All parents suck in unique ways. My parents for example: one was a realist and one was a dreamer. Tough combo for the spouse left behind. Bad deal for kids who are left to figure out actual reality. For the teens and young adults that I see there are generally 4 types of sucky parents.

1. Abuse and addiction – these are really bad and the kid will need outside help if the parents can’t get support.  They often use the child as the “identified patient” but the child usually knows that this is a sham.  When I joke with patients about their parents needing therapy they get it instantly.  I try to do family therapy in these cases but there is often denial and resistance and bickering and dysfunction getting in the way. A thorough probe of family history will provide many clues for the work ahead.  Family systems therapy is my go-to for this, as Salvador Minuchin wrote,

  • “The root of most childhood problems is not within the child but within the family unit. Therefore, to change the child’s behavior, the therapist must help change the family dynamics. To do this, Minuchin looked closely at family structure, or hierarchy, family subsystems, and boundaries, both rigid and flexible. The therapist is an active member of the treatment group and gets involved in the dynamics between and among family members to effectively promote change and strengthen the family structure.”

2. Benign neglect – parents just too caught up in their own bs and work to give a damn. This may be remediated if the kids are resilient.  Sometimes kids are even better off when this is the case, if parents are particularly self-absorbed.  Can be preferable to helicoptering.  However in the long-run teens need something to push against in order to launch.  Like the edge of the swimming pool.  You gotta be there.

Angry All The Time

3. War of the roses – incessantly bickering parents who even in the case of divorce can’t stop. This has a lasting power to destabilize the child’s chances for hope and success. Constant underlying dysthymia and low expectations result.  Someone once told me that the way they were married is the way they will divorce.  This creates a long-standing feud that’s impossible for teens and even young adults to understand.

4. One parent or the other is bullied by the other. this leads kids to repeat poor decisions that are based on power and control. Bad, bad news.  Of all the sucky parents this dynamic or dyad, based on a power struggle, is the most difficult to work with in therapy because outside of therapy the couple will typically revert to this pattern without insight. Acting out of fear, they lose sight of obvious priorities and cannot contain their conflict from the kids.  When a teenager sees this he or she is likely to experience significant distress and upheaval in her fragile, emotional world.

So tell your parents early and often to seek help!  Tell them if they do it, you’ll do it.