• Brandon Joffe, LCSW

Where to begin with a difficult teen


Realizing you don’t know how to help or parent your teenage child is not only humbling but often devastating. Whether it is because your child is depressed, anxious, failing school, using drugs, or all of the above, not being able to help your child can affect marriages, friendships, and even careers. The old saying that there is no manual for raising children is simply not true. The fact is there are countless books and manuals written about parenting teens. There are so many it is virtually impossible to know where to begin. These books are written to help parents try to figure out how to relate to, communicate with, teach, and ultimately control or change their teenager. There are books dedicated to girls, boys, depressed kids, anxious kids, and even understanding your teen’s love language. As a therapist it is heartbreaking when parents come in having read every book and having tried every bit of advice from family and friends only to find that nothing works. The guilt that these parents feel is profound and advice they receive results in feelings of dread not hope.

Traditional wisdom and common sense would dictate that when a family has a defiant, depressed, anxious, or all-around struggling teen you must start by increasing the punishments, doubling the rewards, and finding a therapist for the teen so that they will finally hear what needs to change. This technically makes sense but, most teens do not want to go to therapy, upping the ante on punishment and reward only works for a few days, and they can already recite every lecture you have every given. Where to begin is so simple that most who read this are not going to be able to accomplish it. One of the most effective rules to making change in any area of life is to stop what is not working and to not only keep doing what works but to build on it. Continuing to do things that work and even building on those things is easy enough for most people. Doing what works feels good and can even become almost addicting. The problem lies in ceasing the parenting tactics that are not working. Parents inherently feel the need to capitalize on every parenting opportunity and both consciously and subconsciously believe that if you say it enough times and add the right amount of volume and intensity the teenager will eventually change. Parents will literally give the same lecture thousands of times over the course of many years. Parents will invest countless hours, endless emotional energy, and even sacrifice other relationships trying to convince their child to study more, do their chores, hang out with the right friends, have a better attitude, and infinite other lessons. These debates, arguments, and sometimes all out wars get between husband and wife, affect other siblings in the home, and damage the relationship with the difficult child. It is amazing because if you ask the parents participating in these fruitless encounters they can admit to the significant fallout and understand that nothing has been accomplished. If you put a dollar in a vending machine in order to get a snack and that machine did not dispense your treat would you put another dollar in? If you were persistent enough to put two dollars in and the machine began to whirl seeming like it is about to work only to fail again would you put a third dollar in just because it almost worked? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, yet this is how so many parents approach their parenting strategies.

For most parents giving up what doesn’t work is difficult for two reasons. The first is because there is no immediate replacement for the failed parenting strategy. The second is that we as humans need to feel like we are doing something whether it works or not. Things become more about your own emotions and your own sense of what should be rather than accepting reality. When you have a defiant child the truth is that while severe punishment might change their behavior for a short amount of time and yelling might occasionally shock them into a brief moment of compliance neither has any long term affect on their behaviors and decisions. For the depressed or anxious child all the nagging to get out of bed earlier, to go to school, and advice to look on the bright side results in more confrontation and explosive arguments. If you find yourself in a place where nothing seems to be working the first thing to do is to stop everything. Stop the lectures, yelling, reverse psychology, bribes, threats, and interrogations. Again, most will not do be able to just stop everything that is not working, but I challenge you to stop everything you are doing when it comes to parenting for two weeks. I literally mean stop the parenting. You have to feed them and give them a roof over their head. And I know many will judge if you ignore that they ditched school, smoked a little weed, or came home a few hours after curfew. None of this is O.K., but you are in crisis and it is time to regroup. Do nothing, say nothing, and if you really feel the need to vent hire a therapist. You will miss out on many parenting opportunities, but you will not make or break your child’s future. Your house will most likely not burn down and your child is not going to make some life changing decision that would have only been thwarted by your incessant lecturing and yelling. A few things will change for sure. You will decrease the chaos in the home, expend less frivolous energy, and you will have more time to practice a little self-care. You might even confuse your teen who is numb and used to your yelling and lectures to the point that they behave for a while.

When parents have a child, who is struggling in any way shape or form, conventional wisdom would be to get them help. That is important, but far more important is to put an end to any yelling. If you never yell you are amazing. Keep up the good work. If you are a yeller or even just yell occasionally you are not alone. Most likely you go into each situation telling yourself you are going to use reason and find words that work without flipping your lid. You have an entire fantasy about how the lecture or lesson is going to go down. All of the sudden your irrational, crazy teen pushes you into saying things you mean, but wish you never said, or saying things that you don’t mean but couldn’t keep from saying. After years of working with teens one thing is so common that I consider it fact. Every time a parent yells at a defiant teen the relationship is damaged and the teen holds each incident as an excuse for their own bad behavior. I am not a fluffy feel good therapist so please believe that if yelling worked, I would be all for it. I am a therapist that is dedicated to helping people find what works and leads to more happiness. Yelling does not work. It ruins your end of the relationship, gives your teenager an excuse to blame you and resent you. Whether you realize it or not it chips away at your own mental health. Yelling is also addicting. Yelling releases the same neurological chemicals as drugs and it can actually become addicting. In other words, even if it feels productive in the moment, or maybe even feels cathartic, it is harmful to you, your child, and your other relationships.


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