August 14, 2023
Zach & Sarah Part 1 of 2: When Your Teen Is Withdrawn
This is part one of a two part series with Zach and Sarah. Zach and Sarah are co-parents of two children.
This series focuses on their 16 year old son Andrew who they describe as withdrawn, irritable, and “not engaged in life”. His parents have been struggling to get him to complete tasks related to school, getting a job, and just basic things at home. Leslie helps Zach and Sarah focus on the importance of connecting to Andrew as a foundation to trying to parent him successfully.
11:50 How adolescents who say “no” are asserting independence which is similar to toddlers
15:46 Being a curious alien instead of fixing your child
18:19 Living in your sibling’s shadow
25:30 Dialectic perspective of a situation. Doing mind vs. being mind
28:42 Learning to ride the wave of discomfort
33:51 Looking at your child with a dialectical perspective
Leslie-ism: Slow down and ask yourself what is the cost of the pressure that you may be putting on your child.
Show Note Links:
I appeared as a guest on Slate’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting Podcast in two episodes. In the first episode I join hosts, Zak Rosen and Jamilah Lemieux, and together we help a listener who’s worried that her daughter’s meltdowns might be a sign of depression. In the second episode, Zak and Jamilah start by talking about lessons from therapy and how my podcast, Is My Child A Monster? Is helping make therapy advice and resources more accessible. Together we also help a listener whose kid pulled a disappearing act after a fight during family vacation.
Credits: Is My Child a Monster is produced by Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, and Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Theme music is by L-Ray Music. Public relations is handled by Tink Media. Graphics and Website Design by Brien O’Reilly. by Eric Rubury. A special thanks to everyone who contributes their wisdom and support to make this possible.
TRANSCRIPT OF SHOW:
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
0:03 Sarah: I feel like I’m constantly trying to connect with him. Trying to start a conversation and learn something about him. And I feel like it’s just a fail every time.
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
0:20 Leslie Cohen-Rubury: This is, Is My Child A Monster?, a parenting therapy podcast, where you get to listen in as real parents and caregivers share their trials and tribulations in therapy sessions recorded live. I’m your host, Leslie Cohen-Rubury. I’m a parent and a therapist with 37 years of experience helping families navigate this question. And just to be clear: No, your child is not a monster.
So before we get to today’s episode, I want to tell you about another podcast appearance. I was recently a guest on Slate’s, Mom And Dad Are Fighting. I recorded two episodes with them, where we responded to listeners’ letters about parenting challenges. The format is very different from my own podcast, but the advice is just as good. And I had so much fun recording. Just search Mom And Dad Are Fighting wherever you get your podcasts, or find a link in today’s show notes.
This week, I’d like to introduce you to Zach and Sarah in the first of their two sessions. They’ve been divorced for about seven years, and co-parent their two children. They came to me because they’re concerned about their 16-year-old son, Andrew, who they described as not engaged in life. He’s withdrawn and irritable, which is not uncommon for a teenager, but still something that can be very worrisome to parents. I mean, we all know those kinds of teens, and maybe you weren’t even one of those teens yourself. His parents are desperate to get him out of his room, get him talking about his future, and engaging him in his everyday activities, including school. Zach and Sarah have tried rewards, punishments and even compassion. And it seems like nothing is working. In this session, I teach them new skills and strategies to help them out of their parenting rut.
And as a reminder, all names and identifying information has been changed. Remember, this show is for informational purposes only, and not a substitute for intervention. So let’s meet Zack and Sarah.
Leslie: So I’m going to let you start and fill me in on where you are, you’re dealing with some frustrating situations. So give me some information as to what you’re looking for help with.
2:50 Zack: Well, our son is going through a difficult time. He’s 16. And he has been struggling in school. He struggles a lot to communicate with us what’s on his mind—it’s not always clear to us what he’s bothered by or what he’s upset about. We don’t get a lot of information from him. He spends almost all his time in his room. And the school situation has been very frustrating. His teachers feel they’re not getting through to him. He’s not doing his work. Everyone agrees he’s a bright kid and capable, but he just refuses to do his work. And not to the degree where he’s just doing a little bit less well than he could, but to the degree where he’s actually failing several classes. And it’s not clear he’s going to be in a position to go to college, even though we think he could. And we feel like we’ve tried lots of different things. We’ve tried taking privileges away, taking allowance away, taking away his phone, we’ve tried giving him incentives to try to get him more interested in participating, more engaged, and interested in doing things.
4:04 Sarah: I just want to add; at his request, we’ve also tried…he sometimes wants to just…he says, “Just leave me alone and let me handle it. I can do this. I want to just take care of it, hands off. And so we’re, “Great. Okay, let’s try hands-off.” And that’s usually a train wreck. And I also wanted to just add to that, sometimes we find he actually has done a large portion of the work, he just doesn’t hand it in. So it’s not even always that he just—it’s often that he doesn’t do the work—but then he does do the work and then just drops it. Doesn’t take that extra…and this is something I’ve heard from some other parents as well. So it’s a curious…
4:50 Zack: There’s a kind of self destructive component to it where he almost seems to be making himself fail sometimes by almost intentionally failing to do relatively obvious and easy things to move forward. For example, there’s this situation with the physics class where he was enrolled in a physics class. And we questioned whether it was the right class for him, he insisted that it was. A month or two later, it was clear that it wasn’t he wasn’t doing the work, he was failing the class, the teacher was getting frustrated. And we agreed with him and the teacher and the guidance counselor that he would drop the class. And then, for a period of three or four weeks, he simply refused to hand in the drop form, despite many, many reminders, and despite us explaining that if he didn’t fill in the drop form, he would fail the class and he would be forced to stay in it for the rest of the year, even though he hated it. But, despite all of these obvious reasons to move forward, he for some reason, just refused, or couldn’t or something. We never understood really why.
6:09 Leslie: Okay, so, I am going to ask a little bit about where his interests lie and where his strengths are, and things like that in a moment. But the first thing I think I hear you say, which is the framework that I want to give us is: a) I want to begin where he is, this is where he is, and we need to start where he is—not where we think he should be, but where he is. So that’s sort of a rule of thumb: begin where my client is, begin where the child is, begin where you are. So that brings us to, okay, the behavior that he’s not handing in things. He’s not doing the work. He’s, as you said, he might be intentionally trying to get in his own way. I don’t know that he’s intentionally trying to make life miserable. However, I do look at it as: what is his behavior trying to communicate? I really believe that misbehavior is a form of communication. And as parents, we’re going to try and figure out: what is he communicating?
So I already have some ideas. And I’m going to take some guesses with you. But what do you think he’s trying to communicate? Any guesses? I think parents often have a good idea in the back of their mind. They go, “Oh, yeah, I was thinking of that.” So before I give you my guesses, what do you think are some ways that he’s communicating through this behavior of not doing…
7:35 Zack: A part of it—this is one component, there may be many, but—one component is that he seems to want to adjust our expectations for him. And he doesn’t want us to assume that he’s going to go through and be a straight A like his sister was and be loved by all his teachers and go to a good college and all of that. He wants us to kind of rethink who he is and not assume a path for him. I think he wants to find his own path.
8:09 Leslie: Okay, great guess. Sarah, what do you think?
8:11 Sarah: I think that part of that is true. Like Zack said, it’s some of, he doesn’t want us to make assumptions about him, make decisions for him in either direction. He gets offended if we assume that he will go to college, he gets offended if we assume that he won’t go to college; that maybe, you know, college isn’t for everybody. And maybe there are all kinds of other great alternatives. It really is just about figuring out what you want. And so you make an observation about something that he seems to be interested in, or that you know he’s interested in or good at. And he gets kind of incredulous. You know, “I wouldn’t want to be, I wouldn’t want to do that, that’s beneath me.”
It’s very interesting. Let’s see…other kinds of communication. I don’t know, it just often seems just contrary, no matter what. He’s just trying to communicate that, whatever he seems to be needing, we try to offer and he says, “No, that’s not what I need.” And we offer something else. “No, that’s not it.”
9:27 Leslie: Okay—bingo. You just said it. You said, “I don’t know what he’s communicating.” And then you said he’s always contrary—there’s your answer. Why would someone want to be contrary? What do we know? Let’s go back, developmentally. Maybe you know this, maybe you don’t. Because it is developmental for a toddler to say no. “No, I want to do it. No.” So what do we know about a no or contrary behavior?
9:50 Sarah: It’s just about independence, and it’s about asserting your own self.
9:55 Leslie: Okay. So, does that make sense? Is he on a journey of trying to understand himself?
10:03 Sarah: Maybe he’s trying to understand himself. It’s confusing, because he will try to assert himself and his independence, but then he won’t do anything. We give him the space and the time and whatever; and he doesn’t do it, whatever it is. Whether it’s a responsibility, like a responsibility for us or a responsibility for his teachers or for his future, or for his financial well-being, like, immediately, like, have money to go to the movie. But he also won’t do it in terms of just following his interest, exploring. It’s just like he just seems to just do nothing.
10:46 Zack: I kind of understand what you’re saying that he’s asserting independence, but he is also extremely resistant to any sort of help in trying to figure out what his path might be. And not just from us, from his guidance counselor, and from his teachers—they offer these questionnaires and exercises where you can figure out your talents and interests and think about possible career paths. He has no interest in doing any of that.
11:17 Leslie: So let’s just roleplay one second. Would one of you play Andrew for me?
Sarah: I’ll do that.
Leslie: Okay. So I’m going to be your guidance counselor. Or, I can even be Mom. And I’m going to say to you, “So Andrew, there are things that, I know you would like to be independent, and I know you’re looking forward to it. There are these apps we can use. We there’s these forms we can fill out, there’s some cool things we can do. What do you think?”
11:46 Sarah: “Um, I don’t know, I think I can just do it.”
11:51 Leslie: Okay, let’s stop the roleplay. Didn’t he just assert his independence by pushing back and saying no to me? Each and every time you go to help him, he’s going to practice, “I want to say no, say no, I want to say no.” So there’s two things going on here. One is that, as you said—we took a guess—and he might want his independence, he might want to practice being independent, which is an appropriate developmental stage for a toddler, and again, an adolescent—they’re moving away from their parents, separating. So that’s sort of normal, but it is also the idea that he wants something, he wants independence. Well, I know there’s this thing called New Year’s resolutions where a lot of people want things. How successful are New Year’s resolutions? People say, “I want to lose weight, I want to go exercise, I want to get more sleep, I want to balance my life.” How well do people do the things they want to do?
Sarah: Not very well.
Leslie: Not very well. So I’m going to give him the same benefit of the doubt that he wants independence. He may not be great at it. I’m laughing in my head, because I always tell my children, “I want to talk less on the phone. I want to declutter my papers.” They go, “Yeah, Mom, we believe you.” I’m like, “No, please believe me.” I do want it, I have a really hard time getting it. So, what do we need when someone wants something, but they have a hard time getting it? Either they don’t have the skills, or they don’t have the wherewithal, or emotions are getting in the way; but they want it nonetheless. What do we need then? It’s a word that begins with a “c.”. It’s hard. Compassion. What does that sound like?
13:47 Sarah: You mean, what does it sound like?
13:49 Leslie: What would you say? Yeah,
13:51 Sarah: I mean, I feel like I say it all the time: “I know that’s really hard.” It’s hard and I can be very, very compassionate, because I, like him, want so much to be this way. And I can do it, and then I don’t do it. So I can say that to him very honestly. And I do say that to him a lot. But I’m sure I probably go beyond that and say—because it’s very easy to say—”You should do this. And if you only did this, then you could do those things that you want.” Where I don’t do it. I say to myself, “I should do this,” and then I don’t do it.
14:35 Leslie: Mm hmm.
14:37 Zack: No, I think one thing, probably I do, maybe too quickly, is try to solve the problem and offer help. My initial inclination, when I can see he wants something and isn’t doing—isn’t following—behaviors that are going to get him there, is to offer advice and help. And he really doesn’t want that—he does not want my help or Sarah’s. And so he pulls back more, I think, when we do that. And it also…it brings up all sorts of things, I think he feels we’re trying to control him, and we’re impinging on his independence. It’s a very complicated thing for him when we try to offer help.
15:26 Sarah: And also that we’re not accepting him or that maybe even we’re shaming him.
15:30 Leslie: We are going to talk about shame, I’m going to put it on the back burner for the moment. But I do want to talk about shame, because that could be the rug underneath him that’s getting pulled; that it just keeps pulling out his energy, because the shame is sort of very powerful in that way. But I want to go back to the idea that trying to understand him is what I want to shift. I want to fire you as parents—kidding around—I want to fire you as parents who fix your child, I want to make you the curious alien. And I want you to be this curious alien who is assessing, assessing, assessing, and helping him understand who he is and what’s going on with him. And that’s why you’re here. Because you’ve been trying so many things, like you said. You tried taking things away—punishment, consequences. You’ve tried reinforcers—giving him things motivating him. I really believe you, you’ve done compassion.
So what we need to do is figure out what else is going on to understand him. And then once we understand him, your job is to help him understand himself. Because I have faith and respect that he can fix himself. We actually need to get out of the way of our children. But we need to help them understand who they are. Give them that information, give them tools along the way, but have the faith and respect that they actually do want the same things you want. Well-being, right? You want your child to have good, stable mental health, emotional health, financial health, independent health, all these things we want for our child, they want the same thing. So let’s keep assessing. There’s a very, very good chance that his contrary behavior is all about trying to be independent. He wants it, he doesn’t know how to get there.
[Music: Flowerpot by Olexy]
17:44 Dale Rubury: Hi, I’m Dale Rubury, a producer and occasional guest on Is My Child A Monster? and we’re looking for parents and caregivers to feature on Season 2. We’d love to hear from all kinds of families with kids between the ages of 4 and 18. There’s no problem too big or too small. So if you’d like to volunteer for some free parenting therapy, and are comfortable sharing your sessions publicly, with all names changed, of course, please visit ismychildamonster.com to apply.
18:19 Leslie: Another piece that I’d like you to talk more about that I heard you say, is he didn’t want to be like his sister. I guess his sister is an overachiever. The teachers love her. You said something about, he doesn’t want to be in her shoes. So he’s trying to be independent from her. Can you talk more about that? What was it like growing up with his sister?
18:38 Zack: Yeah, I think particularly the last few years in high school, he probably felt very much in her shadow. She was very successful and had a big circle of friends. He relied on her to some degree, he often would hang out with some of the same kids as her. I think he relied on her socially as well as in other ways. And so when she went off to college, I think he probably was a little lost. It was the first time in his life when he’s living without her; there to pave the way for him. But then I also feel like he feels that our expectations are very much shaped by her successes. And I think at some level, he feels like he can’t, he just can’t do that. He can’t live up to those expectations. And I feel—maybe I’m reading too much into it, but— feel that sometimes he’s intentionally going the other way to kind of make that point. Like, “That’s not going to be me.”
19:43 Leslie: Again, to be independent, possibly. Well, that’s a big deal. I don’t know what it would be like to try to walk in the shadow of my sister who I loved and was very connected to. Sounds like they were very connected.
Zack: Very close.
Leslie: Very close. And she went off. And there may be a loss. There may be grief. If he’s not engaged, there may be grief in there. And that’s an uncomfortable feeling. A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge grief.
20:16 Zack: Yeah. Although we should say that a lot of these behaviors were going on before she left.
20:21 Sarah: Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Leslie: Good to know.
20:25 Zack: It’s not like there was a shift when she left, but I think it’s part of what’s been happening.
20:31 Leslie: Okay. So, here’s another piece of assessment: high school is a time when it’s very clear that the adult life is not far off. Growing up is not far off. Have you ever asked him the question, just out of curiosity: “How do you feel about growing up?”
20:48 Sarah: I have not ever put it that way.
20:51 Zack: We have tried to have conversations with him where we say…you know, I mean, maybe it’s usually in the context of a failure, which makes it a difficult decision to have. But it’s usually along the lines of, “Where do you think this goes? I mean, what happens two years from now, when you’re done with high school, and we’re not there to support you, and you’re on your own? What happens next? What is next in your life?”
21:22 Leslie: So let me say that back to you. You are a 15 -year-old, 16-year-old kid, right? You’re not doing great. Your sister was an all-star in every way. And I want to ask you the question—just tell me how you’d react, honestly. So I’ll call you. I’ll call you Andrew. “Andrew, what do you think’s going to happen in two years? What do you think? Where is this going? You graduate high school. Where is this going? What’s going to happen? What are your plans? Tell me, can we talk about those things?”
21:58 Zack: Yeah, I’m sure it makes him very anxious to think about that, because he has no idea.
22:03 Leslie: Bingo. Remember the question I just asked you, how does he feel about growing up? So many kids are anxious about growing up.
22:13 Sarah: I want to just throw in…I have an observation. He has actually said at times, when I’ve been sort of saying, I don’t know, whatever, on him about, you know, you need to start thinking about this, or you need to do that. And he said something a couple of different times about, “Can I just be a kid? I was like, I was surprised actually to hear him kind of say that. But he said that a couple of different times. Like, “I’m just I’m just a kid. I’m just trying to enjoy my childhood,” kind of thing.
22:55 Leslie: That’s so sweet, right? I mean, do we blame him? The adult world is not looking very pretty right now. It sounds really tough. And I want to say that the fact that he said, “Can’t I just be a kid?” almost answers the question, “How do you feel about growing up?” And unfortunately, it’s not a joke when I say you start in kindergarten, prepping your kid for college. I’m not kidding. It’s sort of sad. But certainly by the time you get to high school, it counts. And the kids know it counts. And they know that their counselors are on them. And they know that their parents are on them. And it’s all of a sudden, you have no longer got four more years of your childhood. It’s over now. You get into ninth grade. And you know that in seventh grade, they prep you, will get you ready for high school. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the moment very well.
23:48 Zack: Yeah, he definitely does want to live in the moment more. He’ll have a week off from school. And I’ll say, “So what are you going to do with your week?”…. meaning, “This would be a great time to find that job you’ve been saying you’re going to get,” and, “This would be a great time to start working on your driver’s license, which you say you want to get.” And his answer—he said this to me two or three times—is something along the lines of, “I’m just going to enjoy my time off from school and see my friends.” And that’s really what he wants.
24:24 Sarah: I was going to say I have had the exact same conversation with him; although Zack and I have slightly different personalities and different approaches. And so I will say something like, “So it’s spring break, what are you going to do? I would imagine you’re going to get outside and see your friends and have some fun,” because I was trying to honor where he’s at and who he is. And he’s in the moment and I tend to be more of an in-the-moment person, too. And so I will acknowledge all that and, “Okay, so I wonder maybe, there’s going to be some time to, like, you could fill out, turn in some applications and let me know if there’s anything that you, if you want any any help.” Or, “Can we look at the applications,” or, “Maybe you…do have any schoolwork that you’re going to need to catch up on?” And just being positive and light and, “Have fun,” but maybe do some other stuff, too.
25:19 Leslie: What’s popping up in my mind is a skill that I would like to teach you guys, that maybe you can start to embrace yourself and use the language so that you could start to teach him this. So basically, life is about walking a middle path, it’s knowing how to live in a balance. It doesn’t mean the balance is 50/50 at all, okay? But balance means we incorporate the two opposites. So, in dialectic behavior therapy, the word dialectic represents two opposing ideas, thoughts, actions. And we say that those two opposite thoughts or perspectives can coexist at the same time. So, one dialectic—and this is very specific to what you’re talking about—one dialectic, is called the doing mind and the being mind. And watch how quickly…Zack, are you more in the doing mind, in the being mind in your life?
26:18 Zack: Definitely the doing mind.
26:20 Leslie: So I don’t know you very well, it’s not hard to guess. And you didn’t even know what that meant. You have more of a doing mind. And you might live a little bit more in your doing mind, maybe 90% of the time, and maybe you give yourself a break 10% of the time to just be. And a moment ago, Sarah, you just said that you’re more like Zack in the moment. So that might be more of the being mind. What ratio would you give yourself? Do you think you’re a person who is very zen-like, very in-the-moment? And you spend 80% of your time there or not quite?
26:56 Sarah: I would say it’s 70 or 80% being, and 20 to 30% doing.
27:01 Leslie: Okay, so you guys are opposite—totally makes sense. That’s not unusual. And where do you think Andrew falls?
27:10 Sarah: Very heavily in the being.
27:13 Leslie: And the being may be because it’s his personality, it might just be who he is biologically. And it might be a safety behavior, a safety net. Like, “I can’t do, because when I do”—finish the sentence for me—”when I do, I feel…”
27:32 Zack: …stress. I think he feels stress.
27:34 Leslie: I was exactly, I was going to say, anxious.
Sarah: Anxiety, yeah…
27:38 Zack: Yeah, I think, actually, now that you mentioned that, I think that much of his behavior is stress avoidance in the moment. I think that some of the homework stuff is just, it doesn’t feel good to do the homework.
27:51 Leslie: Bingo. So, we have just got to the heart of the matter. If you want to get him forward in his life, begin where he is. He’s an anxious child who doesn’t know what to do. When that feeling, that uncomfortable anxiety feeling, shows up, we need to teach him to name it. And to know what to do with it. He doesn’t know what to do when he does it. So he does the only thing he knows: avoidance. So many people—it’s their best attempt to get rid of discomfort.
28:28 Zack: Yeah. This is obvious, but of course, it leads to a cycle because the more he avoids, the more stressful it becomes. And then the more he avoids,
28:36 Leslie: Exactly, we do know that if you think of that little curve of a mountain going up. And what happens when you feel anxiety, you’re trying to do your homework, and you start to feel anxiety, you want to get rid of the feeling, you go back down the mountain. Next time you go up the mountain, it’s bigger, your anxiety actually gets bigger when we avoid it.
It’s a hard concept. I try to teach it all the time in therapy to adults, to kids. And the idea of exposing yourself to that discomfort is: stay with it, stay with it, stay with it. We have a skill called ride the wave. We want to teach him that there are skills to ride the wave of that discomfort, of that emotion. We can call it anxiety. If he doesn’t like technical terms, we can call it discomfort. We could call it stress. Right now he’s getting tossed by that wave over and over and over again. And if you get tossed every time you went into the ocean, you’d avoid it too.
29:35 Sarah: Mmm hmm.
29:38 Leslie: So I think what we’re doing is and this is, again, why you’ve come to me, why parents come to me is they’ve tried. They’ve tried taking things away. They’ve tried the carrot/stick. But we don’t get at what is actually the obstacle to moving forward. Is it making sense that his behavior is communicating? Now, of course, there might be more assessment of depression or other things such as learning disabilities, I’d want to think about all that stuff as well. But right now, this is making sense to me. How’s this sound so far?
30:10 Zack: Yeah, no, I think you’re on to the patterns and the causes.
30:16 Leslie: And then if—we said we would talk about shame later, I think I’ll leave that for the next session. And what we’re going to talk about is, I would guess—and you might just try this—asking him, “Hey, is growing up to be an adult sound like a scary thing?” And you might not even ask him a question. I might just make a statement, “Well, some kids find that growing up is scary. Right? There’s a lot of pressure on them. The adult world doesn’t look too pretty right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were one of those kids who said that it doesn’t look so much fun to grow up, as a matter of fact. Haven’t you said—and put a smile on your face—haven’t you said to me over and over again, that you just want to be a kid?”
So try having that conversation with him. Let’s assess that. Let’s get him on board. Because you did say that you have even trouble getting him to do his driver’s ed. Doesn’t that represent being an adult?
31:14 Zack: That’s what he says he wants, but he can’t seem to do it.
31:18 Sarah: And I want to address the idea of having a conversation. I can say anything you want me to say to him…and what I will get back is, “It’s fine.”
31:33 Leslie: That doesn’t bother me at all. As a matter of fact, I could have guessed that. We are planting seeds. When you put a seed in the ground, what do you get? Do you get the flower popping up and saying, “Here I am”? No, you’ve got to be patient—90 days, 30 days…
31:49 Sarah: Right, it’s underground, you can’t even see you what’s happening. At least you think, you hope to goodness, it’s happening under there. But you don’t know until you see the little sprout.
31:59 Leslie: And that right now—when you’re talking about a 16-year-old, 17-year-old child—they’ve had a lot of patterning, they’ve had a lot of behavior. And so, in order for us to shape and change that behavior, we are going to stick with it. We are going to have faith that if we know what we’re doing, and it makes sense. I don’t want you to believe me, I want it to make sense to you. And if this makes sense to you, then when you talk to him, and you get that response, it’s like: no, don’t worry about it. I don’t expect you to get that gratification that he says “Mom, that’s brilliant.” You’re not going to get that from him, you’re not going to get “Mom that was brilliant.” I can tell you that, you can tell each other that…it really is faith in parenting that you’re planting seeds.
And this is an idea that—my guess—will be very comforting to him. Because if I said to you, “Hey, I think you want all these things. You want to get your driver’s license, you want to grow up, you’re going to want to be adult…you also really want to be a kid. And you don’t know how to balance those two things. Now, that’s a little tricky. Is that true?” My guess is he may not acknowledge it. But, deep down, how would you feel if your parents said that to you? There might be a sense of validation. There might be—you’re both nodding your head—it might be that he would feel well, “They get me.” That’s the feeling, that connection is what I want him to feel. As he’s pulling away with his independence, “Leave me alone, leave me alone. I can do it. I can do it. I want to be independent.” At the same time…remember, I talked about a dialectic concept: two opposites existing at the same time? What’s the opposite of, “I want to do it by myself, I want to be a grown up”?
33:48 Sarah: “I want to be a kid and I want you to take care of me and do it for me.”
33:51 Leslie: Exactly. And we can use the magic and to put those things together because they are opposites. And they are both true. We can say, “You want to get your driver’s license, you want to be a cool kid driving, you want to grow up, you want to do all the things that adults do…and…right now you also really may want to be a kid who gets help.” You don’t need to say it that directly. But I want you to start thinking dialectically when you look at him. He’s not just the kid that’s not doing well. He wants those things, he doesn’t know how to get there. We’re going to talk more about that specifically.
So that one thing was the dialectic that I want you to practice. And I would say the connecting piece is very important. The connection is, he’s pulling away. The other side of the dialectic is, “I want to be independent, I also want to feel connected.” So that’s another version of the dialectic. And so I believe I want to give you ways of connecting to him. Because when you just have those expectations, and he said it point-blank—we don’t even have to figure it out. He is basically saying, “I can’t live up to the expectations that you keep placing on me.” So I want you to think about your expectations of him, not because the expectation is a problem, but because he thinks that’s all you see.
Your homework for me is to think of five ways to connect to him where he is now—begin where he is. Find five ways to connect to him. Validation is a way of connecting. So one, two or three of those ways can be making validating statements, even if he doesn’t smile, or thank you or anything. But I want you to come up with more than just validation; come up with little ways that you may even think are insignificant and ridiculous and all of that—forget the judgment, just find ways. And you can brainstorm together. But next time we talk, I’m going to ask you: What are your five ways of connecting? How does that sound? Give you a little homework.
36:01 Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, I’m just thinking, like, I feel like I’m constantly trying to connect with him. Trying to start a conversation and learn something about him. And I feel like it’s just a fail every time. I mean, I do things, too. Like, he loves sweets, he loves sweets. So it’s like, I bring something home for the bakery. It’s like, just like that connection. “I was thinking of you today while I was at the bakery. I know you love this. So here it is,” or you know stroopwafels.” And it’s not just like, let me give you material things, because it’s our only way to connect. I’m trying to go beyond that. But sometimes it just feels like that’s really all there is.
36:50 Leslie: And getting upset right now just tells us how hard this process is and how much I have heard from the two of you, how much you care, and how hard this is, and how difficult it is when you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. I want to let you know that it is such a privilege to work with the two of you, to be able to sit here and hear from me some new ideas. But new ideas that aren’t saying you are bad parents, new ideas that say, “Let’s just try something different.” And what you’re doing is not bad. You are connecting. So you already have ways to connect to him. It’s just that you need to know how to validate yourself, because he’s not validating you with his behavior. As a matter of fact, I think he feels like the bad kid compared to his sister. “She’s good, I’m bad.” That’s shame. It truly is hard work. Let’s see if some of those ideas can help you develop a new perspective; go home and look at him differently. See if you can put this lens on, instead of fixing him. Be curious.
[Music: Dreams in Nature by Olexy]
Leslie: I want to thank Sarah and Zack for hanging in there when parenting is tough. I appreciate their desire to better understand their teenager as well as themselves. It’s unlikely you’ll get immediate results when parenting teens. Andrew’s not all of a sudden going to start doing his homework, sitting with the family or doing those chores. What can happen quickly is a shift in understanding.
Misbehavior is a form of communication and a place to assess what’s really going on. Zack and Sarah learned so much about Andrew’s behavior in this session. And as I’ve said a million times before, you have to start where your child is. And it’s pretty clear from this session that everyone was stuck in a rut. So what do you do when you’re stuck in a rut? You explore the dialectic. Dialectic dilemmas come from dialectic behavior therapy. And they happen when we feel stuck between two opposite ideas. Whether you are a parent or the teen, the challenge is finding the balance between these two opposite ideas.
For Andrew, it was the tension between wanting to be independent and left alone, and also wanting to be that child who doesn’t have any responsibility and who needs help getting things done. Then there’s another dilemma between wanting to belong to the family and wanting to be an individual in the family. This is a family of high achievers. That is, everyone except Andrew maybe, and him being an underachiever makes him feel unique. Another way of looking at this dilemma is the tension between the doing mind and the being mind. Zack is a self admitted doer, and Andrew leans toward being in the moment. They each have something to learn from the other.
And then there’s the third dilemma that all parents need to balance between being too strict or too lax. These parents are not alone wanting their child to be productive, which is often at the root of being too strict. But at what cost do we pressure our children with productivity, rather than focusing on the well-being of the child? Join us next week for our second and final session with Zack and Sarah, where they have a breakthrough about the pressure they’re putting on Andrew. We also unpack and explore Andrew’s shame and anxiety.
[Music: The Wilds Beyond by L-Ray Music]
Subscribe to Is My Child A Monster? wherever you get your podcasts, so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, please rate and review on Apple podcasts. You can find a full transcript of this episode, resources, or apply to be a guest on Season 2 by visiting ismychildamonster.com. The Is My Child A Monster? team is Alletta Cooper, Dale Rubury, Gabriella Glock, and me. Special thanks to Eric Rubury. Our theme music is by L-Ray Music. I’m Leslie Cohen-Rubury. Thanks so much for listening. And this week, I urge you to slow down and ask yourself: What is the cost of the pressure that you may be putting on your child?
Transcribed by https://otter.ai edited by Eric Rubury