Seeing Beneath the Surface with Your Teen
Daniel felt driven to desperate measures in an attempt to escape unexpressed pain, and in hopes of having an emotional impact on his dad who seemed impervious to him and to emotions. Monte’s defenses against his own vulnerability broke down in the wake of having to face losing his son. Daniel and his dad had become polarized, with Daniel holding all the vulnerability and Monte attempting to banish such feelings in himself by humiliating Daniel, thereby removing himself from the feelings of helplessness and pain he harbored from his own life. Seeing – finally- in Monte’s tears that his dad cared about him and was vulnerable too, Daniel felt a connection and bridge, allowing him and his dad to bond from a newfound position of authenticity for both.
Ellen ultimately pushed herself to tolerate Daniel’s anger and even hatred towards her, beginning to permit him to separate from her. She recognized that bearing the risking of losing him (emotionally), by letting him go, was paradoxically the lesser risk – the only way she could help protect her son’s life, and the only chance of preserving any future relationship with him.
Below are some lessons from Daniel’s story and tips for parents.
- Don’t assume that a well-behaved teen is a safe or happy teen.
- Recognize signs of withdrawal and changes in behavior, sleep, appetite, motivation, mood as warning signs of depression and possible suicide risk.
- If these signs are evident, ask your teen directly if he ever feels bad enough that he thinks about killing himself. Take seriously any threats of suicide, no matter how they are expressed and seek help.
- Take inventory and ask yourself where your blind spots may be with your teen: In what ways might you be unconsciously discouraging healthy growth in your teen to alleviate your own anxiety or feel secure?
- Remember that you are your teen’s primary role model. Teens will learn from how you behave in your relationship with them and with your spouse.
- Hold on to your teen, but not too tight.
- Notice if you are using your teen as a substitute for your spouse or to make up for other emptiness or stress.
- Limit how much you confide in your teen for your own comfort. Find other supports.
- Have the courage to be curious about, and bear, your teen’s feelings toward you – including anger, hatred, and apparent rejection – without over-reacting. Remind yourself when your teen is angry that these are just feelings and will pass, that this is a part of what teens must go through (and what you must bear) in order for them to separate and develop an identity of their own. You are strong enough to bear it — don’t take it personally. There are positive feelings there too, even if they are temporarily hidden.
- Don’t take teens’ indifference or anger at face value and assume it means they don’t care about your relationship with them and don’t need you. Don’t use this as a reason to pull away or drop the ball.
- Assume your teen needs you. Show interest and make time for them to do things that they enjoy.
- Break silence and talk about things in the family you know have affected your teen. Admit to your mistakes and listen to your teen’s feelings without defending and explaining yourself.
- Don’t use negative comments about your spouse as a way to connect with your teen.
- Recognize and come to terms with your teen’s personality. Encouraging is different than needing and trying to change your child.
- Notice if your teens are the opposite of you and try to find a bridge. If you have a strong reaction to them, chances are there is something in yourself that you are trying to suppress by getting rid of it in them.
National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute of Health. (2009). Suicide in the U.S.: Statistics and Prevention Fact sheet (NIH Publication No. 06-4594). Bethesda, MD.
Margolies, L. (2013). Seeing Beneath the Surface with Your Teen. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 8, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/seeing-beneath-the-surface-with-your-teen/