by Frank C. Sacco, Ph.D., CSI President, Scholar in Residence
Real Estate has a famous quote: 3 key ingredients to a good real estate property: location, location, and location. In teen psychotherapy, the 3 key ingredients are: safety, safety, and safety. Parents become obsessed with being correct. There is never a question about the parent being rights about most issues related to what’s best in the future, current safety, and the need for achievement. Also, a parent is rarely incorrect about sibling conflicts. There is little doubt that siblings should share and respect each other’s space and property.
Therapists are often pulled into the role of Judge Judy. Guilty…that’s what most teens are, guilty as charged. The problem is that teens lie to gain independence. They take risks to gain acceptance by peers. Parents become less important than the almighty friends. In the end, he parent might be correct and the teen hurt badly, killed, or engage in a life-ruining event. The teen is receiving therapy because of a problem; this ups the stakes. The goal is survival.
Virtually everything that parents focus on as important can be picked up after the teen survives adolescence. School is the easiest to pick up. Most mistakes of morality can be cleaned up and absorbed into the extended family. It is impossible to overcome DUI, vehicular manslaughter, addiction, and life-time physical and mental disabilities.
The therapist has to be aware of being pulled into the judge’s role. The parent and teen will plead their case, the therapist will be challenged to take a side. Emotions will fly. Injustices will be loudly proclaimed by both parent and teen. The teen will complain about unreasonable expectations, rules, and tightness of control as compared to her or his friends, hypocritical rules given parent’s bad habits, and rants about the need to be trusted and be able to grow up.
The parent will argue about fairness, the need to get ahead, buckle down, do well in school, have good friends, participate in church, and other normal family interactions. Parents will complain about past indiscretions, the bad influence of their friends, the lack of involvement of the friend’s parent, and the general lack of support from the school, family, and government.
The therapist needs to stay out of this debate. This is tricky. The therapist need to find a time to shift the focus to another level. Paradoxical questions can be used:
- You are terrified of her dying, life would end for you, ever think about that?
- Do you think your friends will be as sad at your wake as your mother?
- Do you really expect the truth?
- What do you think your mother’s life would be like if you died?
- Was there ever a time you guys liked each other?
- Would you take care of your mother if she was paralyzed?
You get the point? The strategy is to take control of the dialogue and direct it to mutual goals of survival and safety with sufficient communication to prevent parental anxiety and increase thinking during high-risk peer group experiences. Also, the teen needs room to make mistakes and friends. This process is top secret! This is where the early warning signals exist and where you as a therapist can help the parent be aware when they have the chance to step in and create independence and safety.