Parents and therapists alike struggle in their attempts to successfully address a host of maladaptive adolescent behaviours. This should not be surprising since adolescence is that profound developmental period when, accompanied by massive muscular-skeletal, hormonal, and neurological shifts, children gain social and functional independence from their parents. So kids taking a wrong turn or parents and kids struggling to successfully negotiate this transformation is quite common.
Professionals look to address adolescent mental health and behavioural problems using a host of therapeutic tools. Psychotropic drugs including antidepressants, stimulants, mood stabilisers and more, are quite common. Individual therapy with teens utilising cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy, mindfulness, and supportive psychotherapy are the standard. Unfortunately, parent participation in the therapy is usually relegated to bits of advice given over the phone, before or after a session and even an occasional parent meeting with the therapist. In all of these approaches, the problem is seen as within the teen and the therapy is focused on treating the symptoms and or changing the behaviour of the teenager.
Family therapy on the other hand is based on viewing the family as the entity with the problem, and symptoms with one individual represents unhealthy ‘interactional’ patterns within the family. When the problem is viewed in this way, it opens the opportunity to create healthier patterns of interaction within the family and a more empowered parental role, as well as a healthy empowered role for teenagers. This therapeutic view and modality is far less commonly utilised given the training and experience required to be an effective family therapist, insurance limitations, and our generally medical ways of looking at problems. Yet without affecting change in family relationship patterns, treatment outcomes will be limited.
Here is a streamlined and family based approach that is effective with many families struggling with underperforming, acting out, or otherwise symptomatic adolescents. I call it the ‘Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle intervention’ and it can be used by therapists as an effective approach to helping families as well as by parents on their own wanting to change an unhealthy relationship with their teenager.
It is based on the assumption that parents are and have been struggling to get their teenager to change their behaviour and the teenager is and has been resisting those efforts. Whether the undesirable teen behaviour is substance abuse, self-harming, underperformance in or failure in school, or simply fighting at home about rules such as screen time and chores, the essential family pattern is quite simply a control battle. The harder the parent tries to effect change with their teen the more the teen resists. This leaves parents with a high level of frustration and futility if not outright burnout with symptoms of clinical depression.
Teenagers who are entrenched in a control battle based relationship with their parents are not on the appropriate curve for their developmental stage and the more extreme and the longer the control battle lasts, the farther behind they fall. Instead of developing their strengths, learning to deal with their feelings and managing their responsibilities, they put their efforts into resisting control. Rather than building self-esteem and a positive identity, they learn avoidance, manipulation, destructive habits, and they develop a bad attitude and a negative identity. Therefore control battles are even more harmful than the name might imply. The good news is they are reversible and by using the ‘Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle’ approach, serious adolescent symptoms and behaviours can help to positively resolve known issues.
In parent-teen relationships, based on control battle, both the parents and the teenager are in disempowered positions. To the parent, nothing they do works and they are defeated by the teenager or the teenager’s symptoms. To the teenager, the parents have control over all the resources and access to privileges and the teenager sees himself as powerless with their parents, except in their resistance.
The ‘Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle’ approach targets the control battle as the source of disempowerment and seeks to re-empower both the parent(s) and the teenager, creating a new and healthy family interactional pattern.
- Step 1 is to help parents and teens realise that they actually share the same essential goals, namely for the teenager to grow up happy, healthy and successful; ready to move forward with a high level of independence when they reach their young adulthood. Both parents and kids want the teenager to enjoy their adolescence and be able to manage an increasing amount of independence and enjoy many privileges.
- Step 2 is to help parents and teens see the ‘control battle’ itself as the culprit, interfering with all of their efforts to move forward.
- Step 3 is to offer parents and teens each their respective tools for ending the ‘control battle’. Parents need to embrace one essential awareness, and two control-battle ending tools.
Parents cannot control their teenagers; parents control only their parenting. Teenagers have full responsibility for, as well as the ability to control their own behaviour. Most parents will have noticed that their teenager can ‘move mountains’ to get what they want when they are motivated. This can be pointed out as convincing evidence of their teenager’s abilities. All parental attempts to control or change their teen’s behaviour will only engage the old pattern and evoke resistance.
Two parental tools
1. Holding and communicating a healthy vision of their teenager. Parents universally start out enthralled with their child and see them in a very positive light. Then as problems develop, they can lose faith and begin to write a negative narrative in their minds about who their kid is and what will become of them. That negative narrative can be implicitly or explicitly communicated out to their teenager, thus undermining the teenager’s confidence in themselves as well as the parent’s moral authority with their teenager. Parents will need to remind themselves of their teen’s exceptional qualities, believe in and have faith in their teenager’s ability to succeed, and communicate that to them explicitly.
2. Moving from consequences to earned privileges as the basis of teen accountability. With this second tool parents completely discontinue trying to find an effective consequence or intervention to change their teenager’s behaviour. In this paradigm, their teenager can earn privileges with two essential behaviours: a.) managing their responsibilities, as defined by their parents; and, b.) by presenting themselves with and maintaining a positive and respectful attitude.
When parents give a consequence or take something away from their control battle involved teenager, the teen is going to interpret the action as the parent doing something to them, and they will see themselves as victims of unreasonable parents. By shifting to the earned privileges model, the teenager is now in the driver’s seat for the privileges they receive. If they truly want privileges – and all kids do – even the ones who say they don’t care, they can earn them. Parents can make it clear that they are completely in favour of their teenager having privileges and they have no intentions of keeping privileges from them. In fact they want their kids to enjoy age appropriate privileges. Yet it is the parent’s job to grant only privileges that have been earned. To do otherwise would violate their own values and standards and operate outside of the best interests of their child. Out of love and duty, they cannot do that.
Two teenager tools
1. A commitment and a best effort to manage their responsibilities. This includes school responsibilities, home responsibilities, as well as responsibilities when they are out and about in the world.
2. Demonstrating a positive respectful attitude towards their parents thus accepting accountability to parental authority. This of course becomes a lot less painful to the teen when parents are now presenting themselves to their teenager as benevolent caring and supportive.
How to implement this concept
- Acknowledging the need to make a major change and creating a ‘restart’ atmosphere
- Parents taking responsibility for much of the poor dynamic by not having credited their teenager with the ability to make healthy decisions and by giving them privileges they have not earned
- Making high standards the expectation (high standards being character or integrity as demonstrated by effort and attitude, not for instance, grades).
- Not making privileges a ‘reward’ that parents give. It is an acknowledgement of teen achievement and their readiness to manage a privilege.
- Not offering privileges until there is sufficient time with healthy behaviour as well as sincerely stated intention to healthy behaviour, to be clear that the change is a commitment.
This approach will often resolve immediate issues and give families a way to move forward as issues come up, thereby no longer requiring psychotherapy. Often however, there is more work to be done with respect to symptoms and behaviours. Yet once families have replaced a negative dynamic with a positive one, good progress with issues such as depression and substance abuse can be made.
Neil Brown is a psychotherapist and a management consultant. Neil helps work families, couples and individuals, work groups and teams clarify and achieve their goals.