I’ve said in other places that going to therapy doesn’t just mean that you have problems, it means that you want things to be better. One of my most basic stances is that good parents are the ones that read parenting articles. The parents out there that aren’t as good, are not the type that can be self-critical or self-regulating so please accept my kudos for taking the time to read this article. You’re also probably here because your teenager is having some issues and you’re trying to figure out what the best course of action is. I know the title of this article may come across as finger pointing, I honestly have a different meaning from the title. Please keep reading and hear me out.
First of all, nobody is perfect and second of all, parenting is really hard. Everybody, and I mean everybody, makes parenting mistakes so give yourself some slack. When I work with teens, I also usually recommend working with the parents. On the most basic level, I like to keep parents in the loop as much as possible when working a teenager but whether we like to admit or not, almost all of us were shaped and molded by our family environment and culture. If a teen is not doing well, the most effective way to help teens is to have a closer look at the family as a system and how it functions.
As a therapist, I learned about family systems therapy when I was in school. It’s a theory that builds on the premise that families work as a system and even though many families tend to look at their problems in an oversimplified way, we, as therapists, work to look beyond that and how each person in the family is part of a system. Some family systems are highly dysfunctional and chaotic. Kids and teens are secondary and tertiary factors in family systems. They are not the founders or originators of the family, they just grow up in it which means that more often than not, their own personal issues are in response to the system that they grew up in. This isn’t always true, of course. Kids and teens can be traumatized despite parent’s best efforts to avoid that. I’m a firm believer that junior high school, for example, is something that seriously disrupts most kids and their well being. It’s a terrible place of social anarchy and kids with good self-esteem can quickly lose it when they attend junior high school. But in families, everyone is interconnected and even though family members have good and loving intentions, issues and problems can still easily happen. With that in mind, helping a teenager can be difficult if the family system doesn’t make any adjustments. I’m not always able to involve parents in family therapy, but when I can, I certain do. Unfortunately, professionals also sometimes have to address families in which the family system is not likely to improve and I have had cases where I am just trying to help a teen learn to survive their family. But the bottom line is that teenagers are likely to improve when the family system improves and when parents make changes, there are shifts in the family system. I first started realizing this when I was working in youth treatment centers as a staff and a supervisor. I remember one example in which we had worked with a teen who acted out a lot when he first came and was initially difficult to manage. Over time he made a lot of progress and after a few months was doing really well. His family flew in for a visit and after spending a few days with them, his behavior was right back to where it was when he first arrived. He was difficult to manage and was acting out a lot again. I remember him being angry and belligerent. It was clear that spending time with his family was like hitting the reset button; it triggered him back into the pattern of the family system that he had grown up in. When parents make some of their own changes, the entire dynamic of the family can and usually does change.
Parents are people too
Parents are people too, they are imperfect human beings with experiences and beliefs that have resulted in them carrying around baggage and having issues. Which is okay and completely understandable but when they go unaddressed, it increases the chances of the kids developing significant problems too. Parents with unresolved trauma, for example, are likely to pass on the emotions and beliefs around that trauma to their kids. Parents who have extremely low self-esteem are not likely to produce kids who have high self-esteem. Parents who have bad boundaries aren’t going to produce kids who have healthy boundaries. As I have pointed out to parents in the past, if they don’t learn these things from you, where would they learn it from? If you want your teen to have higher self-esteem, you should learn to improve yours. If you want your teen to have better boundaries, improve your own. It’s okay to have some issues and areas of improvement. You’re a person too and you’re allowed to make mistakes and fall short as a parent. When you get to work on facing your own issues, your kids are far more likely to do the same.
Your reaction to a situation determines the outcome
Over the years I’ve worked with hundred upon hundreds of teenagers. Some of them were great kids who were a bit misguided while others had some significant issues and difficulties. One lesson that I learned that was proven to me over and over again is that my reaction to a situation always determined the outcome. I could either escalate the situation/ problem and thereby making it worse, or I could be more proactive about how I approached the problem and not only have a more desirable outcome but also improve my chances in the future for better problem resolution. For example, if they know I’m not going to freak out and yell at them, they are less likely to lie to me. I have many stories and examples of this, instances in which a teen had created a problem and was expecting me to get angry, freak out and make demands on them. When I gave them an entirely different reaction, even by just making a few adjustments in the wording and vocabulary that I use, I almost always improve my chances of effectively solving problems. You can learn to do the same thing in your home and with your relationships with your kids.
Changing your perspective
When I work with parents, my goal is often to help change their perspective about their kids and relationships. Some small adjustments in perspective can change how you approach them and talk to them and as I’ve already discussed, improve the chances of a positive outcome. Specifically, a good place to start is usually with talking about expectations. Ask yourself honestly, what do you expect from your teens? Do you expect them to not make mistakes, listen to all your advice and follow all the rules? When it comes to teenagers, these kinds of expectations present quite the paradox. The very nature of being a teenager is one of exploration and a desire for independence. This always comes with mistakes and almost always includes making big ones. All of us were defining our identity when we were teenagers and that’s not ever going to go away. Teenagers are going to take the hard roads, they are going to make the bad choices, they are going to get into trouble and they are going to fail. But that’s how they learn. Changing your expectations can have a drastic positive effect on your overall perspective. Developing empathy for what your teen is experiencing is another area that I recommend for parents to develop. It’s easy for parents to get caught up in trying to live vicariously through their kids but that has never proven to be an effective strategy. When I work with parents, I often work with them on changing their perspective. When perspective changes, behavior changes.
I always work to understand that parents often come with regret and anxiety about their own success as a parent and I believe it’s important to be sensitive to these factors. Going to therapy and opening up takes a lot of courage. I personally believe that this is the formula for getting the best results for teens in the shortest amount of time.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article, I hope you found it interesting and helpful. Be sure to subscribe on my website to get my latest articles when they are published. If you need help with your struggling teen, I hope you will give me a call and give me the opportunity to meet and work with your family.