“We’re really concerned about our 14 year-old, he has explosive episodes and doesn’t seem to connect well with us. We’re feeling overwhelmed and not always sure how to help him.” This was the experience of two highly skilled parents who entered family therapy to get help for their foster son and family. Both of these individuals happened to be therapists themselves and had a lot of experience working with teens and families. Yet, they didn’t feel like things were working for them with their oldest child.
The family I’m describing is my own. Combined, my wife Mariah and I, have over 25 years of experience working with teens and families. We reached our for support a couple years ago from a family therapist because we knew that despite our vast experience and skill set, on our own, we were no match for the unique challenges we were facing with our teen.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my own family and the hundreds that I’ve helped over the years it’s this: Parenting teens without support doesn’t work well. Teens and parents do best during adolescence when they have someone else that they can trust and connect with. Young people need, and are looking for, other adults that fit this criteria. There are a lot of places to find this that may include, neighbors, family members or family friends. However, having a family therapist that you trust to guide, assist and support you and your child can be invaluable
If you’re like many parents, you may put off asking for help from a therapist. I don’t blame you. As a field, despite the best of intentions, we can be very judgemental of parents. Or alternatively, we can fall into the trap of labeling teens and scapegoating them as the source of all that is wrong in a family. Parenting teens is stressful enough as it is, who wants to pay someone to provide impractical advice and judge them? It’s important to know that there are a lot of good family therapists out there who understand the challenges and impossible dilemmas of modern day parenting and who also get the struggles and conflicted feelings that teens go through. The ability to understand these two differing perspectives and bridge the gap is essential.
If you decide to give family counseling a try here are 7 tips that will increase the chance that your family will have a positive experience.
1. Make sure you feel comfortable. So much of parenting is subjective and revolves around personal values. The therapist you choose should have a style and approach that fits with your values and personality as a parent. They should use language and interact with you in a way that feels “right” on a gut level.
2. They need to connect with your teen. No matter how smart, skilled, or experienced a therapist is, if they aren’t able to connect with your teen, they won’t be effective.
3. Make sure you feel involved and included in the process. With every successful family I’ve worked with, there have been many instances where a parent or child has offered direct feedback that helped guide the process. You’re the expert on your own family and this expertise should be valued and leveraged in therapy.
4. They should challenge you. A good therapist should be comfortable challenging you and your teen while still ensuring that you both feel supported and valued.
5. Plan on hanging in there. If you’ve ever changed careers, moved to a new town, ended a bad habit, you know that real change isn’t easy. It takes time and involves a process with some backsliding.
6. Accept that you’ve made mistakes as a parent. Your teen certainly has as well. That doesn’t make you a bad parent any more than it makes your teen messed up or bad either. While there likely are issues that need to be addressed, you’re both doing a lot of things right.
7. Don’t expect your teen to want to come in at first. Most teens are understandably skeptical of therapy. Some of this is developmentally normal as they’re trying to separate from you, but the bigger resistance is often due to an expectation that they’re going to be lectured to and labeled as a troubled kid. A good therapist will engage your teen and help them feel more comfortable with the process.
All parents of teens have, at one time or another, felt lonely, overwhelmed, incompetent and scared. Don’t let yourself go through this process alone. The reality is, you’re probably not doing as bad as you think and your teen will likely end up just fine. But it doesn’t always have to be so hard. With support and guidance from others we trust, parenting our teens can become an experience that is fraught with joy and adventure that ultimately leads to greater maturity and wisdom.