“I’m not going to give them any respect if they don’t give me respect,” and “It’s my life.” These are Tyler’s favorite phrases.

A defiant teenager, he is particularly fond of using the disrespect card any time an adult asks him to do something. This includes his parents, teachers, and even the pastor at his family’s church.

Like most teens, Tyler is extremely vulnerable to believing that he can handle everything and doesn’t need adults for anything. He is struggling to take control of his life at the same time his parents are struggling to give him control, only when they believe he’s ready to handle it. This is the natural power struggle that teens and parents go through, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individuals.

Amanda versus Jane

Therapists aren’t immune to these power struggles, either. Just ask Amanda, an experienced counselor who has worked with her share of difficult young adults.

Jane is one of them. A particularly aggressive 13-year-old, she once threw her wooden-soled sandal directly at Amanda’s face hollering, “I’m glad I’m not one of your kids!”

“Some teens are so direct that they come out and say, ‘There’s nothing you (the therapist) or them (their parents) can do about me,’” Amanda said.

Any therapist treating domestic violence takes one look at a husband who is dominating and abusing his wife and recognizes that he exercises power over her. Yet, when a teenager threatens, dominates by shouting and imposing guilt, or controls her parents by threatening to run away, too many therapists fail to realize that abuse is going on.

The Problem Starts Early

“Adolescent and preadolescent behavior begins at younger ages as our culture educates them more rapidly,” said psychologist David Elkind. He pointed out decades ago, children are growing up more quickly and losing their childhoods too early in our fast-moving society. As teenagers become adult-like at earlier ages, they see themselves as “equal” to the adults.

“Our society isn’t teaching them that while they are valuable individuals, they don’t have the same authority as adults,” Elkind said.

“Our society isn’t teaching them that while they are valuable individuals, they don’t have the same authority as adults,” Elkind said.

So how does a therapist treat a struggle between a teenager and his or her parents?

  • Does she ignore the power issues and treat everyone as equals?
  • Or, understanding the need for order in a child’s life, does she provide support and leadership?

Amanda has discovered that support without leadership fails, giving teenagers too much control. “They begin to lag in school and get in trouble with the law,” she said.

The Therapist as Leader

Emphasizing the clinical significance of leadership isn’t new. Jay Haley, Cloe Madanes, and Salvador Minuchin encouraged therapists 30 years ago to recognize the need for order and direction in a family’s existence.

“The more stuck a case is, the more critical it is to take charge of the treatment,” said Amanda.

That is if therapists don’t succumb to the four common errors therapists make with teenagers. They are surprisingly simple to grasp, and they always make matters worse:

Mistake 1: Courting the Teenage Client. The seeds for the countertherapeutic courtship of teenage clients are generally laid in the initial phone call from a parent, according to Jerome Price, director and founder of the Michigan Family Institute (MFI). The first words out of a parent’s mouth often are something like,

  • “The counselor at the school said we need to bring John in for family therapy, but John says we’re the crazy ones and he won’t come in.
  • He said he wouldn’t talk even if he did come in.”

This is the number one power tactic teenagers use to keep therapy from happening, Price said. When therapists tell parents there’s nothing to be done if their child won’t cooperate, we might as well say, “Sorry folks, but you better get used to your son’s running your family.”

When therapists tell parents there’s nothing to be done if their child won’t cooperate, we might as well say, “Sorry folks, but you better get used to your son’s running your family.”

MFI’s associate director, Judith Margerum, agreed. “Another way that many therapists court teenage clients and make matters worse is by according them the same treatment status as the adult clients, Margerum said. “The prevailing belief—not supported by law—that teenagers are entitled to a confidential relationship with their therapists leaves a teenager who is drunk on power thumbing his or her nose at the parents.”

Mistake 2: Telling Parents to Back Off. Teenagers almost always come into therapy complaining their parents are too strict and controlling. As a result, therapists who specialize in individual work with teens often get a misguided impression of what goes on at home and frequently advise the parents of teens to be more lenient—to relax their control.

Amanda has seen this happen with other therapists, and she has fallen prey to it herself. But she has come to realize that parents who yell and cajole are usually trying to avoid imposing a consequence on their teen. “In that respect, they are actually protective and lenient,” Amanda said.

Therapists who specialize in individual work with teens often get a misguided impression of what goes on at home and frequently advise the parents of teens to be more lenient—to relax their control.

 

 

Margerum reports that among the most harmful “back off” positions that therapists sometimes take with families is that young people have an inherent right to privacy outside the therapy room. “Many parents we see [at MFI] report that previous therapists actually criticized them for nosy and intrusive actions,” she said.

The Case of Mike

Consider the case of Mike, age 15. Mike’s parents brought him to therapy because he was:

  • Failing in school,
  • Acting belligerent and, they suspected,
  • Using drugs.

Mike spoke self-righteously as he explained his parents’ shortcomings—they were too strict and overinvolved in “his business”—as though their strictness justified his drug use, blow-ups and refusal to work in school. The previous therapist, the parents said, had told them to back off and let Mike learn by his own mistakes.

“When Mike and his parents came to the second session with us, he was met by a surprise,” Margerum said. “His mother handed me a small packet of cocaine and said that they had found it in Mike’s desk. Caught red-handed, Mike was not the least bit contrite. He shouted, ‘What were you doing in my desk?’”

In an instant, Mike’s parents wilted and became apologetic. They went from a useful, proactive, parental posture to a defensive, reactive one.

“We affirmed that they had every right to gather information about their son’s illegal and dangerous activities,” said Margerum. “With our support, they got tough with Mike and laid down the law.”

  • They told him he had to go into drug treatment and they took away the car keys.
  • Furthermore, he was grounded until his grades went up and they unplugged his phone and computer.
  • Finally, they told him they were considering sending him to military school.

“Once Mike realized he had to take care of business and change his behavior, the case progressed well,” Margerum said. “His parents then felt freer to be loving and supportive of Mike.”

Mistake 3: Relying on Family Communication. The most pervasive idea in both individual and family therapy is that young people run amok because the family doesn’t ‘communicate’ well, said MFI’s Price.

“Too many therapists focus on discussing what each member of the family feels without acknowledging any difference in status between children and parents,” Price said. “They seem to believe that children may comment on parents’ sex life or spending habits as freely as parents would address the same subject with their child. But when a young person is out of control and drunk on power, this attention to open communication is like throwing gasoline on an open flame.”

When a young person is out of control and drunk on power, this attention to open communication is like throwing gasoline on an open flame.”

Price once told a 12-year-old client who was insulting her parents in a session to stop speaking that way. She leapt up, pointed at me and shouted,

  • “You’re a therapist. You have to let me say whatever I want as long as it’s what I really feel!”

“I realized that this is what she had been taught by former therapists,” Price said. “Therapists commonly teach parents and children to speak in ‘I’ messages, and when no power struggle is going on, this practice is perfectly reasonable. However, when adolescents are angry and explosive, there is typically a power struggle going on, and this level of communication inflames it by raising an out-of-control teenager’s status to that of an equal partner with his or her parents.”

Mistake 4: Succumbing to Tunnel Vision. For Amanda, therapy is usually an individual or family process. But when treating explosive teenagers, she has found it necessary to look at an even bigger picture to find solutions.

Amanda said this involves asking several questions:

  • What’s the school’s role in maintaining this problem?
  • Is the judicial system turning its back on a family in need?
  • What about the extended family relationships?
  • Could the therapy itself be keeping the problem going, rather than resolving it?
  • In general, who else is involved in the problem and who else needs to be involved in the therapy?

“Without taking this extra step, many therapies of difficult teens will fail,” she said. “When that happens, the problems only get worse, and worse, and worse, until ‘who knows?’”

Yet, it’s never too late to make a paradigm shift and help a family by using the clinical approach suggested here, Amanda added. But first, a therapist must become comfortable with the idea of dealing with power tactics rather than communication skills.

Reference

Price, J., & Margerum, J. “Taking Charge with Difficult Teens: And Avoiding the Four Most

Common Mistakes Therapists Make,” (February 15, 2018). Psychotherapy Networker.

Retrieved from https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/1390/taking-charge-with-difficult-teens

 

You may also like

Leave a comment