Parenting Teens Wisely's story starts with my story.
I was one of those highly sensitive kids. I could feel intense joy and ten minutes later my oldest brother would tease me, and I would collapse into tears. My older sister loved sewing and baking and the adults praised her continually for her helpfulness around the house. I, on the other hand, frequently got into trouble for being too loud or too silly and because sensitive people often filter information negatively, I concluded that I was bad. As I developed into an adolescent, I had a terrible time navigating the intense emotions that went along with hormonal changes and peer pressures.
Fortunately, I discovered theater. The energy and creativity suited my highly sensitive nature. I loved the camaraderie of others in the theater, and I adored the sense of success and the applause that came at the end of a production. Finally, I was able to use my emotions in a way that served me well. I decided to pursue a career in theater. The summer after my junior year in high school I visited and fell in love with Chicago and decided that that was where I wanted to attend college.
But things changed. Later that same summer I met and fell in love with the man who would then become my first husband. He loved literature, wrote poetry, and was just as highly sensitive as I was. He “got me.” But I became impacted by his emotions which I didn’t have the skills to navigate. So, instead of following my dreams and going to college in Chicago, I instead attended a local university to stay near him. Trying to make the most of it I enrolled in a theater class my freshman year of college. I also took a psychology class. I was immediately hooked. I was intrigued with psychology, particularly the concept of self-actualization – the realization of one’s potential. Self-actualization, I learned, was a possibility for everyone.
I no longer aspired to work in theater; instead, I aspired to be a therapist. And I continued to be intrigued with the possibility of self-actualization.
My Early Days as an Adolescent Therapist
Following graduate school, I took a job working with troubled teens in an alternative school. I loved their spirit and energy. While many of the adults in their lives labeled them as “bad”, I recognized their fear. I understood that their defiance and disrespect was often their unskillful response to distress in their life. I felt such passion for them, and I saw such potential. I watched with dismay as many of the adults in their lives didn’t understand how to help them navigate their emotions. I was disturbed to see many of these teens sabotaging their potential as they turned to destructive ways to deal with their emotions.
I eventually left the school and took a position at an agency serving high-risk youth and their families. It was an extremely satisfying experience where I had an opportunity to learn about therapeutic interventions and hone my skills as a therapist. I eventually transitioned to an outpatient clinic, where I continued to work with teens.
My Introduction to Mindfulness
It was around this time that my own life was spiraling out of control. After years of dismissing my own emotions and focusing on everyone else, I became increasingly unhappy. It showed up in my marriage and I know it affected my three kids who were by then in their teens. My marriage was ending, and I was finding unhealthy ways to cope with the stress of it all. I was alarmed when I learned that my daughter who’d once been so happy and bright was struggling with an addiction. I resolved that I would help her and was confident that I would succeed since, after all, I was a therapist. But my intense desire to be helpful, fueled by my love for her, only made things worse. The harder I tried, the more she retreated. And the worse she got, the worse I felt. Desperate, I reached out to some good friends for help.
As the proverbial saying goes, It's darkest before the dawn. The desperation that I was experiencing set off a powerful yearning in me and propelled me on a different path. I learned about a healthier, more mindful approach to helping my daughter that started with first helping myself. I learned that I had absolutely no power to change my kid, but I could change myself. I learned to focus on a healthy way of living which for me included a mindfulness practice and yoga. I learned to speak out of compassion instead of speaking out of an attempt to “fix, manage or control.” I learned to stop dismissing my own feelings but instead, to let my emotions guide me in making wise decisions. I started doing the things that lined up with my values rather than doing those things that satisfied my impulses. And to my absolute relief and delight, I found that these efforts not only had a profound effect on my life, but they positively impacted others around me. Today I am grateful as I watch my daughter who no longer struggles with addiction but instead lives a life of joy and satisfaction.
Private Practice and Complicated Adolescents
There’s no doubt that my mindfulness practice positively impacted myself and my family, but it also positively impacted my work as a therapist. After years of working for an outpatient clinic, I finally made the decision to open the private practice that I’d envisioned since my freshman year in college.
I continued to specialize in working with teens and experienced such satisfaction when I’d see their positive response to therapy.
Unfortunately, some didn’t respond the same way. Many teens were shut down and uncommunicative. Others, it seemed, were unmotivated to change. Their parents were at their wits end and so was I.
I felt stymied, puzzled.
How can therapy be more effective?
Many bright and capable teens were not living up to their potential and some were literally harming themselves. Everything I tried and everything their parents tried did not work. These teens seemed unreachable.
A Therapy that Works
I reached out to a local therapist who had a reputation for her successful work with teens. She introduced me to a therapy she’d used to help these more complicated adolescents. This therapy behavioraltech.org was designed to help those with intense emotions and complicated behaviors. Clients were taught skills for managing emotions so that the emotions were not managing them. They could learn skills to tolerate distress, regulate their emotions, and cultivate lasting and meaningful relationships. Rather than giving into their impulses such as yelling, hiding, avoiding, or shutting down, clients could learn skills to live their best life. I thought, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all could live that way - rather than give into our impulses to shrink, avoid, attack, or judge, we could use our emotions to serve us. We could use our emotions to live our best life. It was like this self-actualization that I’d been so drawn to as an undergraduate psychology student.
A Shift in My Work
I began co-facilitating classes to teach these skills and then conducting classes for teens in my own private practice. I invited parents to an introductory session, outlining the skills that their teen would be learning.
Then two moms asked, “When are you doing a class for parents?”
I was intrigued. Why not teach these skills to parents? I flashed back to my own adolescence when my parents had no earthly idea how to help me navigate my extremely intense emotions. I wondered how things would have been different for me. While my parents were supportive and loving, their responses to my emotions often just contributed to my distress and to my patterns of coping. And even as a trained therapist, when my own children experienced complicated emotions or behaviors, my emotional impulses to help were often not helpful.
So, I began searching for more strategies that could help parents help their teens. Searching online one day, I happened upon a therapist in Maryland who’d authored several books for parents, using the same approach I’d been using in my work with teens. She agreed to mentor me and these last several years she has continued to generously share the work she has done with parents, both in individual parent coaching and in classes. *
An Approach that Helps Parents
One of my first experiences sharing these skills with a parent was with a mom who spoke of her despair regarding her daughter. She described her daughter as once a sweet helpful, creative, and very sensitive little girl, but as unrecognizable at the age of 15. This mother, caring and kind and accomplished in her career, was dedicated to helping her daughter. I helped the mother understand that her goal wasn’t to change her daughter but to focus first on changing herself. My first suggestion was to begin a mindful practice.
When parenting a complicated teen, emotions can interfere with a parent’s ability to be the most effective. Being mindful and present and slowing down is priority. This mom, desperate, made a commitment to change and to focus on her own emotional well-being. She joined a yoga class. She also joined a group at her church, and she scheduled a weekly dinner date with friends. She also began learning and then implementing effective skills in response to her daughter’s problematic behaviors. Understanding the slow process of change, she kept up these practices for months. Her patience paid off. In several months, her daughter was less shut down, more communicative, and began accepting her mother’s invitations to watch their favorite tv show together at night. Toward the end of the school year her daughter started spending time with one of her friends whom she’d been ignoring and even faring better in school.
Initially, the mother’s impulse, just like my own impulse when I saw my daughter in trouble, was to “fix” her teen. Giving into this urge to fix can surprisingly have the opposite result. A parent’s goal shouldn’t be to fix or change their teen. Instead, a more effective approach is when a parent shifts their goal to being a wise parent. And the parent’s first task is to start with themselves.
What I love about working with parents is to see them start feeling better and responding more calmly and skillfully. And I am so encouraged when I hear over and over how this has positively impacted their teen.
We All Have the Potential to Thrive
Many of these complicated, or troubled teens, are sensitive. I know today that sensitive people have a gift (they have passion for things in their life, they are often more creative, and they can turn their passion into creating positive change in the world.) However, it can also be a curse if they don’t respond to their emotions effectively.
All of us have the potential to thrive and my hope is that the skills I teach parents– mindfulness, ways to achieve balance, skills for responding to their teens’ emotions and behaviors to increase skillful behavior and decrease unskillful behavior– can help bring out the best in teens.
I love when my work – my blog, classes, workshops, and individual parent coaching – provides support and skills to help parents on their journey.
I continue to practice mindfulness and yoga. My three kids are grown now. While I experience an impulse to make up for all my past mistakes I made while they were younger, I know and trust that they are on their own journey. And I know absolutely that the best thing I can do is practice these skills that I teach parents.
Jan Carden, LCSW
Today I still love the theater, but I have no desire to perform onstage. I have remarried and am completely grateful for my husband, Joe, who has joined me on this sweet journey. He is also a therapist and often assists me with the classes that I teach parents. We absolutely love sharing with parents and we are delighted by the positive feedback that we are receiving.
Just as I was passionate about the theater as a teen, I am now passionate about my work with parents. I believe that when parents make a commitment to parent wisely, teens have a better chance of living to their potential.
You may contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Many thanks to Pat Harvey, LCSW-C who has generously shared her knowledge and expertise with me. Ms. Harvey is a licensed clinical social worker who for most of her professional life has specialized in working with parents and family members who love individuals with emotion dysregulation or mental illness. She has co-authored two books for parents, Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions and Parenting a Teen Who Has Intense Emotions. She has also co-written a book for siblings, Hey, I’m Here Too!: A Book for Tween/Teen Siblings of a Young Person with Emotional Issues and a book for professionals, Dialectical Behavior Therapy for At-Risk Adolescents.
Joe Caudill & Jan Carden