adults” from trauma, and without support from their parents or community, their trauma symptoms intensify.[1] The adolescent mind remains an important but often unacknowledged space, craving understanding. Young adult fiction provides an avenue to understand adolescent mindsets and critique parental behavior. Throughout young adult literature, adolescent narrators deal with trauma, prompting them to isolate from family, friends, and their community. Differing depictions of isolation emphasize nuances in adolescent experience where seclusion is a tool with varying outcomes. Texts, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, showcase isolation’s role in adolescent trauma, magnifying youth’s unacknowledged complexities and adults’ complicity. Adults within young adult fiction and within reality need to be more cognizant of the struggles of adolescents, but these texts also demand that readers view isolating behaviors holistically, realizing the depth of young adult experience.

Methods of isolation arise in many young adult texts, and narrators’ internal monologues place these behaviors in context— an action that society often fails to attempt. The depictions contradict adults’ simplifications of reclusive methods or the initiating traumas. In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Melinda, the narrator, was raped; consequently, she stops talking and takes refuge in a forgotten janitors’ closet at her high school. Melinda’s fragmented, chaotic internal dialogue amplifies isolation’s necessity, displaying the therapeutic nature of silence. For example, Melinda questions, “What do they know about the inside of my head? Flashes of lightning, children crying. Caught in an avalanche, pinned by worry, squirming under the weight of doubt, guilt. Fear.”[2] Sentence fragments and progressive listing display her distracted mind after the sexual trauma. Melinda’s experience aligns with research on the invasive and continuing nature of these symptoms, especially because Melinda is not provided treatment: “chronic efforts to control unwanted thoughts and feelings may contribute to increased symptoms and behavioral problems over time.”[3] Although the permanence of her solution is in question, Melinda seeks a form of isolation that will decrease these symptoms. Thus, her retreat to the closet provides a healing space without competing noise or dismissals. Since “This closet is abandoned—… the perfect place for [her],” this isolation represents a therapeutic removal, giving Melinda room to understand her trauma.[4] The closet is Melinda’s attempt to heal, and the text presents this space from her perspective, giving readers the context to see the room in a different light than how both the reader and the adults in the novel may initially perceive it.

Other depictions of isolation in Speak display less therapeutic seclusion methods, including Melinda’s inability to talk, which draws the unhelpful attention of adults around her. Her silence prevents her from voicing her trauma, forcing internalization. Melinda confides in the reader that “It is getting harder to talk… Every time I try to talk to my parents or a teacher, I sputter or freeze.”[5] Besides emphasizing adults’ inaccessibility, verbs like “try” and Melinda’s frustrated tone display this silence, a form of isolation, as not of her own volition. This silencing, while still a symptom of her trauma, addresses negative versions of isolation. The closet’s refuge contrasts with her unwanted struggle to speak because one occurs of her own volition and the other does not; the closet helps her mend while her inability to speak hinders her healing. The text showcases not only the deeper motives behind Melinda’s behavior, but also the layers to her coping mechanisms, varying in efficacy. These different representations of isolation display the variety of symptoms of trauma and PTSD. In reality, “a single model of PTSD may be inadequate for the conceptualization, identification and treatment of diverse groups of trauma exposed youth.”[6] Thus, Melinda’s experience represents the complexity of trauma reactions and works against attempts by readers or Melinda’s own parents to simplify her. Melinda is not trying to further hurt herself through these methods, and her closet exemplifies her willful desire to heal through isolation, but it is the undesired muteness that harms, and this is the only tendency noticed by her parents. While studies display the complexity of adolescent trauma, Melinda’s parents show a selective focus, condemning her for her unwanted symptoms, and they represent the tendency of many adults to see adolescents from a closed perspective. The text encourages the reader to not simplify Melinda or other adolescents in the same way; noticing only their harmful behaviors and placing blame on the adolescent only furthers their trauma, especially when they are trying to heal themselves.

This form of violence that Melinda endures is prevalent among adolescents despite a lack of awareness amidst adults. Melinda deals with PTSD after experiencing sexual violence, which is an adolescent issue. “In a large national survey of children and adolescents, 70 % reported at least one form of victimization within the last year, and nearly half had been victimized more than once during that time.”[7] Her reaction to the trauma with varying types of isolation is scientifically supported, for avoidance of the situation does not always occur in the same way. “Trauma exposure and the onset of PTSD symptoms during adolescence, an already turbulent developmental period… can lead to other lasting negative consequences such as diminished academic performance and interpersonal problems… as well as the development of substance abuse.”[8] Thus, avoidance or isolation manifests differently for youth, and this variance creates difficulties in identifying and diagnosing teenagers. Adolescence is also the time when “adolescents are more likely to be victimized by violent crime than any other group… it is quite possible that they may be even more fearful of crime than their adult counterparts,” yet their emotions are seen as less legitimate.[9] Adolescents face numerous onslaughts that go unnoticed or actively ignored, and their behaviors in response may vary and be unconventional or harmful, but they are in reaction to trauma that is unquestionably within their lives.

Adults play a major role in the continuation or healing of trauma, and their culpability often goes unacknowledged. “Research has shown that unsupportive parental responses (e.g., minimizing, punishing) to children’s negative emotions have been associated with higher levels of avoidance coping and lower levels of social competence in children.”[10] Within Speak, adults consistently facilitate the seclusion of youth, trivializing causes of adolescent behavior. For instance, Melinda’s parents bombard her with questions at her school counselor meeting: “‘Why won’t you say anything?’… ‘This is childish, Melinda.’ ‘Say something.’ ‘You are only hurting yourself by refusing to cooperate.’ ‘I don’t know why she’s doing this to us.’”[11] The questions’ repetition and rhetorical quality emphasize the false inquiries, focusing on the wrong wounds, maximizing superficiality. This syntax amplifies the attacking nature of the interrogation, which keeps Melinda within the criticized isolation. Her parents, who are supposed to be her caregivers, push her further into her undesired and unhealthy isolation of muteness. All of her parents’ angered inquiries fail to ask the questions that Melinda desperately needs. Melinda’s silence in response to the onslaught emphasizes the lack of substance in her parents’ questions. While “Some research indicates that facilitating adolescents’ narration of traumatic events in these ways decreases depressive symptoms,” Melinda’s parents, much like many parents of traumatized adolescents, do not strive to facilitate her narration as much as they wish for her to choose to be healed.[12] Her parents further isolate her, removing balanced discussion as a possibility, placing Melinda’s behavior in a different schema without possible trauma. These parents represent the negative effect of adult involvement that commonly occurs, so the text argues for parents to do better.

Adults can be a vital part of healing for adolescents who experience trauma, for the immense effect of parental support on trauma symptoms also works to aid in healing. For example, when developing new assessments for treatment needs for sexually abused youth, researchers claimed that “By including parents in the assessment process, not only might the accuracy of the child’s functioning be supplemented, but this type of input and engagement may lead to positive involvement of parents in the treatment of their children.”[13] An instance where an adult showed active listening and bridged isolation occurs when Mr. Freeman, Melinda’s art teacher, actually asks her an open-ended question: “‘You’ve been through a lot haven’t you?’” and she responds “‘Let me tell you about it.’”[14] Mr. Freeman represents an adult who truly respects Melinda’s behavior and experiences without assumptions, so his question contrasts with her parents’ inquiries, providing a welcoming outlet. He does not further isolate her; he is an adult who is a part of her healing as each adult has the potential to be.

Mr. Freeman also provides another outlet that research supports for trauma treatment when he assigns Melinda a project where she must draw a tree, and this situation in the text argues for a compassionate and creative addressing of adolescent emotions. Throughout the text, Melinda employs the project as a way of expressing her mental state, and this artistic opportunity is the one space where she can speak throughout the novel. This art project resembles workshops in various studies that provide an outlet for adolescents struggling with trauma, and it presents the proven success of these methods, for the “workshops served as a non-stigmatizing, creative, and educative way for high school students to process their reactions to the disaster,” and the art project about the tree provides Melinda with a way to process her rape.[15] Mr. Freeman asks her for her thoughts on her work instead of condemning her like other adults within her life, and this behavior resembles those in guided art therapy workshops. Students state that they “‘weren’t told what to do, [they] were guided.’ These adolescents appreciated that their need for autonomy was being respected and they, in turn, could own the process.”[16] Through Mr. Freeman and Melinda’s bond, the text emphasizes the value of helpful adult intervention and reflects appreciation in Melinda’s narration of the artistic outlet and building of trust. This young adult novel models not only an adolescent realistically dealing with trauma but also a successful adult intervention, providing a narrative that can teach adults in similar situations.

Young adult literature is a platform for adolescent perspectives, but in many other spaces, adolescent experiences remain on the backburner if they are acknowledged at all. Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, or DSM-IV, only notes a few variations in suggested treatment when a child has a symptom because “the structure and symptom requirements remain based primarily on research with adults.”[17] Although this way of researching is gradually changing, it emphasizes the position of adolescents as an afterthought seen as lacking legitimate trauma. “Better understanding of the manifestation of PTSD during this developmental period and the processes that lead to particular expressions of distress for particular groups will provide information about the nature of PTSD and clues for how best to treat and prevent this disorder in youth,” so better treatment and experiences for adolescents begins with placing them at the center.[18] Although research of mental disorders does not yet place adolescents at the forefront, young adult literature provides the model for complex portrayals of youth by acknowledging their legitimacy, which scientific research must do.

This expansion into adolescent studies is one means of understanding, and young adult fiction is already fulfilling another. Studies state that parents should be encouraged and supported to “provide a social environment characterized by structure, security, emotional warmth, parental monitoring, skills encouragement, limit setting, and positive involvement,” for this environment will help heal adolescents.[19] Encouraging adults to read young adult literature seems like a good start on this plan. Young adult fiction places these young characters at the forefront, and while they may be fictional, the novels strike at the truths of growing up and experiencing different forms of violence. Young adult texts, like Speak, emphasize that when adults view youth’s isolation seriously, not as performance with trivial causes, they can hear the tentative cries, and actual growth and healing can occur. Melinda suffers a trauma and isolates in therapeutic and unhealthy ways, representing intense and nuanced adolescent experience. Her parents further her trauma as they expect her to speak for their benefit and heal on command even though they do not understand her wound. Still, Melinda confides in Mr. Freeman, emerging from isolation, but Mr. Freeman had to be listening, and in these moments, he, fortunately, was. It is the duty of parents, fictional and real, and readers to be listening, too.

Works Cited

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2006. Print.

Habib, M., Labruna, V., & Newman, J. (2013). Complex histories and complex presentations: Implementation of a manually-guided group treatment for traumatized adolescents. Journal of Family Violence, 28(7), 717-728. Retrieved from

Polusny, Melissa A., et al. “Effects of Parents’ Experiential Avoidance and PTSD on Adolescent Disaster-Related Posttraumatic Stress Symptomatology.” Journal of Family Psychology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2011, pp. 220-229, ProQuest,, doi:

Saul, Andrea L., Kathryn E. Grant, and Jocelyn S. Carter. “Post-Traumatic Reactions in Adolescents: How Well do the DSM-IV PTSD Criteria Fit the Real Life Experience of Trauma Exposed Youth?” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, vol. 36, no. 6, 2008, pp. 915-25, ProQuest,, doi:

Tosone, Carol, Rosenthal G. Caroline, and Lynne McVeigh. “Through their Own Eyes: A Media-Based Group Approach to Adolescent Trauma.” International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, vol. 55, no. 3, 2005, pp. 415-32, ProQuest,

Wallace, L. H., & May, D. C. “The impact of parental attachment and feelings of isolation on adolescent fear of crime at school.” Adolescence, 40(159), 2005, 457-474. Retrieved from

Wherry, Jeffrey N.1,, et al. “A Short Form of the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, vol. 22, no. 7, 15 Nov. 2013, pp. 796-821. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10538712.2013.830667.


[1] Tosone et al.

[2] Anderson 157

[3] Polusny et al., 221

[4] Anderson 26

[5] Anderson 50-51

[6] Saul et al., 924

[7] Habib et al., 717

[8] Polusny et al., 221

[9] Wallace and May 459

[10] Polusny 221

[11] Anderson 114

[12] Tosone et al.

[13] Wherry et al. 812

[14] Anderson 198

[15] Tosone et al.

[16] Tosone et al.

[17] Saul et al. 915

[18] Saul et al. 924

[19] Polusny 226-227