I often get calls from parents who are at their wits end with their teens. They are desperate for some kind of change. They are hoping that I will create that change. Unfortunately, counseling for your loved one may not always meet YOUR goals. This can be very confusing for parents and loved ones who were hoping for some sort of miracle. You probably thought that the biggest challenge was going to be getting your kid to go to therapy. Surprisingly, that was probably easier than you thought. In fact, your child may love going to therapy now. So why aren’t you feeling better about it? Below are some things you need to prepare yourself for if you are getting your child into counseling with a good teen counselor.
· My job is to support the client with THEIR goals—not to convince them to work towards YOUR goals. Imagine going to therapy for your own support. Imagine the level of trust and rapport you would need to feel safe to consider growth and change. Now imagine one of your loved ones (someone you’re not getting along with) got to call your therapist before appointments and say, “Hey, I think you should work on my sister’s anger management today”. Yuck, right? But your goals for your kids are more mature and informed than their goals for themselves, you say? Your goals are clearly goals that any healthy adult would want for a child you say? Yeah—that doesn’t matter so much. We don’t work towards goals that others set for us. It’s just not the way the world works.
· They may seem MORE entitled at first. I often get calls from parents about a month into counseling with reports that their child is MORE entitled than they were before. Although not comfortable for you, this is a good sign. This says that your teen is feeling heard and seen. Most difficult teen behaviors come from not feeling like they fit or are understood. It is my belief that none of us are emotionally able to grow and change when we are always protecting ourselves from other people’s lack of understanding (judgment) of us. In order for me to begin to chip away at some of the things that aren’t working for someone, I must first ensure that they feel understood by me. This may result in them acting more entitled at first. If you use this as an opportunity to shape their empowerment into effective communication this can be pretty amazing for your relationship. If you don’t, it may end up creating more conflict.
· They may still be critical of you. I am a counselor AND a mother. I get how hard your job is, I really do. I still believe that it is the parents’ job to get the family right. If you are inconsistent with your teen, I will validate and name their frustration around that inconsistency. If you lecture and insult your teen, I will validate and name their frustration around that. If you ask your child to meet your emotional needs or play a parental or partner role in the family with you I will validate and name their frustrations around that. It is not my role to get them to do what you want and accept you exactly as you are. It is my work to help clients feel as if their emotions are not crazy and to help them know how to express themselves and set boundaries. Again, if you use this as an opportunity to grown and listen, it will be amazing for your relationship. If you don’t it will increase conflict.
· I will ask you to be involved and be ready for change. Teens are moody and immature. They test limits, do stupid things because they think they are invincible and do whatever they can to distance themselves from their parents. Like it or not, that’s their job. Your job is to support them through this big developmental milestone in a way that shows you love them unconditionally and care deeply for their safety. If you want change in the family, you’ll need to be ready to change the way you do your family relationships and discipline.
· They may come home saying “Lara agrees with me on this one”. An interesting thing happens when someone reflects back your feelings and validates your rights to those feelings. You often believe that the counselor agrees with your decisions. That doesn’t mean that I do. I’ve had kids come home and say, “Lara thinks it’s okay for me to get back together with my ex-boyfriend”. It’s likely that what I really said was, “It’s hard to let go of someone you love even if he hurt you. This is a very normal part of breaking up with someone. It sounds like you’re going to get back together with him even if it means risking your heart again. Let’s talk about what boundaries you want to set.” Why not just say “You’re crazy, this guy is awful!” you ask? Again, put yourself in their shoes. If you went to a counselor trying to save your marriage, how long would you let that counselor support you if they said, “You’re crazy, this guy is awful!” Good counselors are not lecturers. Counselors are meant as a support. We help people make their own decisions and say, “I’m here no matter what decisions you make, and I’ll help you sort it out if it doesn’t work out.”
· They may try to use me to get what they want. Teens love to tell their parents that their therapist thinks you’re wrong on this one. I promise, I may help a client identify ways that they wish you had done something different. I may even help them know why their upset with the way you did what you did. But I am NOT their parent and do not make decisions for your family. I will never tell your child that your decisions were unfair. I may agree with them, though, that your approach was not effective.
· You may get jealous. Your baby has grown up and become a monster that doesn’t talk to you. But they love coming to talk to me each week. That’s not easy for any parent to take. Please remember that my role is not to be their parent. I don’t have to set rules and enforce them with consequences. I’m not the person they are trying to figure out how to be less like (because that’s what teens are doing). Try to be happy that they have a safe adult to talk to if they can’t talk to you.
· Their sessions are confidential. I will tell you if they came to a session or not. I will tell you if they are risking their lives. That’s it. If you want information from your teen, it must come from them—not me. Imagine if your spouse or sibling or parent were able to call me up for information about your sessions. How much would you trust and grow if that were the case?
If you’re reading this and saying “Oh, that’s not what I want”, I certainly understand. Sending your teen to counseling will not be as easy on you as you hoped. It will challenge you. It will push you to grow and change. My goal is to support your teen in feeling accepted and seen while working towards their goals and identifying their values. This will decrease their risk for suicide, self-harm and substance use. It will increase their chances at being self-sufficient adults. It will improve their trust for counselors if they need one in the future for any reason. It will support them in building healthy adult relationships. But it will not improve your relationship unless you also do the work.
So before you pick up the phone, be ready. Be ready to work. For the sake of you and your teen I hope you are!