You Can’t Solve A Problem That You Don’t Understand

When facing issues with their teenagers, a lot of parents  are inclined to require them to see a therapist, and this may accomplish nothing.  

Before we address today’s question, I’d like to share that the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry just reported a vigorous study that demonstrates that adolescent and young adult abstinence from cannabis use is associated with significantly improved learning.  So yes, Marijuana use impairs learning and abstinence from use improves learning.  When your teen or young adult tells you “I just use it to relax, it doesn’t hurt me,”  you can tell them that it interferes with learning and memory, and that their idea that it doesn’t affect them isn't a rationalization.

Today's question comes from Mandy:

Our 17 year old son fights depression, social anxiety, anxiety in general. He doesn’t eat or sleep right.  His only friends are really his older brother’s friends. Due to the age gap, they aren’t going to call him to hang out. Two years ago he had a bad experience with the few friends he did have. They all turned on him and gathered the rest of the kids and told tales about him to get everyone mad at him.  It was all over a girl (go figure).  We tried to encourage him that as horrible as it feels, time does heal.  We talked at lengths trying to help. Since then he doesn’t have any real friends, no one he hangs out with.

He LOVES video games, and just has given up on friends. He plays video games in his bedroom, or watches movies. Rarely comes out. We are a small contracting business, so my husband has been able to employ him for the summer.  He seems to like that.  It gets him out, meeting people.

We have him in counseling.  He’s only gone 3 times, and HATES going. He will go, but hates it.  He doesn’t eat on the days he goes. He says he’s not hungry but its obvious he’s angry with us for making him go.  Are we doing the right thing?  He’s such a great young man, so kind and sweet.  He has just given up in some areas of life and it scares me; thus the therapy.

Thanks for your question, Mandy.  What happened to your son socially a couple of years ago is very upsetting and sad.  Your son has some differences that make him an easy target and it’s a real shame that the school climate wasn’t safer for him.

Understanding the Problem

So Mandy here’s the thing.  Yes, looking for a therapeutic solution is a step in the right direction; but sending him off to individual therapy won't necessarily work. If we don’t understand the problem, and he isn’t invested in the solution, a once a week individual therapy is not going to accomplish anything.   

If we don’t understand the problem, and he isn’t invested in the solution, a once a week individual therapy is not going to accomplish anything. Click To Tweet  

Here is what we know:

Your son at 17 has very poor social skills. He has anxiety, depression, and spends most of his time playing video games and watching movies. 

He doesn’t have a social life.  I’m assuming that he does go to school, but hasn’t made friends. When he works for his father, he does pretty well and it sounds like he interacts with the clients and enjoys it. When his brother’s friends are around, he engages with them and enjoys that as well.

On days when he goes to counseling, he doesn’t eat and you see that as a form of protest. It feels that he is being required to go to therapy.  If that is what’s going on, that’s pretty primitive and a passive form of protest, a kind of passive-aggressive behavior.

And yet he is sweet and kind.

We also have to realize that right now, you and his dad are scratching your heads, and feeling pretty powerless and maybe even burned out.  Any suggestions you have for your son and even any requirements you make are met with resistance.

So Mandy, what can you do?  You need to start by finding out what is going on, what is interfering with his social/emotional development?  Anxiety and depression are symptoms, but what is causing it?  If we don’t understand the problem, we won’t know how to find a solution. So before he starts individual therapy, we need a psychological evaluation.  It sounds to me like your son could be on the autism spectrum. 

This is just speculation and it could be something entirely different.  If this is the case or some other individual difference is identified as the underlying reason for your son’s lack of growth and development, sending him off to individual therapy won’t get the job done. 

If we don’t understand the problem, we won’t know how to find a solution. Click To Tweet

Steps Towards a Solution

So here is the best way to go forward.

Get a complete psychological assessment for your son. 

Find the best psychologist in your area for doing complete adolescent assessments.  This person is going to want to meet with you alone as well as with your son alone, most likely more than once.  They will do some extensive testing so that you and your son all get a comprehensive understanding of your son’s strengths and challenges and his specific needs.

Once the testing is complete, the next step is for that information to be shared in a way that will be informative and helpful to you and your son.  It should identify your son’s strengths and areas to work on.  It should help you know where to set limits and maybe even how to set limits. The assessment  should be able to tell you how to best support your son’s growth and development.

The psychologist may want to have a feedback session with you and his dad alone, with your son alone, and with you all together.  There must be a joint feedback session so that everyone has the same understanding of issues and solutions.  And if the psychologist is not going to be the therapist, it would be ideal for the therapist to be at the family feedback session as well. At the very least, that person should be in touch with the testing psychologist and have a copy of the report.

How to Make Specific Plans

Mandy, the next step is to follow-up with the therapist to make specific plans and ways to implement them. Identify your individual responsibilities in executing the plan. Will the parents have the same therapist or a different one?  Each therapist works differently so there isn’t a right or wrong choice here.  Choose whatever works best for your family. I guarantee you the plan won’t include your son holding up in his room, playing endless video games and movie watching

There will need to be a sleep plan, eating plan, social skill development plan and post high school plan.  As parents, you are going to need to set limits effectively and that means staying positive, clear, and ensuring that your son manages his responsibilities.  All this can be laid out early in the therapy, but clarifying and implementing plans will of course be gradual.

In Conclusion

Therapy is great and I’m proud to be a therapist.  But just sending a youth off to therapy without an understanding of the issues will not be productive. You need a parental mandate and parental support for addressing issues. Let’s all challenge ourselves to understand what is going on with our children, and own our part of the solution. 

Let’s all challenge ourselves to understand what is going on with our children, and own our part of the solution.Click To Tweet

With those elements in place, therapy will be a tremendous value in helping parents and kids, grow and develop in healthy ways.

Thanks for tuning in today, and special thanks to Mandy for her question.  I see that many copies of my book, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle have recently been purchased on Amazon in Louisville KY.  I’m guessing that a school or some organization thought it would be a good read for many of their parents. 

So Louisville folks, if you are reading this, contact me and I’ll happily set up a time to meet remotely with your group and answer any questions you have about the book or applying the concepts in your families.  In fact, I’d be happy to do that with any group that wants to use my book to support their goals.

But for now please remember, take care of yourselves, you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. 


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