Can’t “Fix” Teens Unless Parents Change Too

Parent’s inclination often is to seek help for their teen on the assumption that the teen has to do all the changing. The reality is both caregivers and teens will need to make changes …

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Imagine — Tamara is 15 years old. She and her mother started arguing when Tamara was 12.  They argue about seemingly everything – clothes, curfews, chores, homework, friends – you name it and they’ve argued about it.  Their arguments have escalated over the last year.  Mom doesn’t trust Tamara to make good decisions, especially now that Tamara is dating a 16 year old who just got his driver’s license.  Tamara says her mother never listens and doesn’t trust her.  Tamara often storms out of the house when it gets too overwhelming.  Two times, she has stayed overnight with a girlfriend without calling.  Mom feels out of control and hopeless to change the situation. Mom decides to find help –- for Tamara.

Jim is 16 years old. His grandmother, who has had legal custody since he was a toddler, lets him come and go as he pleases.  She believes Jim is old enough to make his own decisions.  When Jim gets picked up by the police for public intoxication, she makes excuses for him at the police station, saying “He’s just following the others.  He would never drink otherwise.”  When they get home, she tells him, “You should know better than doing something stupid, like that.”  Jim feels horrible that he disappointed his Nana.  His already low self-esteem plummets as he tries to find a way to make it up to her to no avail.  She is hurt that he didn’t know better and worried what people might think.  She decides she needs to get help -– for Jim.

While more or less extreme, these patterns repeat themselves in homes across the country every day. Parent’s inclination often is to seek help for their teen on the assumption that the teen has to do all the changing. The reality is both caregivers and teens will need to make changes to establish an environment of mutual trust, improve not only communication but also understanding and bring greater responsiveness to the parent-teen relationship.

During adolescence, teens seek to find their unique identity and place in the world. Parents and teens alike need to be skillful at navigating the inevitable differences that arise on a seemingly daily basis during this period.  What’s important in this phase of adolescent development – for both teens and their caregivers — is not to “get it right” but to learn from every situation possible.

Finding the Middle Path: From Too Permissive to Too Authoritarian

There are no manuals for effectively parenting teens. To complicate matters further, both caregivers and teens have different ways of relating and responding based on their genetically determined temperaments and life experiences. Some are resilient and easy going while others are hyper-sensitive and more reactive.  Parents who grew up in a rigidly authoritarian home will relate and respond differently than one raised in a more permissive home.  A teen bullied in elementary school will respond differently than a teen who was not bullied.

To be effective, parents have to find the middle path, avoiding the extremes of overly-authoritarian and overly-permissive parenting and accommodating the needs of their teen, as much as possible. An authoritative parenting style, not to be confused with authoritarian, offers a glimpse of what the middle path might look like.  Authoritative parents establish rules and guidelines their teens are expected to follow but they are democratic in how they administer them. They are responsive to their teens and willing to answer questions. When their teen doesn’t meet expectations, authoritative parents provide natural consequences, nurture and forgive rather than imposing harsh punishments.

Primary Goal of Adolescence: Preparing Teens to Become Independent

There are two inter-related, over-arching goals to be achieved during the teen years: preparing teens for independence and helping teens develop a moral compass.

Some parents hang on too long while others let go before their teen is ready. Learning to make wise decisions and self-regulate comes gradually, not all at once. Allowing gradual freedom to make independent decisions prepares the teen for independence. But finding this middle path is not easy, as Tamara and Jim’s experiences indicate.

Similar to Tamara’s mother, parents who hang on too long generally fear their teens won’t make good decisions. Out of fear, Tamara’s mother does not give her the opportunity to learn to make wise decisions. Tamara, a strong-willed teen, fights for her independence, leading to frequent arguments with her mother over who gets to make what decisions when. If Tamara were more timid, her mother’s fear might keep her dependent even into adulthood and leave her lacking self-confidence, initiative and resilience.

Some caregivers, like Jim’s grandmother, let go too soon. Without guidance and expectations, Jim doesn’t know how to make good decisions, especially emotional, social and moral decisions. Already timid, Jim was just following the crowd. As a result, he made a poor decision with legal repercussions. His grandmother was surprised and dismayed. Instead of natural consequences, nurturance and forgiveness, his grandmother withdraws, still leaving Jim to his own devices. Next time his friends drink, he will have to decide whether to please his grandmother and risk social isolation or follow the crowd and risk negative repercussions again.

Both Tamara and Jim need their caregivers to allow them room for making mistakes within tolerable limits.  When teens make ineffective decisions within boundaries, caregivers can gently their teens to identify more effective ways of handling difficult situations. In this way, parents act as coaches and teens learn to make more effective decisions, gaining greater independence and developing a moral compass in the process.

A Tool to Help Parents Help Teens Make Effective Decisions

Chain analysis is an effective tool used to coach teens learn from problem behaviors. In chain analysis, the parent, acting as coach, encourages the teen to identify factors that led to the problem behavior and link all the causal factors in a chain leading to both negative and positive consequences.  At each link, they explore thoughts, emotions and body sensations associated with the behavior (see diagram).

This provides the teen insight into how to replace the problem behavior (reactive behaviors) with positive, responsive behaviors next time a similar situation arises. It gives the parent insight into how to be a more effective coach and set more rigid or flexible limits, as needed, while still fostering independence.

behavior chain

Assumptions about Teens

Whether explicit or not, parenting styles are based on a set of assumptions about the motivations and capabilities of teens. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is based on a set of assumptions that provide a sound foundation for parents as well.  The underlying theme of the DBT assumptions is that parenting teens is a collaborative endeavor.  Teens can be effective partners in decision making with their caregivers, moving them toward the independence and decision-making capacity they will need to function as healthy adults.   To this end, we assume the following about teens.

Teens are doing the best they can.  When parents validate their teens are doing the best they can, teens feel heard and understood.  If the teen still makes poor choices, then helping them make better choices involves coaching them through the chain of events to identify more effective ways to achieve their goals and generate natural consequences not harsh punishments. Teens want to improve. Assuming teens want to improve makes it more likely they will be motivated to improve.  When parents assume their teens don’t want to improve, they invalidate the teens’ efforts to improve, sending the message that nothing the teen does is good enough.  An important way parents can reinforce teens’ desire to improve is to validate what they do effectively rather than focusing on what they fail to do.  Validation motivates.  Validation also provides evidence of parents’ willingness to see things from the teen’s perspective, thus strengthening the parent-child bond

Teens need to do better, try harder and be more motivated to change. If teens want to improve, then they want to become more effective over time, learning from their poor choices.  In this context, expecting teens will learn from their poor choices and try harder, do better and be more motivated next time is only reasonable. That said, this is an area where it is important to follow the middle path, not pushing too hard or expecting too little.

Teens may not have caused all of their own problems, but they have to solve them anyway.  If your teen gets shoved on the school yard and is mistakenly blamed for starting a fight, she/he has to solve the problem with school officials even if she didn’t start the fight and it is unfair to be blamed.

The lives of depressed and distressed teens are painful as they are currently being lived. Being depressed and anxious is not something anyone would choose.  When a teen says they are depressed or stressed, they are not trying to manipulate you; they are in pain.  That’s not to say they can’t improve their situation with nurturance and guidance but change starts by addressing the pain that they are currently living.

Teens must learn new behaviors in all important situations in their lives. Without lifelong learning, humans stagnate.  To flourish, teens must be encouraged to learn from every situation they encounter.

There is no absolute truth. There are at least two sides to every story.  When parents assume they are (always) right, there is no room for give and take in the relationship and no room for learning how to make good choices.

Teens and their parents should start with the assumption that others are well meaning rather than assuming the worst. It’s hard to have a productive discussion if you assume the worst about your teen or they assume the worst about you.  Everyone will save themselves a lot of miseries in life by assuming others are well meaning.

Youth cannot fail DBT. DBT is about being more or less effective, not right or wrong.  DBT doesn’t have any tests; it is a set of skills that require practice, practice, practice.  Even after practicing a lifetime, there will still be room for improvement.

DBT for Teens and Parents

Together, teens and caregivers can learn tools and skills to find the middle path in a 24-week skills group. In this highly experiential group, teens and their caregiver(s) participate in weekly group sessions together, learning and practicing the same skills at the same time.  Together, they learn and apply skills to listen mindfully, relate to each other more effectively, cope with distressing situations and regulate their emotions.  The goals are to help parents and teens more effectively navigate this challenging period in adolescent development, to foster wise decision making by both parents and teens and to learn to seek the middle path.

Who:  The teen, age 13 and up, at least one caregiver, maximum 3 per family

When:  Weekly on Thursdays from 4:00 – 6:00 pm

Where:  St. Louis DBT, LLC, 1034 S. Brentwood Blvd, Suite 555, Richmond Heights, MO 63117 (across from the Galleria)

For more information, email Paige@stldbt.com

Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, is one of five therapists who see clients at St. Louis DBT, LLC. Paige Lynch, MA, LPC also contributed to this blog.  Learn more about St. Louis DBT.

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