We know there is nothing you wouldn’t do for your child. Parents sacrifice their time, their money, their health and even their sanity to help their child in a crisis.
As a parent, when you’ve put it all on the line for your child, where does that leave you? Teens who are struggling with mental or behavioral health issues, substance use or compulsive gaming act out in ways that their parents often don’t know how to cope with— shoplifting, vandalizing, stealing, lying, using drugs, cutting class, being confrontational with teachers or authority figures, fighting with their siblings and parents, or even harming themselves.
It’s a totally normal and understandable impulse to focus on and try to curb problematic behavior. You’ve probably tried a range of tactics from grounding your teen, to taking away her electronics, to loading him up with chores. The positive effects of these measures are short-lived and in no time parents often see their child’s behavior ramp up further.
Teenagers act out, parents react to the behavior, and little changes: it’s a vicious cycle.
The root of a teenager’s problematic behavior is unresolved emotional pain that leads to shame, self-hatred, and self-judgement. Your child doesn’t know how his actions are harmful; what he knows is that he feels totally out of control and powerless to stop himself.
Teens act out not only because these behaviors can give her a temporary release from how she feels, but because they are often the only way she is able to express himself. Consider the game Charades: you can’t use words to communicate, so you are forced to “act it out.”
In your child’s reality, his problematic behaviors are her way of both expressing her internal pain and simultaneously trying to manage it.
When you think about your child acting out, we want you to look beyond the behavior itself. By responding only to his behavior, there is a missed opportunity to understand what is driving his behavior: fear, sadness, anger or shame.
Here’s the rub: it’s nearly impossible for most parents to cut through the noise, see past the behavior, and identify the underlying cause of their child’s distress—unless you have help.
We meet with parents who are exhausted and frustrated: they’ve tried to connect with their child, to help him or fix him, and have failed repeatedly. Parents who feel like they are failing in their role to care for their child often become overwhelmed by helplessness. That helplessness triggers a wide range of some of the toughest insecurities—feeling unworthy, inauthentic, and incapable of being a parent—and makes a parent’s job of connecting with their child even more difficult.
The key to helping your teen is to first heal yourself through self-care and self-inquiry.
We want to suggest to you that the degree to which you’re able to manage and maintain your own physical, mental and emotional health has a direct impact on how well you’re able to support your child.
As parents, when we feel like we can’t connect with our children, it’s generally an indication that we aren’t in tune with ourselves. If we feel like we can’t care for them, it’s because we aren’t caring for ourselves.
Parents who come to Family First often express feeling guilt and shame that they aren’t able to help, fix, or cure their child’s mental or behavioral health issues on their own. They’ve been struggling and suffering, trying to manage their child’s feelings, behaviors and health while he’s in crisis. In the meanwhile, these parents aren’t able to pay close attention to their other children, and completely neglect their own self-care.
How to care for him and help him heal while caring for yourself is a balancing act of awareness and intention.
When our clinicians work with an adolescent client, we begin building a relationship with him by bringing our curiosity, presence, and sensing into what is driving his distress. Our aim is to accept his complex feelings, understand how he is making sense of his experience, and offer him a new way of relating to himself and his situation by reinforcing his agency.
There’s no formula for connecting with your teen, but often it’s a result of being present with your child and not rushing to comment, dismiss, or problem-solve.
Feelings of helplessness, anger and grief drive us to act when non-action is what’s most needed. Parents can be triggered into action by their child’s acting out because of that parent’s own unresolved pain. By exploring and addressing that previously unresolved pain, you can stop being controlled by it in your current relationship with your child.
When parents ask us how to connect with their child to support her healing, we often recommend that they begin by taking care of themselves. Most parents really benefit from spending time exploring their own thoughts and feelings that are triggered by their child’s acting out. This is best done with a counselor or therapist, someone who can safely and thoughtfully guide you through old memories and feelings. We are always happy to provide recommendations or referrals when this is appropriate, and a parent is interested.
Once you become aware of your own triggers, you can create a mental division between past and present, between your memories and what’s happening in the moment, between the child you were and the child you have in front of you.
Your own journey of healing allows you to create some heart-space to connect more deeply with yourself and your child. You can focus on exploring what he’s having so much difficulty expressing without letting your own unresolved pain interrupt him.
Slow down, keep an open heart, and don’t rush to problem-solve.
The insight adults gain into themselves when they spend time in self-exploration, self inquiry, and self-care can help slow down emotionally charged scenarios with their child. Instead of feeling triggered and out of control, a parent is better able to validate their child’s feelings and connect with him or her. It also helps parents get a clearer picture of what their child is experiencing.
By spending time on your own healing, you’ll be much better prepared to support your child in their healing. You’ll be able to curb your impulse to respond to their behavior, and instead have an open, accepting, and validating communication with your child.
We encourage the parents of our adolescent clients to explore their own options for healing through support groups and therapy. By understanding and connecting with ourselves, we’re better able to connect with and understand others. When we bring parent and child together in a therapeutic setting, both feel more equipped to express themselves and to accept what the other person is expressing.
Are you ready to begin the lifelong journey of self-discovery and healing with your child? Call
us to find out if Family First Adolescent Services right for you and your family. (561) 328-7370.