The misunderstood teenager is a phase that (almost) every single teenager goes through and every single parent dislikes. Yes, you still love your child, however, you may fantasize about committing certain actions against them. For example, my mother has told me that she wished at times she could change the locks on us permanently and pretend that she didn’t live there anymore. A friend of mine gave the example of wishing she could whoop the kid while in a meeting with the school principal for some ridiculous behavior that makes it seem like the child has no home training. Another friend expressed having thoughts of beating the kid like they were a thug in the street. I’m sure there are many other things you may be able to think of as a parent or as a former teenager who remembers “the look” that said your parent had all kinds of things rolling through their heads at that moment. As much as you may want to say that it’s the threat of law enforcement that keeps those actions at bay, we know (or hope) that it’s the love you have for your children regardless of how frustrated, angry, and disappointed they make you.
So I offer 5 key points to help you survive with your misunderstood teenager. Please understand this is NOT parenting advice, but more so another way to view the concerns from the perspective of a professional who works with these teens. This does not mean those thoughts won’t still roll through your head at a certain point, nor is this meant to excuse the behaviors. I just think that there are times we adults forget what it was like being a misunderstood teenager.
5) The Identity Crisis
The teenaged years are the prime time for a child to “find” themselves. They don’t know who they are, and sometimes it feels as though even you as their parent don’t know who they are anymore. This is NORMAL! Allow them time to figure out who they are for themselves because the more you try to force something onto them, the more likely they are to push back. This does not mean you shouldn’t guide them and instill principles and morals, but that you shouldn’t attempt to control or indoctrinate them into YOUR way of life. This identity “crisis” can come in many different forms to include sexuality. Yes, this means your child may also be trying to figure out sexual orientation, gender orientation, and sexuality for themselves. It happens! It NEEDS to happen! This child of yours will one day become a fully functioning adult and member of society (hopefully). In order for this to occur, they need to find themselves. Finding themselves means they will need your SUPPORT! NOT JUDGEMENT! Now this is not stating you should just lay down and accept everything they do. This means you need to be there for them to talk to, ask questions, and challenge views. Invite dialogue and discussion; not disagreement and discord. Understand that your disagreement won’t change who they are…it will simply change (and probably ruin) your relationship.
4) The All Knowing
Oh we’ve all encountered this child! The “know-it-all”. The child that, regardless of how much advice you try to provide, they don’t listen to a word you have to say because they “know already”. You can never go wrong by trying to help your child. However, sometimes no matter how hard you try to warn, protect and guide them in the right direction, they will go their own path. It is your responsibility to allow them to do so AT TIMES. Some things they are going to need to find out for themselves. Some things they have to learn through experience because it is experience that teaches the lessons. It’s experience that gives us the hesitancy needed to refrain from repeating mistakes. Your job in those moments, is to be there to catch them when they fall. Your role is to talk to them, listen to them, and comfort them. Your job is NOT to say “I told you so” or “you should have listened to me” or “I tried to warn you”. Your job is to be understanding and talk them through their decision making to help them see where they went wrong. Trust me, they’re well aware that they should have listened to you, but pointing it out won’t help the situation nor will it make them jump to listen to you next time.
3) The Too Quiet
So for most you’re probably scratching your head trying to figure out why this is on the list. This is on the list because this is the child that should worry you most. This is the child that could be getting bullied by peers, could have low self-esteem, could be struggling with depression, could be so many things that COULD lead to dangerous outcomes. Now, this does not mean because your child is simply quiet that the above is true. I’m referring to the child who isolates him/herself. The child who doesn’t appear to have any friends really. The child who does not engage in any activities. The child who may stay locked away in their rooms all the time. The child who used to be engaged and involved in things and used to have plenty of friends or social activities. This is the child who has appeared to have “changed”. Trying to talk to this child may lead to them becoming annoyed or asking you to leave them alone. You’ll probably get the famous “I’m fine” or “nothing” if you ask what’s wrong. Talk to this child and let them know that you’re there for them. Don’t shrug it off. NOTICE THEM! Don’t let them go invisible in their own home. If that means you’re getting on their nerves because they want to be left alone then OH WELL! Don’t let work, school, friends, or whatever else be more important than your child. The #1 thing that my child clients (regardless of age) say to me when I ask if they could change something what would it be is…that they could do more with their parents. Somewhere between birth and middle school, parents tend do less with their children. Make an effort to become involved again.
2) The Attitudinal One
This is the child who is angry because the sun is too bright (as if there’s a dimmer button we can just push). This child walks around with an attitude as if they’ve worked all day, paid bills, and took care of the house and are just tired and frustrated with people walking around with an attitude (insert side eye). This is the same child that when you ask why they have an attitude, they tell you they don’t…with an attitude. This is also usually the first child to talk about someone else having an attitude problem. This is the child who requires you to take a deep breath and think before you act on that initial response that pops into your head. This child is probably feeling defensive and vulnerable about something. Understand that anger is a secondary emotion, so that attitude that they’re walking around with stems from something else. Find out what it is they are truly upset about. Find out where their vulnerability is coming from and why they feel the need to be defensive. If you can figure out the primary emotion that led to the attitude, then you can get to the root of the problem. Getting angry at them because they’re angry and displaying attitude doesn’t exactly solve the problem. Now you just have two angry people walking around.
This is the one that I think gives the most trouble because they don’t know when to SHUT UP! This was definitely me when I was younger….and possibly still me sometimes..lol. This is the child who is talking back, telling you what they think, attempting to tell you what they will or will not do, and feeling the need to share their opinion in all environments and to everyone including teachers and school officials. This is the child who requires you to remember why jail is not a good option. This is the one that makes you rethink your purpose in life. The one who makes you wonder if you’re being punished for something you’ve done in your past. This is the child who requires the most patience. We want our children to have an opinion, and the more you attempt to stifle their opinions the more likely you are to deal with the most push back. Encourage free thinking, but explain the importance of knowing when, where, and how to share said opinion. Having an opinion is perfectly fine, but the way it is expressed is extremely important because expressed in the wrong manner can lead to consequences. I’m pretty sure my lips were permanently swollen throughout my teen years because I couldn’t control my mouth. On the flip side, shutting them down and telling them their opinions don’t matter or aren’t welcome can lead to teaching them to “stay in their place”. That’s the mindset of an oppressed people, and that is not who we are raising. We want them to challenge ideals and the norm. We want them to ask questions and provide alternative views. We want them to stand out. So take deep breaths and teach them that it’s okay to have an opinion, but it’s not okay to be disrespectful in the manner in which it is shared. Look at it this way, expressing their opinion means they feel confident enough to engage in conversation and open communication. Is that really a bad thing?
The moral of the story is to TALK to your children from the time they are born. Create an environment that allows for open, nonjudgemental communication. Be supportive, be present, and be involved.
Mental health, regardless of what some may believe, is not static. It’s ever changing, very dynamic, and affected by so much in the community. The face of mental health changes from person to person and place to place. Mental health does not impact just one group of individuals. There are so many stigmas present within the mental health community due to the irrational beliefs, polarizing views, absurd repercussions, and culturally insensitive treatments. One of the things I cringe at hearing is when a therapist states that they can treat any diagnosis from the perspective of their one theory. THAT’S ABSOLUTELY NOT TRUE!!! Therapy should not be a “one size fits all” intervention because mental health isn’t a “one size fits all” disease. You can do far more damage to a consumer by treating everyone the same. Unfortunately, because of some experiences in seeking help, the lack of education regarding mental health, the lack of cultural competency, and the continued stigmas and myths many individuals do not receive the help they truly need. With that said, I offer 5 tips in getting the help you need on your path to healthy.
Therapists are no different than the rest of the population. They are different cultures, religions, races, backgrounds, and sexual orientations. They have differing beliefs that may even guide their treatment. What you as the consumer must understand, is that those differences are also what help us to help you. You must also understand that this also means if one doesn’t work for you, then don’t count us all out, find the one who does work for you. Don’t be afraid to search for exactly who it is you feel would help you best. If you want to work with a man, then search for a man. If you want to work with someone younger, then find someone younger. If you want someone more experienced, then look for that. If you want a specific race, gender, or sexual orientation, then that’s what you look for. If you want someone who specializes in a specific technique, area, or clientele, then that’s what you look for. Don’t feel like you have to choose a specific person.
As a person of faith, I whole heartedly believe in the power of prayer. However, I also believe that prayer alone will not work. For example, if you developed lung cancer after years of smoking, would you simply pray about it while continuing to smoke, or would you make the attempt to stop smoking while continuing to pray? If you lost your job, would you just pray about it while sitting back on your couch with your feet up, or would you pray on it while putting in applications and going on interviews? With that said, I absolutely hate it, when people say, “you don’t need to go to a therapist, just pray about it”. Yes, pray…and then do the work. Stop listening to people who don’t want to get their own issues worked through. Another pet peeve of mine is when someone says that therapy is for a certain race, age, or gender. That’s ludicrous! Therapy is for any and everyone who needs and wants the help. If therapists come from all different backgrounds, then it stands to reason that our clients are also from all different backgrounds. Stop listening to friends and family who are encouraging you NOT to get help.
If you’re in session and are feeling uncomfortable about something, then speak about it with your therapist. With that said, there are some things that will be uncomfortable because that can sometimes be the nature of therapy. We’re looking into concerns and there is a natural vulnerability in that. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at some other reasons you may feel something isn’t right. If you’re feeling judged, or worse, are being judged, then it may be time to find another therapist. If you’re feeling as though your culture, race, religion, or sexual orientation is not being considered when it should be, then speak up about it. It is okay to question things. Therapists aren’t all knowing. If you have a question about an approach, skill level, knowledge of a certain topic, experience treating a certain background, then ask the therapist. Don’t sit in sessions uncomfortable because you’re afraid to ask a question. We won’t get mad or upset with you. We are here to help you, so if something doesn’t feel right, speak up and ask questions.
Your culture is definitely important. Every culture is unique, and it is important to understand that your culture impacts your experiences, your responses, your perception, and your treatment. While it may not be the reasoning that you sought treatment, it does play a role in your treatment in terms of approaches, interventions, and effectiveness. Don’t feel as though you need to be someone else or suppress who you are to be a certain person in therapy. Be you! We as therapists need to know you. We may ask questions about who you are or attempt to understand your culture more, but this is in attempt to help you and be sure we’re being effective. That being said, every therapist will not understand your culture. It is okay to find someone who will or is willing to understand you and who you are. If you’re feeling a disconnect due to cultural differences, then it may be wise to first discuss to see if things will change, and if that doesn’t work, find another therapist who may be a better fit.
So for all the consumers I’ve worked with, so many of them have a tendency to state to me, “I don’t need therapy because I’m not crazy”. Let me help you with that dear old FALSEHOOD. Struggling with mental health concerns don’t make you “crazy”, it makes you human. If you ask me, everyone needs to see a therapist at least once in their lives because we all have something we could use a little help with navigating. Understand that mental illness is a disease. When you’re sick, you see a doctor. It always amazes me that in every other aspect, people seek the services they need. If you’re child has a speech impediment, you seek speech therapy. If your child is having concerns with fine or gross motor skills, you seek an occupational therapist. If your muscles are far too tense, you seek a massage therapist. If you’re recovering from an injury, you seek a physical therapist. However, if you’re struggling with a mental health concern, you don’t seek the help you need because you fear being labeled as “crazy”. You aren’t! You are struggling with symptoms related to a concern that can be improved with the appropriate help and intervention.