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What Isaac Newton Knew About Struggling Teens

In 1687 Isaac Newton published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), thereby compiling a unified quantitative explanation for a wide range of phenomena – including the modern struggling teenager.  A closer (albeit somewhat loose) investigation of Newton’s Laws of Motion can certainly begin to shed some light on challenges you may be facing, and possible solutions.

Issac Newton

Newton’s First Law:

An object at rest will stay at rest unless acted on by an external force, and an object in motion will continue its velocity and trajectory unless acted on by an external force.



Things that sit still will continue to sit still until an independent force is applied.  Things that are moving will continue moving in the same direction, at the same speed, until an outside force is applied.  Other forces may also act to accelerate their trajectory.


What This Means For Your Struggling Teen:

Your teen will continue to sit on the couch and eat Cheetos while he plays online video games, forever, until a force is applied to get him to move.  This force might come in the form of external social pressures from friends to join a sport, family incentives to get up and do some chores, or the decision to enroll him in a wilderness program intervention.  Any of these can be the viable external force, but something must be applied in order to change the status quo.  In terms of struggling teens, Sir Isaac missed the correlation between the time an object has been at rest and the amount of force which will be required to dislodge it.  


Similarly, if your teen is “heading down a bad road” with questionable friends, flagging grades, poor behavioral choices, or risky behaviors, then it is likely that the trajectory will continue, with the threat of an increase in the velocity caused by forces from outside the home, unless a substantial force is applied in another direction.  Waiting for things to “run their course” generally doesn’t hold true to the laws of Newtonian physics, or teenagers.  If you’re seeing a trajectory you’re uncomfortable with it’s time to apply some forces of your own.


Newton’s Second Law:

Force = Mass x Acceleration



It’s easier to push a Hot Wheels toy car up your driveway than it is to push your real car up your driveway.  Because of the reduced mass of the toy car, a significantly reduced force is needed to achieve the same acceleration up the driveway.


What This Means For Your Struggling Teen:

The effort (force) required to intervene on behalf of your struggling teen will be equal to the size of the challenges they’re facing (mass) multiplied by the speed at which things are going in the wrong direction (acceleration).  Small pr oblems can be remedied with little force, but larger issues may require a force that one or two people simply cannot exert.


Newton’s Second Law also helps explain one of the great values to be gained from a residential placement – that of sustained forces.  To help explain this phenomenon via physics let’s perform a short experiment:  hold out your coffee cup.  Don’t raise it, don’t lower it, just hold it level in your outstretched hand.  If you’ve succeeded in neither dropping your cup nor hitting yourself in the head with it, then you have a coffee cup acceleration rate that is pretty close to zero.  And if you’re at all like me, the coffee cup is full, and probably weighs around 18oz, ceramics included.  With an acceleration of zero, and the mass of 18oz pressing down toward the earth, you’re exerting an equal 18oz of force (roughly 5 Newtons, if you’re into that sort of thing) upwards.  Holding it steady for a short time is easy.  


But consider holding that cup still, in your outstretched arm, for five minutes, or five hours, or five days.  The forces required to maintain zero acceleration, while still the same opposing 18oz/5 Newtons as each moment passes, require a stamina of sustained force that most people simply cannot achieve.  Eventually your stamina will give out, the force will be reduced, the 18oz mass of the coffee cup will overtake your ability to exert an equal pressure upwards, and you’ll spill the coffee.  


Now imagine if there were 50 people, who were all trained in holding the coffee level, and they could pass the coffee between them.  Each time one person’s stamina was exhausted, there would be another person to take their place.  A constant pressure, and persistent upward force, can now be applied without interruption.  The coffee would never spill.  This is a part of the power of a residential placement – a team of professionals will have the stamina to consistently exert the effort needed to counteract the size of the challenge you’re facing.


Newton’s Third Law:

For every action there is an equal, and opposite, reaction.  



All forces exist in pairs, and occur simultaneously.  Neither force exists without the other.   


What This Means For Your Struggling Teen:

If you’re pushing back on a struggling teen in your family, then you’re likely feeling the effects of that effort pushing back on you.  This might include feeling elements of this struggle in relationships at home or with friends, or in your career or discretionary time.  Your teen’s actions create reactions which ripple through your entire life.  Conversely, your own actions ripple through the life of your teen.  These forces act in pairs, occur simultaneously, and impact both of you.   


By way of a case study, imagine two ice skaters on the ice, standing toe to toe, palms touching.  If one of them begins to exert pressure, then in order to stay toe to toe the other must absorb that pressure in an equal manner.  This can go on, back and forth, with one pushing and the other absorbing, for as long as the pressures can be equally exerted and absorbed.   But if they get out of sync, or if either one one pushes back against the other, or if the pushing force exceeds the ability of the other to absorb it, then the two skaters immediately go sliding apart, backwards.


Like the ice skaters, if you and your teen are currently out of sync, if your ability to absorb the pressures he/she is putting on you is at its maximum capacity, or if communication is breaking down, then it’s no wonder that each of you may find yourselves skidding backward across the ice.  Seeking help via a residential placement can help each of you learn how to find your balance again, and adjust to the changing pressures that come, one from the other, but act upon each of you simultaneously.  


For a guy with a funny haircut and a thing for apples, Newton certainly knew a lot about modern teenagers.



About the Author

headshot of Jake WeldJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs.  He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.