Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would write a piece on how to succeed in therapy with your teenager. Frankly, as a teenager, I never thought I would succeed at anything. Learn to manage my mood disorder? Not a chance. Develop a loving relationship with my parents? Ha! Please.
Step back into my time machine with me for a minute. ‘Teenage me’ was a confused, promiscuous, pot-smoking, school-skipping, tornado of immaturity. Somewhere in-between Barbie’s and breasts, I had completely fallen off the good-girl wagon. I believe I was what some families would (in the most loving manner) refer to as the
My parents, at the time, were in the midst of a divorce. My mother had recently moved out of state. With one parent now out of the picture, I was consistently acting out in front of my father, while sinking further into my own dark thoughts. I had been going to a therapist on my own, on and off for a number of years. With that being said, I wasn’t a bad kid at heart, just a hormonal product of a turbulent home, complete with a raging case of diagnosed anxiety and depression.
Solo therapy sessions helped me to uncover my personal demons, but it was not enough to ease the tension in the relationship between my father and I. Although I had been given the title of ‘black sheep,’ it turns out I was not the only one who needed to make an attitude adjustment, and thus, he and I began family therapy.
Here is the grand question; when a family decides therapy is the next step, how can they make the best use of this opportunity? Here’s 9 tips on how to be successful in therapy with your teen:
9) Forgive yourself
I recall initially, this may have been the hardest thing for my father to wrap his head around. You must come to terms with the fact that asking for professional help does not equal failure as a parent. Sometimes we cannot do it all alone and that is perfectly normal. Remember, the long term positive consequences far outweigh any temporary possible discomfort you may feel when it comes to admitting that you and your teenager need help.
“I had to surrender to the experts,” my father said, over a quiet family dinner the other night. I had asked him, “Dad, how did we ever make therapy work for us?”
Now ten years after the fact, he admitted, “I thought I knew everything, but I knew nothing.”
8) Shop Around
A great place to start is asking for recommendations from family, friends, or your primary doctor. If the thought of doing this is unsettling, another great resource is Psychology Todays, “Find a Therapist” search. (http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_search.php). Here you can search by zip code, and narrow down therapists based on anything from type of insurance accepted to religious background. One young former family therapy patient gave me some excellent insight on what to shop for when searching for a therapist, “Look for someone who remembers what you say, really listens to you, and is not just going through their rolodex of advice.” You want a therapist who does not, “…Lack foresight and intuitiveness.”
A therapist should be someone with whom you and your teen can trust, respect, and get a long. I appreciated the fact that my therapist rallied around me, and acted as an advocate for my needs. Instead of yelling at each other, my father and I used our therapist as a spokesperson, even a translator if you will, to dissolve our differences.
7) Acknowledge The Good.
My therapist and I made sure to share my progress and successes in daily life with my father on a consistent basis. No matter how small the accomplishment, we told him about it. In time I noticed he was better able to trust my decisions, since they were producing positive results. By doing this we were able to form a mutual respect for one another.
6) Keep Your Cool At Home.
Parents, whatever you do, resist the urge to fall back into old behavioral patters when you are outside the walls of therapy. I understand it takes time and patience to rid yourself of bad habits, especially when your teen is having trouble evolving as well. Yet, being the adult, it is up to you to take the lead and set an example. If it means walking away from the argument for a few hours to cool down, so be it. Your teen will respect you a lot more than if you were to take his/her bait and stoop to their level. Remain calm and collected, and set reasonable and logical (meaning, not based in assumptions or judgments) boundaries and consequences. Make note of incidents of conflict, and bring them to your next therapy session to work them through together in a neutral environment.
5) Admit & Apologize.
Bottom line, sometimes parents will be in the wrong. If you know you have done something that goes against your morals, or hurt your teen’s feelings, admit it, tell them you’re sorry, and move on. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to hear my dad admit he was wrong for once. It was this admission that made me see my dad as a normal, loving, human being who makes mistakes just like I do, rather than an unapproachable dictator from another planet.
4) Be Patient.
Change takes a long time to be noticed. I promise the results are worth the wait. In the meantime, remind your teen that you are here for them, love, and support them no matter what. Reward good behavior and progress with increased independence and trust.
3) Respect Me & I Will Respect You
I know. This one is difficult. It’s hard giving your teen the respect they want, especially when they don’t reciprocate. For example, if your teen wants to talk about something in therapy, let them do so without your judgment. Refrain from interrupting, criticizing, scolding, or belittling, inside and outside of your therapy sessions. My father made a great point at dinner, “[The therapist told me to let you] develop personalities and make your own mistakes.” By taking this approach, we managed to lessen the tension between us.
My father recalls therapy as a learning experience. “I was taught by you and by the therapist.” One teenager, with whom I spoke, recently completed his last day of family therapy. He recalls the benefits of having his parents in the room to listen to him and the therapist. “So now instead of either me or my parents instantly thinking that the other is only trying to get on our nerves, we know that they don’t understand how the other feels, or is thinking, and that they need to change their wording. We speak much more calmly to each other, and try to be more mindful of the other’s feelings”
1) Be Willing To Change.
“[The therapist] encouraged me to throw away what I thought I knew about traditional parenting,” my father said to me. This is perhaps the most important part of the entire process. One of the teenagers I had interviewed remarked, “…In my opinion, it will only work if all parties are completely willing to change in order to help things. It can never be a one sided thing.” If even one person is closed off to the idea of therapy, it will be a lot harder to make any changes to the bigger picture. He states, “[My family] were willing to come in to support me as they knew on some level I was depressed. But it soon became clear that they were not ready for actual therapy themselves or [to] accept any responsibility for their actions.”
Now in my mid-Twenties, I can safely say that my father and I found great success in attending therapy together. The transformation was so dramatic; it is as if I am looking back on two entirely different people. Instead of a helicopter parent, I now have a father who accepts and allows me to make my own mistakes. Instead of a delinquent, he now has a self-respecting daughter of which he can be proud.
By: Dominique Joelle