Tips to help your teen relieve stress

Today, more than a quarter of teens say they experience extreme stress, and more than a third say they expect their stress levels to increase in the year to come. Parents agree: nearly 40% of parents say their teen is experiencing high levels of stress from school.

Often parents respond to the stress levels of children by wanting to manage or alleviate their stress. In reality, not all stress is negative. A healthy level of stress can motivate students to learn to manage tasks, prioritize, and get things done. However, chronic stress during difficult seasons can pose long-term challenges for teens. Experiencing stress for extended periods of time can lead to depressive thoughts and behaviors, and teens may turn to unhealthy coping methods. Here is how you can help.

1.) Identify the root of the stress: Is this short-term stress, or a long-term problem?

Short-term stress — like finals week, for example — is temporary, and the stress levels will go back to normal shortly. A little bit of stress occasionally is to be expected, as teens take on more responsibilities and prepare for their next steps after high school.

Long-term stress, in contrast, is not sustainable and points to the need for change. Is your teen’s course load unreasonably demanding? Has your teen taken on too many extracurricular endeavors? Or, is the root of the stress time management? Does your teen tend to procrastinate? Maybe your teen has too much screen time and is not spending enough time on homework? For other teens, stress is unrelated to school work and connected instead to peer pressure or social worries. Getting to the root of the stress is the first step in creating a plan to relieve it.

2.) Look at how you respond to stress in your own life.

Teens pick up on our cues. How do you react to stress? Do you make lifestyle changes to alleviate it, or is your response to your own stress unhealthy? Your teen may respond similarly.

Use your own stress as a platform to begin the conversation with your teen. Be honest about how you handle it, and acknowledge where you could approach stress differently. This opens the door to authentic connection, and lets your teen know you are here as an ally when stress feels unmanageable. When your teen responds, offer undivided attention and really listen.

3.) Partner with your teen to develop a stress relief game plan.

Come alongside your teen to navigate the root of the stress. Resist the urge to micromanage; instead, be present for your child as a resource. If the stress is part of a larger theme, like problems with time management, struggling with perfectionism or taking on too much, discuss the needed changes. Consider helping your teen make a schedule for studying, or plan a lighter course load for the next semester.

Then, get tactical. What are some small ways that your teen can relieve stress in the moment? How can your teen draw on a support system for help? What brings your teen joy? How can your teen use physical activity to relieve stress? This could be as simple as taking the family dog for a walk, playing a favorite game, sport or aerobic activity. Plan activities that you and your teen can do together, too.

For some teens, stress may be a symptom of a larger problem. If you are in the middle of a challenging season with your teen, it can be tough to determine what to do next. Consider Shelterwood Residential Treatment Agency. Shelterwood combines boarding school excellence with the best in therapeutic care for real transformation. At Shelterwood, our desire is to create an environment where teens know they are loved, valued and have purpose.

Take the first step for hope, real heart change and real restoration for your teen. Reach out today: 866.585.8939.

Homework struggles? How to coach your teen

With Spring Break in the rearview mirror and summer vacation around the corner, this time of year marks the home stretch for academics. Yet it can also spell challenges for your teen. It is easy to lose momentum, and your teen may be feeling discouraged.

Has homework become a daily struggle at your home? Our tips for coaching your teen:

1.) Approach homework as a team sport.

Although you and your teen may be at odds when it comes to getting homework done, remember that success is a team sport. You are not rivals, but teammates. Butting heads will happen occasionally, but an attitude of teamwork can work wonders. Remind your teen that you are on their side and that you are ready to work together to make a game plan for success.

2.) Talk openly to pinpoint struggles.

Choose a time when both you and your teen are calm and not distracted. Ask specific questions to identify the specific struggles your student faces. For example, if your teen says, “Math is too hard,” dig deeper. What aspects of class are most challenging? Is the subject matter confusing? Could your teen need tutoring? Or perhaps your teen feels insecure about low grades compared to peers. When you get to the core of the problem, you and your teen can create a solution.

3.) Understand what kind of student your teen is.

To be a good coach, it can help to identify what kind of student your teen is. At Shelterwood, we have found that most students fall into one of four kinds of students:

  • The Motivated Student: This student is driven to achieve and independently pursues excellence in school. The Motivated Student is passionate about academic success.
  • The Motivated, Accommodated Student: This student wants to do well academically, but may struggle in one or more classes. This teen receives help in school and, even with limitations, still strives for success.
  • The Procrastinating Student: This student waits until the last minute to complete homework. It can be difficult to tell that the Procrastinating Student is falling behind until progress reports are sent home. The student may not struggle with the material, but with the timeline. This struggle may be confusing for parents and frustrating for the family.
  • The Combative and Resisting Student: This student becomes agitated and upset by simply mentioning homework. There may be many reasons that a student is combative, including struggles with the subject matter, frustration over lack of study skills, power struggles, undiagnosed learning disabilities or emotional struggles.

4.) Encourage your teen in a way that connects best.

As with any good team, it helps to understand what motivates your teammates. Understanding how your teen approaches homework can reveal big clues in how to encourage them and draw out their best performance. Support your teen based on what motivates them:

  • The Motivated Student: Support this student by providing the time and space to make decisions. This student can often be critical, so be a constant cheerleader. Regular encouragement can help this student maximize full potential.
  • The Motivated, Accommodated Student: When this student falls into the trap of simply looking at the day-to-day successes and failures, frustration can set in. Coach your teen with frequent reminders of the full arc of his or her improvements. It is important not to do this in an empty, vague way, but to truly celebrate success with specific affirmations. Tutoring and peer study groups can also be valuable.
  • The Procrastinating Student: Issues arise when parents are unaware that their student has been procrastinating, and this can erode trust. It can help to ask this student homework-related questions daily, communicate with teachers and support your teen in scheduling. At the same time, be cautious of taking on too much. Rather than allowing your teen to defer responsibility to you, start the conversation about what lies beneath the procrastination. Maybe fear and self-doubt, not laziness, is paralyzing progress.
  • The Combative and Resisting Student: Instead of engaging in the battle, empathy and loving engagement are how you can best coach your teen. Set aside the homework and focus on your teen as a person. This can help get to the bottom of things and uncover the right solution. Consider professional therapy to diagnose and treat underlying issues. Resistant teens can sometimes push parents into expressing their own anger. Rather than taking your teen’s opposition personally, recognize that this teen is in a critical place and in serious need of help.

Homework doesn’t have to be a battle, and parents can come alongside their teen as a coach by knowing their student’s strengths and weaknesses. Are homework struggles becoming a daily problem for you and your teen? Is your student stumbling academically because of anxiety, depression or other concerns? Shelterwood offers real hope and real restoration for struggling teens. Contact us to see if Shelterwood is right for your teen. We are here to help.

Warning signs and triggers: Helping your teen to be aware

Parenting teens is no small feat, and it is natural to be mystified by your teen’s behavior sometimes. It may seem like anything and everything can set your teen off. Yet, the situations that seem to push your teen’s buttons, often called “triggers,” can have patterns. A “trigger” can be thought of as an event, a feeling or a situation that precedes an emotional response. Helping your teen become more aware of those triggers is central to stopping the out of control behavior. Here are some steps to guide your teen towards greater awareness:

Observe your teen’s behavior to notice patterns

We often discuss a trigger as a precursor to an angry outburst, but triggers can be precursors to many responses. Common situations and feelings that may “push your teen’s buttons” and trigger an outburst include:

    • Being told “no”
    • Bad news
    • Being left out
    • Being bullied
    • Being criticized
    • Not knowing what to do
    • Being ignored
    • Overstimulation

Of course, just as every teen is unique, your teen’s triggers will be unique as well.

The first step to helping your teen be aware of triggers is observing and being familiar with the situations that make your child restless, frustrated or upset. Pay attention and be aware of warning signs of triggers, and look for patterns and connections.

Think backwards

When your teen does have an outburst, consider what happened beforehand. For example, perhaps your teen may act angry and restless when it’s time for them to study for a test. This could indicate a trigger — maybe your child is struggling in the class and doubts his abilities as a student. The trigger could be a feeling of inferiority or worrying about getting a bad grade.

Consider your teen’s perspective

You may assume that you know what happened, but your child may have experienced the situation differently. Give your teen some space to cool off, and when things are calm again, ask your teen to explain what occurred. Truly listen. How your teen articulates what took place could reveal some important clues about triggers.

Start the conversation

Feelings and triggers are directly connected. The trigger itself is not the root of the problem; how your teen thinks and feels about that situation is. Choose a time when both you and your teen are calm and relaxed, not in the middle of an outburst, so you can both communicate authentically and clearly. Share with your teen what you have noticed about their triggers and related behaviors. For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed that when you’re studying for a test, you get upset and lose your temper.” Ask questions about how your teen felt before, during and after the situation. Allow your teen to share freely. This conversation opens the door to awareness about triggers.

Stay patient

Ultimately, make sure your teen knows that you are here to be a resource. You are your teen’s greatest advocate and central to their support system. As life changes, triggers can change too. Identifying and managing triggers is not easy, but helping your teen become aware of their own triggers can be a turning point for your family. With time, your teen can learn how to anticipate their triggers and develop a plan for a healthy response.

If your teen is struggling, consider Shelterwood. We combine clinical excellence with a faith-based approach for real restoration. Contact us to explore how Shelterwood can help your child.

Five ways to help your teen release stress and relieve anger

Of all the emotions your teen faces, anger can pose a unique challenge. Releasing anger in heated moments is no small feat. Anger is a difficult emotion, particularly when coupled with stress. Show your teen how much you care by coming alongside them, helping them to relieve anger and release stress. Here are five ways to guide your teen towards a healthy response to relieving anger and releasing stress:

1.) Model healthy habits for your teen when you are angry.

Even when we may not realize it, teens are watching how we respond to challenges. So, in moments of frustration and anger, seize the opportunity. When you take responsibility for your own emotions, you show your teen what a good response in a tough moment can look like. Anger can be a healthy reaction to an injustice, and personally, anger can be good when it’s expressed in a focused way instead of using it to harm or punish others. Take a break from the situation to cool down, or channel your anger into something productive, like exercise. If you do overreact — after all, we are only human! — own your emotions and use the moment as a springboard for discussion.

2.) Table the conversation for the moment.

We all know the feeling: sometimes, when all we feel is outrage, we simply need to cool down. Give your teen space in a moment of anger. This shows your teen that you respect their emotions enough to wait until they are ready to share. A few minutes of quiet can deescalate the situation. Particularly if the anger is in response to a conflict between you and your teen, taking time to cool off can turn the tide. Once the tension has lifted, maintain an open mind as you enter into conversation.

3.) Acknowledge the root of how your teen is feeling.

More often than not, there is something deeper beneath your teen’s anger. Chances are, something stressful has happened and this angry moment is a delayed reaction, or the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” so to speak. Particularly if your teen is rebelling, the key is in getting to the root of the cause. Parent from a place of love, engage a support system when you need it and communicate with consistency. If you worry that your teen may be in the middle of a difficult season, here are some signs.

4.) Truly listen to what your teen has to share.

Listening can be a difficult aspect of communication, especially with a struggling teen. When your teen does share, take the time to be present and listen well. Reserve your own opinions for the moment; simply showing your teen that you can be a trusted sounding board can help your teen calm down and relieve anger.

5.) Be aware of patterns in anger, because it could be a symptom of something bigger.

The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that a staggering one in five children ages 13 – 18 live with a mental health condition. Although your teen may appear angry on the surface, this emotion could indicate a serious problem, like anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, drug abuse or alcohol abuse. If you suspect this could be the case, expand the conversation past the moment at hand and start the conversation about mental health.

If you are worried about your teen’s anger, it may be time to get help. Consider Shelterwood, a  residential treatment agency. We combine boarding school excellence with the best in therapeutic care for real transformation. At Shelterwood, our desire is to create an environment where teens know they are loved, valued and have purpose. Today can be a turning point for your teen and your family. Take the first step towards real restoration. Contact us now: 866.585.8939.

When parenting feels overwhelming

Even on our best days, parenting a teen can seem overwhelming. Navigating how best to care for your child in the transition to independence is a challenging balance. If you are feeling drained, know that you are not alone. These tips can help you stay the course.

You are okay.

It is normal to feel overwhelmed. Just as there is no such thing as a perfect teenager, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Strive for good, not perfect. If your teen is acting out, do not internalize his or her behavior towards you. Your teen is going through a developmental stage. Even teen rebellion can be part of growth. It’s normal and okay to feel anxious and worried about your teen’s stage. Try to be objective about the stage and realize it is not your fault. It’s simply the journey that they are on.

Do not compare.

When you look around at families of teens like yours, it can seem like everyone has it easy. Yet, in reality, other families with teens are wrestling with conflict, struggling with boundaries and facing other challenges just like yours. Falling into the trap of comparison is not helpful for you or your family. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” as Theodore Roosevelt said. Instead of comparing, shift your mindset to gratefulness and positivity.

Utilize community resources.

You are not alone. When you feel overwhelmed with parenting, leverage resources available to you. Your church or school may have a parent networking group that meets regularly either online or in person. Additionally, there are many reputable resources online to equip parents like you.   

Schedule self-care.

When your life is focused on your teen, you can easily forget about your own care. It is important to stay healthy. Get rest and regular exercise. Schedule time to see your friends. Give yourself permission to say “no.” To best serve your teen, you need to be emotionally, spiritually and physically well. When you prioritize yourself, you model a healthy lifestyle for your child, showcasing the value of self-care.

Reach out for help.

If you have reached the point where you are constantly burnt out, your family may need additional support. A residential treatment agency like Shelterwood can offer your family true restoration. Check out this blog if you’re debating whether it’s time for residential treatment.

At Shelterwood, our desire is to create an environment where teens know they are loved, valued and have purpose. Teens arrive at Shelterwood when they are at their worst, and often leave with a transformed heart and a life restored. To learn more about how Shelterwood can help on your teen’s journey to restoration, call 866-585-8939.

Time to Listen

Five Key Ways to Listening Well

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Stephen R. Covey

iStock 000003075992Medium 192x300 Time to ListenCommunication is something we engage in every day, and so many things hinge on it. Communication greatly influences our friendships, family relationships, dating and marriages, jobs, hobbies, etc. It’s how we communicate needs and emotions. Realizing that it plays such a huge role in life, it’s important that we strive to do it well. The following list points out a few brief suggestions on how to improve the way we communicate while in the role of the listener.

  1. Be present– It’s very tempting to rush to respond to text messages or check ESPN updates as soon as you hear them come in, but media can easily pull us out of any moment and cause us to seem detached and uninterested in whomever we’re conversing with. Do your best to let them wait until after your conversation is over. Also, avoid interrupting the other individual to interact with those around you. We often have people, devices, obligations, etc. vying for our attention, which makes being present very difficult. If necessary, turn off your phone and find a quiet place to sit and chat. The conversation will be much more productive that way, and people will remember that you made an effort to be as present as possible.
  1. Be okay with disagreeing- It’s no secret that we all have our own opinions. If we go into conversations knowing that ours might not match those of the person we’re chatting with, we’ll be less likely to let our own thoughts and beliefs interfere with listening well. Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts, but never let them override the importance of hearing others.
  1. Be inquisitive- Look for naturally occurring space in conversation for asking appropriate questions. Doing so shows the speaker that you’re paying attention, interested in what he or she is saying, and committed to learning more. They will leave feeling that you care about the topic, as well as them as a person.
  1. Be open- Soak in what you’re hearing. Know that you are capable of learning from others and gaining insight from their perspectives. If all we do is wait for the other person to stop speaking, we entirely miss what they’re saying as we prioritize our own thoughts and beliefs over theirs.
  1. Be empathetic- As you hear their words, try and step into their shoes and imagine how they’re feeling in the moment. Once you think you have a handle to on what emotions are being represented, ask questions to make sure you understand correctly. From there, be intentional and make statements that clearly project empathy. Displaying genuine empathy is one of the best ways to open doors in relationships and creates a much deeper level of understanding for one another.

Remaining Resolute

weather warning Remaining ResoluteTeens 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Bargaining

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.

  1. Threatening

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.

Expect the stupid

No matter the crisis, no matter how many there have been, it’s not too late.

Screen Shot 2015 06 15 at 9.50.02 AM 300x213 Expect the stupidI would imagine that if people had tried to warn me of the difficulties of parenting a teen when I was a newlywed I would have simply laughed.  It is easy to be overconfident because we often look at our own parents and think, “Surely, I will do better than them and I turned out okay.”  Of course, looking back, we don’t believe that the problems we caused as teens were any big deal.  But I am sure if you asked my dad he might disagree, especially after I totaled his new car twice.  He didn’t show it, but he might have spent some sleepless nights waiting for me to return home.

Parenting teens can often be boiled down to simply helping them solve a series of crises.  Actually, that’s just about how all parents I know describe their parenting. The crises change, and some are big and some are small, but they are real to all involved.

Of course, the media would have us believe that adolescence has changed and that somehow parents have become less influential.  But none of the research suggests that parents are less of a factor in teen choices. In fact, our kids are staying in the home until they are older.  So no matter the crisis, no matter how many there have been, it’s not too late.

You see, after talking to thousands of parents, I know that many of them feel that it is too late. They’ve had one too many crises. Or, they were away too much. Or, they’ve made too many mistakes.

But, that’s just not the case.

It is never too late for you to start. Whether your child is still in your home or not, you can make a difference.  As my teens are transitioning into their 20’s here are three things that I have learned.

  1. Don’t buy into the low expectations of teens 

Expectations are good.  Kids will live up to the expectations that you set, whether they are high or low.

  1. Expect the stupid

You see, kids are supposed to do stupid things and that is also why they still need parents.  They really are not capable of living on their own until they get the stupid mistakes out of them.  We all learn through experience and of course it is hard to get dragged through the stupid decisions that our kids make…like the time I tried to ‘get air’ under my car, Dukes of Hazard style, and jumped it right into another car.  My dad had to walk through the insurance process with me.  It was a real hassle for him.  It is important to note that he didn’t rescue me from the consequences of my behavior.  And I really only learned because the consequences hurt.  All my money went to buying him a new car.  So as parents we walk with our kids through the stupid but they need to own their stupid and pay the price.  We don’t want to enable any more stupid by making it easy to make the same mistake.  Wisdom comes from experience.

  1. Everyone hits the rapids

Parenting is a lot like going on a rafting trip. At first, everyone is excited, clapping paddles and the water is calm. The baby is born and everyone is celebrating. Friends and family are giving you gifts and talking about how much they want to be involved. The river guide provides a few directions while everyone is laughing in the boat and bragging about how well they are going to do on the trip. As a parent with older teens, I almost get annoyed when I hear young parents bragging about how they are going to be so different: “Our kids don’t watch television, don’t eat McDonalds, and are walking, talking, reading or writing ahead of schedule.”

“Just wait,” I think. The purpose of this whole ride is to hit some nasty rapids. And you can’t avoid the rapids; every river flows in only one direction. Sadly, once in the rapids it often feels like “every man for himself” and the promise of involvement by family or friends often disappears. You might be looking around in the boat and everyone seems only concerned about themselves or maybe your spouse has even jumped overboard. And there you sit, you and your teen getting knocked around by some very heavy waves.

All I can say is to hang on and do everything you can to keep your teen in the boat. Teens are supposed to hit a few rapids—that’s how they transition to adulthood. The better prepared you are for the rapids, the better off you will be. Don’t think you can avoid them or that avoiding them is even that great. Kids need a bit of rough water to learn and grow. You want them to experience tough stuff when you are around so that you can teach them the best practices that you have learned. So keep them in the boat, believe in their ability to get through, and expect them to lose a paddle in the process. After all, we have all done stupid things.

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

Teachable Moments

Screen Shot 2015 03 24 at 7.12.13 PM 300x139 Teachable MomentsI’m a morning person and can’t wait to get the day going. In the morning I feel like a corvette peeling down the highway! However, my teenage son is NOT a morning person. Hence, we have found ourselves in consistent conflict when my cheerful, “Good morning!” is met with a grunt or mumbled, “Morning.” As soon as I feel his lack of energy I often think and occasionally say, “What’s your problem?” And the corvette goes crashing into the slow-moving VW bug.

It’s easy to get offended when your friendly overture to your teenager is met with ambivalence, if not passive hostility. It’s also easy to get frustrated when you are a schedule-oriented, goal-driven parent with a teenager who can’t seem to locate his schoolbooks because the floor is covered with clothes, and who comes within seconds from missing the bus every morning.

What I am learning, or trying to learn, is to breathe and then look for the teachable moments to instruct on matters of disagreement or frustration, rather than reacting at the moment of escalation. Knowing my child is not a morning person helps me make a wise mental “note to self” to discuss the matter later in the day when our discussion will be more effective.

Each summer we take Shelterwood students on hiking trips in Canada and sometimes run across bears. Of course, we encourage our students to literally never ‘poke the bear’ as it escalates the bear’s anger very quickly. And this is a good reminder for parents. Why poke your teenage bear in the morning? More research might need to be done, but I am sure there is significant science behind the idea that teens usually struggle in the morning for a number of developmental reasons. So why would I choose to poke my son in the morning before he’s ready to interact? So I am trying to tone down my morning ‘songbird routine’ when I am around him, and yes, he is still expected to respect me as his dad, but timing is critical when it comes to dealing with conflict.

It isn’t easy but I am really trying to be a proactive parent. It takes discipline, patience, and grace to not react to my son’s attitude and behaviors. Being observant enough to notice and patient enough to wait for the teachable moments takes practice.

Greg Stone
Long Time Shelterwood Staff & Father of Teens