How Do I Get Parents To Own Their Part Of The Problem?


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 131 · Duration: 00:11:56

How Do I Get Parents To Own Their Part Of The Problem?

How Do I Get Parents To Own Their Part Of The Problem

What does a therapist who works with teenagers do, when parents just want her to work with their teenager?   

And if you have a question you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my website, click on either For Families or For Treatment Programs, then click on any podcast and scroll down to the end where it says “submit your question” and enter it there and why not do it today.  And while you’re there, download a free copy of my Parental Burnout Recovery Guide.

Today we’re hearing from Laura, and Laura writes:

I’m a therapist working with teenagers and I know that working with the whole family is best, yet I have a hard time getting parents to come in, particularly fathers.  Even when parents do come, they see it as their teen’s counseling session.  They give me a little about what’s going on and expect to me to work just with their teenager.  When I ask them about their parenting, often they get defensive and tell me they’ve done everything.  I can’t get them to change if they don’t come in.  Do you have any advice for how I can get parents to come in and own their part?

Thanks for your question Laura.  It comes up very often in my family therapy trainings, so let’s see how I can help.

Acknowledging The Control Battle in Your Family

Laura, it all starts with the therapist having clarity that problems with children, teenagers and young adults virtually always involves some level and some form of a Control Battle which I call The Beast.  If, as therapists, we try to do therapy without acknowledging or dealing with the fact of The Beast, we’ll be having a heck of a time creating real change.  Even if there is a specific youth challenge such as ADHD, dyslexia, or early childhood trauma, that is the source of a problem, one that parents want to get their youth help with. What brings a family into counseling is the struggle with their youth, and to effectively address any issue, we must help the family change out of a Control Battle based family dynamic, to a healthy dynamic where parents and youth are addressing issues productively. 

Laura, from our first contact with a parent, we actually communicate our thinking about therapy and problems in very subtle ways.  For instance, let’s say a mom calls to get therapy for her 14 year-old daughter whom she describes as depressed.  If you talk with the mom about when you can fit her daughter in or ask if her daughter is on medication, those are IP based questions.  Of course you will want a history of the daughter’s development and mental and physical health, but if you start by accepting the mom’s diagnosis and talk from that point of view you’ll get caught in a corner.

You can establish that this is a family affair if you invite mom to talk about the situation with an open ended question, such as, “Tell me a little bit about what’s going on.”  And when she does, she’ll tell you about her experience and you can respond with some empathy and concern.  Then you will have established a beginning relationship with the mom, and then when you ask, “When can I get you folks in?” you’ll find that Mom accepts coming in as a very reasonable thing to do. 

Showing Respect and Empathy to Everyone in the Family

Laura, keep in mind that whether the youth is acting out and not managing responsibilities, or is presenting with anxiety or depression, parents have been trying to deal with it and the way they’ve been dealing with it has been what I call Feeding the Beast.  They are frustrated and experiencing some level of parental burnout.  You know what I mean by that, that the way the parents have been dealing with the problem has been feeding into the problem and now, everyone is patterned and exhausted with working hard and not getting good results.  Kids in Control Battles are not happy campers either.  Now if parents can get a taste of empathy and support from you, they’ll be more interested in coming in.

So if you simply say to the Mom, “How have you folks been dealing with it”, now we’re talking about them as a family.  You will get an infinite number of responses from that question.  You might hear “We just found out our daughter’s been cutting.  We know she’s been depressed for a long time but she has refused to go to counseling.  Now, we’re insisting.”  I can say, "Good job.  I hear you’ve been concerned for a while, but wanted to respect her choices.  Yes, your daughter has made it clear that she needs you to put your foot down.”

You might hear, “We’ve been struggling with our son for a long time.  He never wants to listen.  Now he wants to go to the continuation school and I don’t think that’s the best thing for him.  He just wants to goof off and smoke pot.  He’s had counseling before but he didn’t keep it up.”  Hearing that I might say, “Yipes, if you have a teenager who doesn’t listen, that’s a recipe for a lot of bad teen decisions.  What’s going on that he doesn’t listen?”  Then she’ll tell a version of the struggle she’s had parenting him and some of the circumstances they’ve dealt with and I’ll acknowledge how challenging those circumstances are and offer that it’s great that her son has a mother who tries and is concerned, who believes in him and wants him to do his best, and that maybe we can find a way to connect with the part of her son who cares and wants to do well. 

Now I’m offering support and suggesting that there’s a way for her and her son to connect positively.  Of course she’ll come in with her son.

Laura, about dads who don’t want to come in; let’s ask ourselves, why wouldn’t they?  It’s not because they don’t care about their kids.  It can be about a number of factors. 

  • They don’t understand what therapy is and don’t want to be psychoanalyzed. 
  • They don’t want to be told they’re parenting wrong.
  • They feel going to counseling shows weakness and they should solve problems on their own. 
  • It’s not a part of their culture and it feels uncomfortable. 

Very simply Laura, when I schedule the session around the father’s schedule, it is a sign of respect and expresses the importance of his being there and that makes him more willing.  In the few cases where the mom tells me he is simply unwilling, I give dad a call and let him know that I won’t know the whole story if he isn’t there to give me his perspective.  I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a parent absolutely refuse to come in after showing respect and empathy. 

Getting to a Healthy Dynamic

When teens struggle, the whole family struggles and if we acknowledge that, and we acknowledge it with empathy and support, parents will be perfectly willing to be part of the therapy process. 

  • It all starts with how we think about the problem and the solution.  Do we stay with a diagnosis and focus on the individual, or do we think in terms of a family dealing with an issue that they need help with?
  • Our language and the way we form questions expresses that.
  • Everyone in the family has their own pain about the problem and how it’s being dealt with whether it’s parents, the youth, or siblings. Everyone is stressed by the problem and how it is being responded to.
  • Bring respect and empathy to everyone in the family, and they will be happy to be your client and participate in the solution.
  • Then when everyone expresses their personal frustration with the others, we can bring their focus to the Control Battle, The Beast.  We can focus family members on a common enemy, rather than on each other as the source of their problem.  Rather than telling them they are parenting badly, or that their feelings aren’t reasonable, we’re simply helping everyone find a better way together.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program, and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website and shoot me an email or give me a call.  I’ll be happy to talk with you.

And please, especially during the stress of the holiday season, take care of yourselves. You need it. You deserve it. You’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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