Mistakes Therapists Make

Four common errors that therapists make with teenagers, that Doré E. Frances has come across in her practice.

Mistake 3: Improving Family “Communication”

Screen Shot 2015 06 02 at 12.50.45 PM 300x202 Mistakes Therapists MakeThe most pervasive idea in both individual and family therapy is that young people run a muck because the family doesn’t “communicate” well. Too many therapists, in my opinion, focus on discussing what each member of the family feels without acknowledging any difference in status between children and parents.

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. 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.

I once told a 14-year-old client who was insulting his parents in a coaching session to stop speaking that way. He jumped up, pointed at me and shouted, “You’re my advocate. You have to let me say whatever I want as long as it’s what I really feel!”

I realized that this is what he had been taught by his former therapist at home before he entered a wilderness therapeutic outdoor program..

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 their parents. In power struggles, teenagers challenge parents about the content of an issue, and parents respond in the same vein.

John then screamed at his mother, “This is just bullshit! You always pull this kind of controlling shit on me. Everyone else’s parents are letting them go to the party. We’re not doing anything wrong mom.”

She responded to the content, defending herself by saying, “this isn’t bullshit.” She insisted that she and her Screen Shot 2015 06 02 at 12.50.09 PM 257x300 Mistakes Therapists Makehusband didn’t always control John and that she didn’t care what other parents allow. Some therapists might encourage this kind of interaction, thinking the teen and parents are communicating, when, in fact, the teenager is defining the issue and browbeating his parents. The communication approach I prefer simply acknowledges the process of the interaction and keeps parents from lapsing into a defensive position.

So with John’s mother, she might have said, “You know what, young man? As long as you’re talking to me that way, you aren’t going anywhere.” 

Often, I actually coach parents to be more mysterious and indirect by keeping their knowledge and plans to themselves. For instance, as a parent learns more about their teen’s friends, we encourage them to accumulate that knowledge until it can be used as part of a cohesive plan of action.

For instance, when parents learn about an illicit party this coming Friday night, instead of confronting the teen, it may be better to organize several parents to show up there together to break it up.

Difficult teenagers often work very hard so that parents don’t learn anything about their lives outside the home, while parents usually talk constantly, sharing all their plans and giving away whatever strategies they may be developing. Teenagers usually will resist their parents’ taking control of information by threatening further misbehavior or escalating the confrontation on the spot in an attempt to make parents capitulate.

By paying attention to process and not giving in to the temptation to explain and justify, parents can maintain their calm and gain greater authority.

Check out this interesting video on The Principle of Confusion