The Therapist Says To “Back Off.” Should I?


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 170 · Duration: 00:15:40

The Therapist Says To “Back Off.” Should I?

What do you do when you’re 15-year-old is avoiding responsibilities and smoking weed, and the therapist you’re going to says as parents, you need to back off?

Today we’re hearing from Martin of Greensboro, North Carolina. Martin writes:

The Therapist Says To “Back Off.” Should I?I’m getting advice from my son’s therapist that concerns me. Our 15-year-old son has been avoiding his responsibilities and getting involved with marijuana. We’ve always had a good relationship and he's been involved with sports and activities but lately, things have changed. We’ve gotten into some huge fights with him leaving and going over to his grandparents to get away from us. They send him back after a day or two, but nothing changes. We got a therapist who works with teenagers and parents and he told us to back off. Our son says he’d do his work if we didn’t bug him to and he would only smoke weed once in a while if we didn’t stress him out so much. Our son is manipulative and makes lots of promises that he doesn’t keep and we think the therapist is falling for his act. Should we follow his advice?

Thanks for your question, Martin. I’m thrilled you asked it because it speaks right to the heart of Control Battles and I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear from me that you’re in a whopper of one with your son.

The Control Battle between you and your son has led to your son developing some seriously unhealthy habits that we don’t want to become character traits that follow him into young adult and adult life. He’s 15, not 18, and he has a father and mother who care and are seeking professional help, so let’s be optimistic and see what we can do to end the Control Battle and get your son back on a healthy track.

Teens Need Structure and Support

What your therapist is seeing is the impact of the Control Battle on your son and how his behavior makes sense as a response to it. For instance, he could see:

  • That your son’s feelings are hurt
  • He doesn’t want to feel controlled
  • He doesn’t want to give in
  • That he is depressed and unmotivated
  • That he is self-medicating with marijuana
  • That his parents don’t understand his feelings and are coming down on him too hard
  • That he’s essentially a good kid who wants to succeed
  • The therapist, looking through your son’s lens, might even see you as a controlling, angry person/parent.

If you were to size things up this way, then parents backing off would make sense, right?

However, this intervention is naïve and destined to fail. Trust me, I know. Been there, done that. Why is it destined to fail?

Kids need structure, support, guidance. They haven’t developed the judgment, impulse control, or self-discipline to successfully move forward on their own. That’s why they've been given parents. When kids get the structure and support they need, and they cooperate with their parents, they can learn, grow, and mature on their own.

Teens need structure, support, guidance. They haven’t developed the judgment, impulse control, or self-discipline to successfully move forward on their own. That’s why they've been given parents.Click To Tweet

So, if having overbearing, angry parents back off isn’t the answer, what is?

First of all, there’s a big difference between parenting as an authoritarian and being in authority. Hierarchy and authority seem to have become almost dirty words in the parenting world today. Believe me, if there's no hierarchy and no one in authority, then you’re asking for trouble. The question is how is authority presented, and of course it needs to be presented in a way that supports learning and growing. We want kids to learn and internalize how to set their own limits and structure as they grow and mature so that they have those skills when they enter young adulthood.

The amount and kind of structure kids need varies from kid to kid. Yet, in all cases, limits and structure need to be presented in a way that communicates caring and appreciation for who each kid is. But in Control Battles, that ain’t happening.

Finding Structure and Support While In a Control Battle With Your Teen

In a Control Battle, [arents and kids are bringing the worst out in each other. In this case, Martin, the parent, namely you, is frustrated and angry with his teenager. Your teenager is putting his energy into fighting against parental authority rather than into his responsibilities.

If parents simply back off of a kid who is putting their energy into resisting authority, that kid is highly unlikely to suddenly put their energy into their responsibilities. They’re most likely unable to make that transition on their own.

So if a parent backing off isn’t going to do it, what will? Here’s a metaphor that might help explain this. Picture Chinese handcuffs. Do you know what those are? It’s about a 4-inch long tube woven with reeds. When you put a finger in from each hand and go to pull them out, the tube tightens and locks them in place. In order to get the fingers out, you have to push in a bit and pull out gently with the left and the right hands working together.

Now, picture the Control Battle as a Chinese handcuff on the parent and the teenager. The parent and the teen need to work together to get it off, or, for our example, get out of the Control Battle. If either tries to get their way with force or acting without regard for the other, you’re just tightening the handcuffs.

Working together, what a concept. But if you think about it, you both want the same thing: for your teenager to be happy and successful. If the parent can present their limits as in support of that, with affirming words and a positive tone, and if the teenager can put some energy into cooperation and responsible behavior, well now we’re getting somewhere. Now that’s what the therapist can do, get the fingers working together to get out of the handcuffs.

Tips For Moving Forward Cooperatively

Martin, the answer to your question is a little tricky. The last thing I want to do is advise you not to follow your therapist’s advice. What I recommend is that you interpret their advice in a workable way. Yes, back off from all the anger and negativity. Don’t micro-manage. Realize that we need a change in the relationship that includes, on your part, caring about and having a positive vision of your son.

Sure you’re concerned about his lack of commitment to his responsibilities and his marijuana use. You should be. But you’ll be taking a giant step forward in re-establishing your parental authority when you present it positively. So, as I said, backing off means not micro-managing, not bringing anger or a negative tone, even when he demonstrates irresponsible behavior. Yet, privileges such as electronics, access to money, permission to go out, those things are on hold until the right hand is getting some cooperation from the left. Let’s give the therapist a chance to work with your son on his choices and how to deal with his feelings and responsibilities.

Also, Martin, it’s likely that when we’re not in a Control Battle, we’ll find your son has some issues such as ADHD, LD, and some issues with self-esteem and his identity. Cannabis abuse may need some focus on its own and all this will take some time to flush out and address. But if we end the Control Battle, and we put you in the role of benevolent authority, then you’ll be on the right path and be going in the right direction.

So Parents, therapists, and folks who work with parents and teenagers, parents backing off is rarely a solution to a teenager’s poor behavior, even when the parent has been angry and attempting to micro-manage their youth. That situation requires a more nuanced approach, yes, sometimes challenging to implement. Some parents will get it right away, others with a little more coaching and support. Some parents have been raised in abusive environments and they will have a harder time understanding that just because a kid does something wrong, they don’t have to be punished or yelled at. It will take some work to help them understand that we all learn better when the teacher corrects us with faith in our ability to learn and with a positive tone.

Parents backing off is rarely a solution to a teenager’s poor behavior, even when the parent has been angry and attempting to micro-manage their youth. The situation requires a more nuanced approach.Click To Tweet

Now if you are a really talented therapist, you can also help the teenager think of using their energy to invest in themselves, rather than to resist parental authority. They may not like how their parent is setting limits or engaging them. Yet, we can show them how powerful they are when they demonstrate cooperation and responsibility. Obviously, they won’t be perfect, but when they demonstrate respect and cooperation, and commitment to their responsibilities, it’s amazing how they can change their parent’s behavior. Now if we work with both the parent and teenager, maybe together sometimes and separately at others, not as a mediator, but as a coach to end their Control Battle, to get the right and left hands working together, maybe just maybe, they’ll finally get those Chinese handcuffs off.

If you'd like to take advantage of my course, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle, enroll today. My self-led course is a great resource for ending parental burnout and creating an empowered teen.

If you're looking for another resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially, emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.

Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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