Don’t Back Off

Mistakes that therapists often make when working with struggling teens by Doré E. Frances, PhD

Mistake 4: Telling Parents to Back Off

Teenagers almost always come into therapy as well a residential treatment, 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. In fact, 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. 

Screen Shot 2015 06 02 at 1.12.12 PM 300x259 Dont Back OffAmong 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 I see report that their therapist actually criticized them for nosy and intrusive actions. It is crucial to remember that proclamations of privacy by troubled teens are simply ways of concealing things from their parents and maintaining the power position. It is only a teenager who is responsible and doing well who has earned the right to privacy and trust.

Therapists who make parents feel guilty about reasonable investigation into their child’s activities send the message that the teen is in charge. The privacy issue extends to many areas. When parents discuss drugs or sex with their teen, they are likely to hear, “It’s my body and it’s my choice.” Through this logic, there isn’t much that parents can do to help a troubled child. Therapists must address with parents their right to change their teen’s behavior around sex, drugs, smoking and dangerous friends.

All of these issues have to be faced and an understanding reached.

The more information parents have, the calmer and more in control of themselves and their parenting they will be. Parents who have little information about their child’s life are likely to be angry, reactive and inconsistent. The final and critical area in which advising parents to back off is an error is when teenagers are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. Too many clinicians seem to believe that the best course when a young person is acting aggressively because of a psychiatric problem is for parents to be patient.

The underlying message from such therapists often is, “You as parents don’t really understand about this problem and need to leave it to us experts.”

As parents do less, the problems get worse. Craziness pays off if the child is not expected to respond reasonably. In my work with parents, I always stress they have a right to expect reasonable behavior of their son or daughter and “repressed anger” doesn’t give children the right to be verbally or physically abusive or self-harming.

This affirmation helps parents get beyond the too common idea that if they put pressure on a son or daughter who has a psychiatric disorder, he or she will only get worse, . . . and it will be their fault.

Structure is a healthy form of pressure. As parents feel more like successful family leaders, the negative emotional pressure abates.

 

Almost all therapists who have worked with teenagers have found themselves stuck in a clinical impasse with an explosive teen and his or her family. Yet it’s never too late to make a paradigm shift and help a family.  

First, a therapist must become comfortable with the idea of dealing with power tactics rather than communication skills. Doing so also requires getting used to having teenage clients who don’t like the therapist. The more aggressive a teenager is, the more certain it is that they’ll try punishing the therapist.

When my teen clients call me names I usually say, “You can’t hurt my feelings because I am not your mother. So I’ll keep doing what needs to be done.”

Second, therapists must be ready for greater problems initially. Most therapists prefer their treatment to calm things down and leave people feeling better. This strong therapy may escalate the problems initially, and this is scary for both therapist and family. The therapist must reassure the family that this escalation is expected and will be momentary. Therapists are mostly kindly helpers, so it’s counter intuitive for a therapist who works toward nice outcomes to step toward the fire and heat things up.

However, once a therapist has helped parents take charge and has seen the remarkable positive transformationScreen Shot 2015 06 02 at 1.08.52 PM 300x195 Dont Back Off in a formerly tormented teenager, it becomes easier to work this way. Parents start out saying, “It looks like my daughter’s possessed.” At the end of six or eight sessions, the same parent says, “My son’s back. He isn’t always sweet, but the boy I love is back.”


Professional therapists are there to help individuals and families deal with their problems in a meaningful and productive way.

Using problem-solving therapy techniques, treatments for teens average six to ten sessions, and then if things have not changed an out of home placement may need to be discussed.

When appropriate, professional therapists have no difficulty in working closely with other referring professionals to be certain that everyone involved is working toward the same goal.

This collaborative partnership helps to resolve complex problems for teens and their families more quickly.

Check out this important video on Fear

A Changed Life

A mom’s story of her time at Shelterwood and how she came to see a changed life

IMG 4278 copy 300x225 A Changed Life First, let me say this talk was not pre-approved by Shelterwood. As I was sharing with my husband this morning what I wanted to share he kept saying: it’s too negative and I kept saying: wait until the end. So as I am talking if you think it is too negative: wait until the end!

I knew who I wanted to address tonight. I wanted to speak to the mama that is sitting here wondering how she ended up here. The mama that doesn’t want to be here or want her son to be here either because that is exactly how I felt sitting here last spring family weekend. I want to speak to the mom who remembers holding that baby boy close to her chest, the one who shared with everyone who would listen all the cute things her preschooler said and did and then the mom who after her son went through puberty wanted to take the same hands that held her baby close and strangle her teenager because of all the horrible decisions he was making. The mom , dad, or grandparent who no matter what they tried they couldn’t stop their son from going down a path that led to destruction. That is exactly where our family was a year ago. Thank God for Shelterwood.

As my husband and I realized things were deteriorating with Connor we began a daily practice of listening prayer. I first encountered Listening Prayer in a book by a nun to India, Mary Geegh. The very first time we prayed this way together we each heard individually in our hearts Connor can’t stay in Dothan. One theme in Mary Geegh’s book is “where God guides, God provides” and that is what we experienced. God led us on a clear path to send Connor to Shelterwood. This is not what I would have chosen. To date bringing Connor here against his will is the hardest thing I have ever done. Yes, it is a Christian boarding school. Yes, each person employed here loves and cares about each one of our sons, but that didn’t alleviate my pain.

IMG 4356 copy 300x225 A Changed LifeIn fact, the pain would get worse before it got better. When we began our calls with Connor after a few weeks it was excruciatingly painful. He would tell us in great detail how horrible Shelterwood was. He didn’t deserve to be here. Everyone laughed at him when he told them why he was here. They had all done MUCH worse. Bless our counselor Leanne’s heart during that time for all the babysitting and comforting she did for me. And I’ll be honest with you when we came for parent’s weekend after Connor had been here a couple of months it didn’t help much. I wanted to grab Connor and run back home. One thing I remember from last year’s parent’s weekend was Rujon saying just think if you couldn’t handle one teenager in your home can you imagine how hard it is for our staff. And she was right! Things were not going well when Connor was home. At least here he was safe. Safe from himself and safe from the influence of his peers. Here he had young men called by God to speak truth into his life. A staff that cared about him. I was also thankful during that time that we had had clear direction from God about sending Connor here because as the doubts surfaced I held on to that. As circumstances around me still looked bad and not better I held on to what God had spoken to us. At parents weekend I heard so many times “trust the process” I wanted to throw up. In my head I was shouting, “What process!!!! You people are so stinkin slow!!! Hurry this up!”

Months into “the process” a wonderful thing began to happen. Connor was working hard & liking the person he was becoming. We saw progress. We saw change. But I didn’t completely trust the process because after 6 months we allowed Connor to come home before graduating the program. He convinced us that he did not want to go back to his old ways. Leanne warned us against it. She said he had made great progress but wasn’t ready. Connor told us graduating the program was no big deal. EVERYONE that did went back to their old ways. Staying a couple of more months wouldn’t make a difference. Which makes me think of something I left out about last year’s parent’s weekend. A young man who had recently graduated the program spoke. He did an excellent job and began to alleviate my fears. I remember thinking maybe Shelterwood can help Connor. Afterwards, Connor told us oh he’s so fake. I heard he still smokes pot. Manipulation, manipulation.

When Connor arrived home to begin his senior year, it didn’t take long for things to deteriorate IMG 4401 copy 300x225 A Changed Lifeagain. During this time I felt like we had made the wrong decision sending him to Shelterwood. He was angry with us and resentful. I felt like we were worse off than better. I heard God speaking to my spirit: there is nothing you can say or do to change Connor King only the Holy Spirit can change him. I held on to this promise for several LONG months. Again things got a lot worse before they got better. Have you ever prayed and prayed for something and didn’t realize it was being answered because it wasn’t happening the way you envisioned? Well, that’s what happened next. Connor has already told you about going on the life changing mission trip to Haiti. When he came home and asked to go back to Shelterwood. The school he was begging to come home from a few short months before. I couldn’t even process it all. He had convinced me last summer Shelterwood was not helping him & was making him worse. So I questioned and questioned Connor, what about this, what about when you said this about the school? His response to all of my questions was: believe me mom I’ve thought about ALL that. I knew the Holy Spirit had moved in Connor’s life when he told us he couldn’t be who he wanted to be and live in Dothan, AL. He needed to, actually wanted to go back to Shelterwood to graduate the program. Connor spoke out loud the words that Leslie and I had heard in our hearts the first time we prayed about what we could do to help Connor.

My part of the story should end there shouldn’t it? Connor speaking the words we had heard God speak into our hearts. But to be honest, I hesitated. In my wildest dreams I never expected Connor to ASK to come back. I had it all planned out. How it would work out with him staying in Dothan. I haven’t mentioned yet how thankful I am for the few close friends I had praying for us during this time. My sweet friends have been faithful to encourage and pray with me. If you don’t have someone like that please come see me during the weekend. I’d be honor to pray for your family during this difficult time. Or should I say during this process.

As I was questioning and doubting God’s answer I had one of those wise friends speak truth into my life. She looked at me and ask, “Lea, what have you been praying for?” I slowly began to realize God had answered my prayer for Connor in a way I never imagined. God had done immeasurably more than I could ask or imagine. We are calling it a miracle in our family.

We are looking forward to Connor graduating the program. Connor is looking forward to graduating the program. Turns out it is a BIG deal when your heart changes. Connor has even asked my parents if they would make the long journey for it. Now, I trust the process. As we are discussing with Connor options for the summer, Leanne’s opinion matters a lot to me. She understands the process.

Connor, words cannot express how proud your dad and I are of you. We are so proud of the hard decisions, the hard choices you have made as the world has been trying to pull you in the opposite direction. It’s hard to give up friends who are bringing you down at any age, but especially when you are young. It’s hard to leave the comforts of home to do what is best for yourself. I am reminded of the Bible verse God gave me concerning you when you were in preschool and I see it being played out now. Ephesians 2:10 “For you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works which God planned in advance for you to do.”

I have one more thing to say. As I look around the room and see the Shelterwood staff, I wish I could look into each of your eyes and thank you for all the time, energy, and effort you have put into Connor’s life & every student’s life. I may not have mentioned you by name in our story, but I know you contributed to our story. Whether you have had direct or indirect contact with Connor what you do matters. It matters for the kingdom of God. If we receive crowns in heaven, I know there is a jewel on each of yours with the initials CWK for Connor Winn King and this mama’s heart is eternally grateful to each of you!

Lea shared this talk with fellow parents at our most recent Family Weekend

The Intake Day

%name The Intake DayThe intake day was challenging, as they often are, because Mom was on her own and without any additional support. Her daughter was pretty hard on her mom-in the customary ways.

But a Shelterwood student (Brooke) helped this family in an amazing and unprompted way. The new student had sneaked back into Mom’s rental car and staged a 90 minute sit-in unless Mom agreed to fly her home and deliver her to a Detroit jail (which, as you’re aware is better than Shelterwood). Brooke, shared her own story, speaking very highly of Shelterwood and sharing that the Shelterwood process offers “only the challenges that are needed for someone to heal, grow, and ultimately thrive.” Brooke single-handedly coaxed her out of the vehicle, gave mom a hug (making mom cry tears of gratitude). As Mom left, she shared “I can’t wait until my daughter becomes mature, loving, and wise beyond her years like Brooke; maybe, even someday, she will talk some other new student out of a rental car!” I told Mom I was confident this was possible for her and I chuckled knowing that few would have ever thought this possible for Brooke.

Yesterday reminded me of everything that’s great about Shelterwood. Namely, how we work so hard to love well and how on our hilltop, even a parent’s toughest-day-ever can end well. Lastly, I was reminded how Shelterwood’s culture of loving tenaciously can melt even the toughest of student hearts like it has Brooke’s to the point of creating Shelterwood loyalty so persuasive it can even pry a hostile teenage stranger from her mom’s rental car.

Bravo, team and thanks.

Jeremy Lotz, MA, LPC, NCC
Director of Training & Leadership

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

I Hate Boundaries

Screen Shot 2014 12 11 at 11.15.36 AM 300x199 I Hate BoundariesAm I the only person that hates limits, expectations and boundaries? I know they are important, but if I was honest with myself, I hate it when others want to place limits on how I believe, think or behave. Sure, it sounds good when counselors tell you to apply boundaries to your kids. After all, you are the boss and applying boundaries to someone else seems appropriate and fair. I sure don’t mind telling those that work for me what I expect and I am quick to stand up for myself when I feel miss understood by my spouse. But it can be hard to embrace boundaries imposed by others. I hate it when bosses reprimand me for being late or highlight poorly done work, or if my spouse expects me to be home and clean when I would rather be out golfing with friends. Very few of us are thankful for these guardrails on our own behavior.

Boundaries are limits, borders or guardrails that are placed around our behaviors. We can place them ourselves or they can be placed by others. When they need to be placed by others, it is often a sign that we are living a risky lifestyle. As adults we often recognize our need to mitigate risk by putting up guardrails. Married guys try not to go out for drinks alone with single women. We try to watch what we eat to avoid future health issues. Boundaries are completely necessary and help us function in society in a healthy way. Teens, however, don’t have the necessary experience to put guardrails up for themselves. They believe that they are capable of handling complete freedom.

If we chafe against boundaries being placed on us as adults and look for ways to negotiate our way through them, we can’t expect our kids to react much differently. After all, we find ways to play golf or be late to work for appropriate reasons in exchange for working harder or staying later on other days. Well, our kids are no different and actually want to find ways to live with the boundaries that we set. Note that I didn’t say ‘within’ the boundaries. They want to live with, or survive, the boundaries that they are experiencing within the home, which means that teens don’t often want to give in too much and are usually only interested in expanding the boundary. But you’ve gotta love them for trying.

So Mom and Dad, recognize the completely normal battle that occurs over maintaining this line. Smile as your teens try to expand their freedoms. Try not to take it personally when they violate your boundaries, but also don’t ignore it and give way. Boundaries provide structure, support and safety in our lives. Evaluate the lines that you have established in the home. As your child gets older, some of these boundaries can and should be expanded while others need to be firmly maintained. Talk with your teen, negotiate, and remember boundaries are there to bump against. Guardrails keep us from careening over the cliff. Don’t remove them in your life or in the lives of your teens.

Compassion Fatigue

iStock 000013332733Medium 300x200 Compassion FatigueRecently, I spent a few days at the NATSAP conference on behalf of Shelterwood. I was fortunate enough to hear John Townsend speak on boundaries. He shared about the cost of not keeping healthy boundaries for parents and care workers (compassion fatigue). Here are a few of the thoughts that I felt were particularly helpful.

Teens Need Boundaries

Adolescence is an important stage for kids to push against parents in an effort to build autonomy. Without boundaries, teens are more likely to become depressed, anxious, angry and detached. Of course, it is not easy to put boundaries in place and maintain them. Boundaries can feel like battle lines as teens love to say, ‘no,’ but often struggle hearing the word ‘no’ themselves. Yet we all know, as successful adults, that hearing the word no is a part of life. It is critical to be able to deal with our emotions when someone says no to us.

Boundaries will feel harsh if they are not built with love and empathy. But make no mistake; there still needs to be a line. Without boundaries, teens can become aggressive, believing that the world is their ‘property.’ Other teens that have experienced boundary violations may become depressed and allow others to trample on their boundaries sexually, emotionally, or physically because they have come to believe that they have no ‘property.’

If not creating boundaries leaves our kids or clients struggling into adulthood, then why is it so hard for us to maintain clear boundaries? Why might we so quickly give in to the demands of our teens, friends, co-workers or spouses?

  1. Afraid of losing the relationship

Relationships are critical to each of our lives and they are often what keep us going. It is easy for us as parents or counselors to build entitlement within our kids or clients because we are safe for them and we feel special when they seek us out. So we might give them extra time, money, or praise when what would actually be better for them is to hear the word ‘no.’ They need to hear no even when giving them a longer counseling session might seem useful, or when giving them their full allowance even though chores are undone in order for them to buy that special pair of pants that will generate a hug and a smile. Teens become entitled so quickly when boundaries are not kept. It is so easy to drift from compassion into co-dependency. When we are afraid of losing a relationship with a distant teen, friend, or spouse, he or she quickly has leverage on us and this is a dangerous power for anyone to have, especially teens. In order to combat the need for your teen’s approval, try to create a ‘life team,’ a group of adults that can support and encourage you outside of the home. Don’t rely on your kids to nurture you, lest you give them too much power.

  1. Conflict Avoidance

Each of us learned how to deal with conflict when we were nine years old. Take a moment to think back to those young years in your childhood home. Maybe you learned how to explode with anger, change the subject, or laugh. Each of these techniques does not really deal with the conflict. The inability to manage conflict leaves you weak in the face of opposition and trying to defend yourself when you actually do say ‘no’ in order to create a boundary around a behavior. Townsend encourages people to role-play in an effort to change the neurology in the brain. It is critical that we as parents and care givers learn to confront conflict and become able to embrace the emotions that come along with saying ‘no’ in order to win the long- term battle of autonomy.

  1. Fear of Failure

We create a fragile teen when we don’t think they can handle boundaries. They become more insecure when we fail to provide the security of rules and follow through. Teens need to learn how to adapt to the difficulties of the world and that failure is part of life. As parents and counselors, we often perceive struggling teens as weak and incapable of dealing with failure. We might unconsciously believe that their drug addiction, depression or anger is the result of difficulty in their lives, and that if we can just remove the difficulty, then they won’t need to self medicate by cutting their arms, getting high, or acting out sexually. When we see them as fragile, we tend to compensate for their weaknesses and enable them to maintain these behaviors. Trying to keep your teen happy and safe will wear you out and fail to teach them how to survive on their own. So often we tiptoe around our teens when they struggle with depression, anger, anxiety, and/or learning difficulties that we actually build greater insecurity in them and continue to perpetuate a dependence on us. While this might make us feel needed and important in the relationship, we are actually just enabling co-dependence.

If you struggle to create boundaries with your teen, ask yourself these four questions when they make a request for your help:

  1. Is this something that they can do for themselves?
  2. Do you have the resources to help?
  3. Will you feel cheerful or resentful after helping them?
  4. Is the outcome going to build autonomy or dependence?