“Why do They Act That Way” by David Walsh, is a great book to read to see if your teen’s behavior is normal or crossing the line into madness. Because there is a line. If you check in and find that there are too many red flags in her behavior, perhaps family therapy is the way to go.
When I do family therapy with adolescents there are three important things to keep in mind:
- Always follow the social work principle to “go where the patient is.” In this case the patient is the teen, not the family or the parents. The teen needs support in the therapeutic setting. You must align yourself with her. Even if the parents are uncomfortable, feel awkward or even undermined it is critical to give the teen her voice. This means to allow her to speak and not be judged or interrupted. Model this for the parents. Let the teen get acknowledgment however scary her thoughts may be. She may then be able to relax.
- Use humor. Allow the teen to see that sometimes he or she is absurd. Or say something to lighten up the parents like, seems like you are the ones in need of therapy! (Which is often true). Tell the teen you have heard it all so nothing he or she says will shock you. Be playful in the sessions. Remind the teen that you were a teen once too. Share but don’t over-share. You can say, “When I was your age I did a lot of stupid things…” This will normalize some of their experiences.
- Remember teens can go from zero to 60 in about ten seconds. BUT… they can also go back again from 60 to zero if you give them some time to cool off. NOTHING GETS ACCOMPLISHED IN THE HEAT OF THE MOMENT. The best thing I learned from a recent workshop at Ackerman Institute was about “flooding.” Flooding is when your brain gets over-stimulated by emotion. It actually changes blood flow and sensation in many parts of the nervous system. It makes sense then that for all of us, staying calm will be the only time that information can get in. Hit the “pause” button or take a time out. Then you can discuss whatever is important.
Of course when all else fails there is taking the phone, car, or computer. This can work on a limited basis. For sure. But seek long-term solutions over short-term ones. Seek understanding over authority. Seek peace over war. You will thank yourself later. Because fighting with a teen is exhausting. I recently found this out over the weekend when I brought my teen to a college visit. On this big decision my teen was the perfect half-child/half-adult. Clingy yet fierce. Scared yet bold. Angry yet confident. Embarrassed yet cool. Really it’s just where she needs to be. Parents: don’t forget to be strong. They need someone to push against. For that, the first step is showing up.