Teens often approach attendance in the Shelterwood Program, or any other top quality therapeutic facility that challenges them to make a change in their lives, with at least one of the following three techniques. Knowing what to expect during the first phase of treatment will go a long way in helping you as parents remain resolute and cross over from the pain of resistance and uncertainty to restoration and growth.
- Faking Good
The first thing any of us would do when confronted with a problem is to highlight our capability and lack of problems. The teen might say things like, “I don’t have a problem,” “There has been a misunderstanding,” or “My parents are just overreacting. You’ll see, I am just fine.” They will try to demonstrate to staff that this has all been a misunderstanding and that they are fully capable and don’t need help. The teen is hoping that somehow they can divert attention towards their parents’ lack of judgment and that staff will possibly believe the story and fight to return the teen home prematurely. This strategy tends to be very short-lived, but we do on occasion see teens get promoted prematurely into the next Phase of Change using this strategy. Of course, the longer the fake self dominates the conversation, the less real the change will be and eventually they will become very exhausted. They can only fake for so long and will often implode with a major rule violation. It is important for parents and programs not to be tricked into believing that more has been accomplished and bring them home.
Another fantastic strategy that is often employed in the early stages of change is the use of bargaining. The teen will say things like, “If you wanted me to change, why didn’t you say so?” or “I will be different – just let me come home.” Bargaining and denial are very similar in that the teen has difficulty accepting that the placement is necessary. “This can’t be happening” or “This is based on lies” are common phrases when this technique is being employed.
The teen will explain to parents that if (s)he had known that that they were serious (s)he would have changed. The teen will explain that now they get the message and so wasting the parents’ money and spending time in a treatment program is unnecessary. They will make promises and suggest that they can simply go home and be different. “I don’t need this place to change.” Essentially they are saying that they can just decide to be different and they will just be different, that change is as simple as a choice.
Some parents might also believe this declaration and are simply looking for a commitment from their teen. They might have only wanted to scare their teen and therefore will accept this type of deal because they believe they have accomplished their goal of getting their teen to commit to change. It is important for treatment program staff to help parents understand the value of the process, to recognize that wanting to change is only the first step in change. Just saying that one will change is avoiding the issues and skips all the work that is necessary to unravel how he or she got there in the first place.
Threatening parents is probably the most common approach teens use to try and extricate themselves from a situation. Surprisingly, even the most articulate teens that we work with struggle to identify how they truly feel. Most of the teens that use this approach have been using anger, intimidation, and threats for years. It has become their secondary emotion even though there are significant primary emotions being masked. Over time, the lies that they believe about themselves feel like the truth. While they might be feeling fearful, betrayed, or intimidated, it will still come out as anger. And as they feel these primary emotions more strongly, we should expect their secondary emotion to come out even stronger. They might threaten the relationship with their parents by saying things like, “If you make me do this I will never talk to you again.” These teens are used to getting what they want through the use of anger and will send parents the implicit message, “If you think I was hurtful before, just wait.” This type of message tells parents that they should cut their losses or the teen is going to make their lives a living hell now and when they eventually return.
The teens might threaten to hurt themselves or others physically or emotionally. Of course those that actually follow through with these threats become a special case because they often force the treatment facility to respond. It often plays into their hand as staff also feel threatened and need to protect other students and so these teens are often removed by less-skilled programs. The best, most equipped treatment programs will walk through this threat with the teen and require them to face their behavior head on. They will uncover the primary emotion that is feeding the anger and help the teen actually feel safe and secure. The early onset of feeling safe will actually help this type of student move through to the next phase of change.
It is an act of great courage to admit and address one’s primary emotions and to break out of the avoidance and denial of these emotions. Teens often feel trapped in a way of life that they might even hate, but feel that they just can’t escape. So we should expect teens to cycle through these emotions as they sort out the lies they have become to believe in their lives. They might experience feelings of denial (“This isn’t for me”). Other times their feelings will surface with greater aggression through anger (“I don’t want to”). With a sense of righteous anger they might try to bargain, hoping it will work (“Maybe not me”). As their efforts to avoid the task of change become more futile they might even slip into depression (“Why me?”).
It is critical during this phase that we as parents and treatment program staff listen well and we don’t force our opinions onto them. Allow teens to work through their fears and self-doubt regarding change in their own minds. It’s a big mistake when we spend our time during this phase trying to convince them of their need for help. It locks us into a battle with them instead of collaborating with them. We don’t want to become investigators trying to determine the truth of their history. This is a time for them to decide who they want to be.
Parents, be careful not to mirror your child’s emotions and become pessimistic about the potential outcome. Pay attention to any negative self-talk, “Did I make mistake?” or “It will never work.” “I couldn’t help my kid, so why did I think these strangers could change him/her?” Don’t become susceptible to the suggestions of your teen. As loving parents it is natural to be highly motivated to connect with your teen and you might be tempted to release them from the expectation of change in hopes of re-establishing a relationship. This bind is often very difficult for parents and at Shelterwood Academy we really want to help you through this process.