Hey there parent-of-teen! Losing your mind yet??
It’s so hard to know what’s normal, particularly if you are going through your first teen-dom…
This month I thought I’d give you a guide as to what I believe is worthy of concern. I get a lot of inquiries asking if a child or teen ‘needs’ therapy. It can be a tough call. I tend to steer away from words like ‘normal’ or ‘pathological.’ My belief is that we have become overly concerned with medicalisation and diagnosis. It seems that we are experiencing a surge in ADHD for example – but is that a surge in real incidence? Or a surge in diagnosis? They are different things. And we are starting to rethink our use of diagnostic manuals.
The internet is full of drama and bad science
I know a lot of parents are on high alert for mental health issues with their kids. I truly applaud this. This generation is lucky to have parents who are better educated and more alert and aware of emotional difficulty. Unfortunately, this new access to information creates a lot of unnecessary stress for parents. For example, I’m thinking of a dad show shared his experience with what he diagnosed as obsessive compulsiveness. His child arranged clothes by color, then dad ran to Google only to discover it to mean his child has “obsessive compulsive” behavior.
Liking things to be arranged in a pretty way is not a disorder. So I think we need to pull back from that or perhaps going to Google for just about anything. If your teen is behaving in odd ways and unlike ‘normal teenaged behaviour’ then counselling/therapy for you or for them might be useful.
As a parent, it is really important to know that having a child in therapy is NOT a sign of parenting failure. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It means you have heard your child and witnessed the difficulty he or she is going through and you have accessed support in a helpful, independent manner so that private space is possible. What a gift for a teenager!
Even though therapy has become more mainstream now there can still be some stigma around it and so do let your teen know that it is normal to have difficulties and that it is brave, not cowardly, to seek help.
If they see the look of shame on your face, they will surely feel the same. If they see you being at ease, they will be more likely to feel that ease themselves.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behavior with teenagers. As a quick guide to what is NOT NORMAL I would suggest the following:
- If they used to sleep really well and now don’t.
- If they suddenly start sleeping for longer.
- If they stop eating with the family and being secretive about their food.
- If they dump old friends and get new ones in a short period of time.
- If they stop socializing.
- If they engage in risk taking or self harming behavior.
- If you find drug paraphernalia. And if you don’t know what this is- time to learn!(Visit here: http://www.theantidrug.com/ei/watch_for.asp
- If they are grieving and appear to be making no recovery when a year or more has passed. (Please seehttp://www.barnardos.ie/information-centre/young-people/teen-help/death…. which I co-authored while working in Barnardos as grief therapist for children and families.
- If there is a severe drop in school work standards and interest.
- If there is school avoidance.
There are many signs that could help you address the things that are wrong in your teen’s life. Teens often behave in ways to flag their feelings and ‘get’ you to do something about it. It can be difficult to ask for help straight out at any age.
In my experience teenagers respond very well to therapy and often the work is shorter than it is with adults. Perhaps this is because they are younger, have less ‘baggage’ and are already in the habit of learning new things by virtue of the fact that they are still being educated.
Things to note
While the space for a teenager is confidential, therapists are ethically bound to report anything that concern them or that they consider a child protection issue. This should be explained clearly to both parents and their teenagers for transparency purposes. In this way, I hope to make therapy feel safe for everyone, and you have a right to ask for it to happen that way.
Sometimes parents and teens come together for sessions, more often though, the teenager comes by him/herself. It is important to respect their privacy. They see themselves as adults so to treat them as children will feel condescending.
If it becomes apparent that your teenager is addicted to drugs or alcohol during the course of therapy, they may be referred to a specialised treatment centre. The evidence for 12 step programmes has become mixed recently. In the past, teens were by default referred to addiction treatment centers, residential and outpatient. Now, there are newer ways of treating addiction and emerging addiction. Use Google Scholar rather than Google to inform yourself. If your teenager is at risk through disordered eating the therapist will be requesting that the family medical practitioner become involved in his or her therapy. A referral to a treatment center may happen here too.
And of course, if your child discloses sexual or physical abuse the Child Protection Services must and will become involved.