In twenty five years of working with families, I have never seen acting out, dysfunctional, troubled teenagers, without the combination of ineffective parenting. Whether it is an organization, a small company, or a family unit, problems do originate from the top. Poor communication or ineffective communication is usually the primary shortcoming in marital therapy. It is no different in families with troubled teenagers. By the time the teenager presents in therapy, there are usually severe issues, either with school, the law, or family disruption. In my fantasy realm, mandatory family tune ups prior to crisis would make life easier for all. Of course this is a fantasy and not the real world. As parents, we do not go to high school or college and enroll in parenting 101. Our parenting techniques are usually experiential and we learn from how we were brought up. Hopefully we are introspective enough to dump our parent’s ineffective parenting and proceed with the good stuff they taught us. That is how we continue the sacred hoop of bettering the next generation.
If one wants to exacerbate teenagers reactions of, anger, emotions and create distancing, try stating, No you cannot do that because you are too young, and do not have the experience or knowledge. This will be the quickest way to elicit an unwelcome reaction. Teenagers are in the process of finding independence and staking their claim in the real-estate property of life. This needs to be recognized if one wants to have a chance at effective communication. The two major factors that inhibit communication are: parents who are uncomfortable in letting go combined with instilling inappropriate limits and teenagers searching desperately for a sense of self.
There are a few effective methods to integrate communication with families and their teenagers. When asking a teenager what they feel the main problem is, they frequently and honestly state, My parents do not understand me! Parents usually retort, How can we understand, if my son or daughter doesn’t talk to us? Indeed, this is a form of communication. It may not be what each party wants; however, behavior and brief statements as well as withdrawing are a form of communication. Teenagers DO NOT want to hear how far you walked in the snow to school as a child, nor how rough you had it, or how your parents were more disciplined. A therapist must reframe the communication and teach each other, to not only listen but to really hear what the other is saying. There needs to be a re-defining of goals and appropriate boundaries. Respect, is a two way street, some parents demand respect because of age difference, the title of the word, parent, and their views on how their teenager should behave. Teenagers on the other hand have a distorted perception, that they should be allowed to have the world at their finger tips, and nothing should stop them from grabbing their wants and desires
Therapists must point out the ability that each party has the knowledge to push buttons or triggers to elicit anger. When teenagers and families seek out the therapist, tensions are high and once these can be pointed out some of the emotions can be defused.
Reestablish goals on both sides. Give a clear goal oriented treatment plan. This allows all parties involved knowing where they are going and the progress or lack of can be measured.
Teenagers and parents need to know they must sacrifice something in order to make progress.
The therapist must differentiate to the teenager the difference between, morals, values, self respect and illegal behavior. So frequently these issues are not well understood within their framework.
Trying to instill the basic paradigm of parents worry and concern to teenagers is usually not effective. It is usually followed by, I will be fine, they worry too much, and I am old enough to take care of myself.
A slow paradoxical approach can be helpful to allow more responsibility, with a time-line, and then target the failure. The responsibility falls directly on the teenager, and they have a harder time externalizing blame.
These are only a few basic interactions. These sessions are of high tension, and can be laborious. Patience, dedication and being supportive of both sides are of the utmost importance.