When your teen says “help me” followed quickly by ”You are not helping me!”

We live in a society that enables instant gratification. Enhanced technology allows us to flow through life with general ease and little effort while call centers and service providers are typically available 24 hours to support their customers. While these improved accommodations can be beneficial, they also suggest our needs can be met with speed, immediacy, and little effort. And, as our daily functionality becomes more and more dependent on technology and the successful functioning of external factors, the expectations for our intrinsic functioning and wellness are not excluded from this developing phenomenon.

As therapists who specialize in working with teens and young adults for decades, we have noticed a similar phenomenon unfolding within the therapeutic process. Parents, teens, and young adults alike want changes to happen quickly and effortlessly. Parents don’t hide their impatience and frustration when their child’s progress is not fast enough. “How long is it going to take for you to fix my teenager’s problems?” And adult clients, recognizing what for them could be a “lengthy” therapeutic road ahead ponder ambivalently whether seeking change through therapy is worth all the effort.

As clinicians, we understand that our clients’ strong sense of urgency arises from a place of deep desperation and pain, and we know how challenging it is to make emotional and behavioral changes under these difficult circumstances. But, we also know, having experienced the beginning, the middle and the end of so many successful therapeutic relationships, that the needs of our clients are complicated and that change is a process that demands motivation, support and effort. Even still, we therapists have to be alert to our own desires to take on the pressures to offer advice or deal in quick fixes even though we know not to; we may make promises we can’t keep, and in a desire to save people from their suffering, believe that we are more powerful than we actually are. We have to constantly remind ourselves and our clients; change is slow, change is not linear, and change requires hard work.

Parents and therapists have a similar goal; both parents and therapists must be able to support and nurture another when they are in pain while respecting the other’s process patiently. Parents need to help support change in their teens while also respecting their teenager’s growing sense of self and their steps towards independence. The pressure parents feel “to fix” their teens is not unsimilar to the pressures we experience as therapists; only many times more intensely. Although we clearly don’t have an easy answer or a quick fix for parents (if we did or there was one, we would be using it), we can offer some personal thoughts and experiences that we hope parents might find helpful.

  1. Let Go. Let go of the self pressure and expectation that you can make your child change. Step out of the driver’s seat and be willing to encourage your child to make their own mistakes. By letting go and placing the emphasis of change back on your child, you are essentially relinquishing the responsibility, and thus pressure, to be the fixer of your teenager’s life.
  2. Communicate your belief that your child can be their own problem solver as well as their own catalyst for change. By believing in them, you are helping pass the baton to them, thus encouraging movement from dependence to independence, from stagnation to motivation.
  3. Listen to your child. Ask yourself when you are with your child, “am I actually listening to my child right now?” We realize this is going back to basics but consider contemplating this question a little deeper. Research results vary on the percentage, but we know that an overwhelming percentage of communication is transmitted to your child nonverbally. We also know that your assumptions and judgments as parents interfere with your communication with your child. Listening is a skill and a skill that if honed can make a world of difference to your child and to your relationship.
  4. Adopt an inquisitive mindset with your teenager. If you assume your teenager knows their self best, you will be more likely to engage with them in an authentic way and with a desire to truly understand. In our work with our clients, this approach helps to strengthen the therapeutic alliance. The same validation process occurs between you and your child as you model critical relationship skills.
  5. Ask open ended questions. In a therapy session, when we avoid assumptions and ask “what do you really mean when you say…”, we are communicating acceptance and a willingness to better to understand our clients. When you ask open ended questions, you are doing the same, giving your teenager an opportunity to say more about their experience.
  6. Self-reflect. Self-reflection can serve as a powerful tool and likely a future motivator for us as therapists and you as parents to adopt a more inquisitive listening ear in conversations with your teen. After conversations, take a few minutes to ask yourself “What did I miss? How could I have been a more effective listener with my child? At what point did I choose not to listen? What was happening between us that stopped me from staying attuned?”.
  7. Own your feelings and express them honestly. You are going to be upset, even angry with your child sometimes. Modeling effective responses to your own feelings is of enormous benefit to your child. By showing who you are and expressing your vulnerabilities and limitations, you are telling them, it’s OK to be who they are too.

The parent/teen relationship can be complicated, strained, and demanding at times. It is no wonder parents hope for a “quick fix” from therapists. It can feel during this transition period like every pathway to connection is blocked or eroded. As you listen, communicate your belief in your child, self-reflect, and let go of control, you will find more clarity along the road of life.