THERAPY FOR PARENTS OF ADOLESCENTS
If you've landed on this page- chances are you're worried about your teenager. You're not sure if you should be concerned at all, or if you should be really concerned -- but you know that you're spending some sleepless nights and that all the hand wringing and obsessing isn't making the concern go away.
Here are some of the things you may be wondering about:
- How can I prepare my teenager to be a confident, independent adult?
- How do I know if I'm hovering too much?
- How can I possibly back off when the risks to him are so real? When her judgment is so very poor?
- How can I encourage the passion, creativity, perseverance and resilience he or she will need to succeed in this hyper-competitive world?
- How can I empower my teen to take more chances? To push back sometimes rather than dutifully and joylessly adhere to the expectations of others?
- How do I know what's worth worrying about and what I need to just let be?
Your teenager may only need you a few hours a month: when they're trying to decide whether to have sex and with whom, when they're trying to weigh the risks of doing drugs against the perceived social benefits. You just have no idea when those few hours will arise. They'll be more likely to turn to you at those critical times if you've demonstrated respect for their privacy and for their ability to figure things out on their own.
Maybe you're a "hands off" parent- who feels that your job is to let your kids figure things out for themselves.
Or perhaps, even for the best of reasons, out of love and concern -- you're running interference for your teen at every turn, anticipating every obstacle, and worrying out loud about all the dangers and risks that await them. Without realizing it, you may be giving them a vote of no confidence. Some kids will be able to tune you out and will proceed anyway. But more sensitive or compliant children may interpret your input to mean: "You can't possibly figure out how to handle what life may throw your way." "Keep leaning on me." "The world is too dangerous." "Stay put." More defiant children may reflexively ignore everything you have to say, just because you've said it, thereby missing chances to figure out that actually, "I should be worried."
Or you're the parent of a child who really is in serious trouble, actually does need your help, but who absolutely refuses to accept it..
Therapy can help you figure out what situations really warrant worry and intervention. It can help mobilize you to take effective action even if doing so is a challenge to your values, or if you feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start. Drug and alcohol dependence and addiction, serious depression, debilitating anxiety, eating disorders, are all situations that require serious attention. You want to be thoughtful, not reactive, as you develop the best plan for intervening. Letting your teen "figure it out" can send a message of being oblivious to danger, or of not caring about them.
Sometimes though, your child is not in danger, but it may be difficult for you to allow them to navigate the normal -- if scary -- roller coaster of adolescence. Therapy can help you tolerate the anxiety of not intervening when you care so much.
Not intervening can be really challenging. What they see as a little problem may look very big and unmanageable to you. If you've been vocally worried and fretful about every little thing, they may have learned to tune you out, or to worry about every little thing themselves. There will be times that you want them to pay close attention to your concerns. Learning to tolerate your own anxiety will help you keep quiet more often, so that they are more likely to actually listen to you when you do speak up.
SOME REASONS PARENTS HOVER:
You may want to shield your teen from failure, or find it excruciating to watch him or her suffer.
You may believe that doing nothing is being a neglectful and uncaring parent. Perhaps your parents were neglectful or otherwise let you fend for yourself way too much. Your compensating for their mistakes may not be in your child's best interest. Therapy can help you come to terms with your own unmet needs and allow you to more clearly see what your child actually does and doesn't need from you.
You may have made serious blunders during your own adolescence, and you desperately want your child to avoid them.
You may believe that you can see, better than your teen can, the consequences of not having a full resume. And you may well be right. But it's worth paying close attention to what happens when your child listens to your input. They may become increasingly flattened out. Love of learning and creativity may be replaced by robotic, joyless production. And if your goal is to have them "make it" in todays world, they will need to be passionate, to think outside the box, to be able to take risks, to tolerate making mistakes and learning from them. These are some of the ingredients to a life that feels like it's their own, not to mention one that actually feels worth living.
This may seem like a foreign and impossible concept. How can neglect be benign? Isn't neglect by definition, the opposite of what you want to do as a parent? It certainly is when the neglect is malignant. When your child isn't getting food and shelter or appropriate medical care, when their feelings aren't being noticed or attended to, when they aren't being provided with sufficient structure and discipline -- these are signs of neglect that are far from benign.
Let's assume for the moment that all the needs described in the previous paragraph are being met for your child. What would happen if when they came to you with a problem, you did nothing? And just waited? Didn't respond to their text for, say, an hour or two instead of two minutes? Didn't send that e mail with what felt like compelling advice until the next morning? Or just didn't send it at all?
In all likelihood, both you and your child would survive this experiment. Your child might even have decided the big problem wasn't so big after all. Or called on someone else for help. Or dug a little deeper than usual and figured things out for themselves. Your child will now have learned that he or she is capable of doing so, and will carry that confidence forward.
If that didn't happen -- and the original problem still concerns them -- you're still there, available, caring and tuned in.
HOW CAN I ENCOURAGE GOOD JUDGMENT?
Be curious about their choices. You want them to engage and develop their own minds and their own ability to solve problems. It's really useful for them to learn to call on their own resources and on resources of adults other than you.
Be their memory bank. Remind them of times they've handled situations that were similar to the one they're facing now.
Wonder out loud a lot. Be very interested, but avoid telling them what to do. You are trying to encourage critical thinking. You want them to be able to tolerate ambiguity, to see the complexity in certain situations, yet to know for certain when something is right or wrong, despite what their friends may think.
Some useful things to say to encourage independent thinking:
Quite the dilemma.
This sounds very complex.
What are your thoughts?
What else is going on?
How do you imagine you'd feel tomorrow if you followed this path? The opposite path?
How might (someone you know they admire and respect) go about approaching this?
If they insist they need your direct input -- try walking them through your own thought process rather than just telling them what to do. Let them know you might consult with trusted colleagues or friends, that you'd have to take multiple things into consideration, that you'd sleep on it so you could see if things looked different in the morning.
Helpful stances to take and questions to ask when things go wrong:
First, avoid suggesting that mistakes are catastrophes.
If that's difficult for you, call a friend, write an e mail that you don't send, take a walk around the block before you talk to your teen. Let them know that if they make a mistake, the important thing to do is to step back and figure out how that happened and what they could do differently next time.
After something goes wrong, listen closely for, and use, language that conveys thinking, that suggests stepping back. Use words like "I wonder", "I noticed", "I'd be curious about". You might try some of these questions:
What surprised you?
What were you thinking at the time? (watch the tone here- you're going for a curious tone to help
them pay attention to their own thought process- not- What were you thinking!)
What weren't you thinking?
In retrospect, what would it have been helpful to do?
How would you structure it if you were in charge?
Who would you pull in for help? Why?
What not to say after a mistake:
Anything that conveys catastrophe, or that portrays you as the seat of all knowledge and wisdom, them as the incompetent one unable to ever navigate the world again.
I told you you should have listened to me.
I told you that boy was trouble.
There may well be consequences to their mistakes, privileges taken away etc. (the use of a car after a drunk driving event for example) - but you want there to be learning as well, and you want them to have a way to claim that learning for themselves.
Since so much growth is happening during adolescence, your role as a parent is a rapidly-shifting one. Today's hesitant teen may be tomorrow's wild child. Things are complex and it can sometimes feel like you can't possibly keep up with all the the mood changes, the technology changes, the behavior changes. Whether you need to learn to intervene or to back off, to teach your child restraint or to nudge him or her from the nest, you can acquire the skills to do so and therapy can help.
I'm happy to help you sort things through.
Call for a free phone consultation: 415.925.8511 x328