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Working with Teens: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Donna C. Moss

I never set out to work with teens. For many years after I started my private practice, people would ask, “what is your specialty?” and I would demure. I thought it was pretentious to say I’m a “specialist.” I didn’t feel like a “specialist.” I also thought it would be boring if I specialized. I wanted to mix it up (a little ADHD?). But I soon found myself gravitating to adolescents and young adults, and them to me. Given my years of training in family therapy, it started to feel natural that I would work with this population, those not-quite-children but not-quite-adult people who most therapists feared. And then I had two teen girls of my own; one now 20. What better breeding ground for insight could there be, I thought. Boy, or should I say girl, was I wrong!

Girls Will Be Girls

A therapist can no more easily treat herself and her family than a doctor can heal herself. As far as I can tell, my own family problems stem back generations. Mark Wolynn’s recent book called, It Didn't Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle lends some credence to this assertion. Jewish-check, anxiety-check, narcissism-check, mental illness-check. And the list goes on!

I sought to correct all that with my girls. Clearly, I overreached. Not only did it not help to hold myself to exacting, unrealistic and perfectionistic standards; it was in fact, impossible. Fast forward to last weekend, my girls now 20 and 17, fistfighting (I kid you not) over a sweatshirt.

My sense of failure runs deep but I am thankful that I was blessed with pure luck with these two. My insights are largely useless. My husband, however, excels at mediation (he’s a lawyer after all), and he has filled in the missing pieces on numerous occasions. We make a good team. Nevertheless, my girls have taught me a number of key things:

1. Each kid is different. 2. They teach you. 3. The “0-60” phenomenon of the teen brain is alive and well. 4. Use humor. 5. Be strong. If you are emotionally weak, they will have no one to push against, leading to a failure to launch. 6. No matter the age and stage, be patient. As soon as you master it, it changes.

Mary and her Parents

There are some cases that make me feel like a complete idiot. Take the case of Mary. She never wanted to be there. My first tenet of teen therapy is that they have to own it. It’s their life. If I am doing all the work, something is wrong. It took me a long time to realize this one. It’s great to get them when they’re young enough to change but old enough to understand, which I’d put at 17-- a beautiful age! Raring to go to college yet clinging at will to parents, kids this age are a pleasure to help. Change comes fast and furiously and if you’re lucky you’ll get hugs in there too! They go off bolstered by the therapy, and they don’t come back. On the other hand, if they are there against their will it’s a different story. We know this. No therapy is going to work by force.

Mary had a history of acting out and strict, somewhat eccentric parents who did not understand her difficulties (see “Far from the Tree” by Andrew Solomon). With this mismatch, things got off to a miserable start. She was returning from a multi-thousand-dollar wilderness program of questionable long-term repute. “Please fix her from here,” her parents dumped on me. And so I did, sort of. She continued awful acting out, rages, mood-swings, and long before I knew it there was a team of professionals all over the case. No problem. We continued to integrate her back to home. But the back-to-family part never happened. You see, the parents were the problem. This is hardly uncommon. Now they were avoiding me. They were done. I tried to explain to no avail that their participation would be key. More avoidance. So, we continued weekly until the girl simply said “this entire enterprise is futile. I give up.” What a sad case indeed when parents induce helplessness in their teens. Where will all her energy go, I wondered sadly. The case had fizzled out before my eyes. After questioning my abilities, I concluded that this was case was doomed from the start. Her only channel was anger and that wasn’t a channel I was on. Thankfully there was group therapy to warm the soul and I gladly referred her to the care of another clinician.

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