This post is Part 4 of a 4 Part series about teenagers and how to parent consciously. In Part 1, I’ll provide general information to normalize teen behavior, while in Parts 2 and 3, respectively, I’ll share important information about the teenage brain and suggest ways parents can consciously parent as they watch the dynamic transition from adolescence to adulthood. Finally, in Part 4, I’ll share my thoughts on bullying. I’ll give examples of teens I have worked with in order to reassure parents that support is available for both teens and their parents.
The Bullied Teen
One of my clients, Debbie, who was brought in for therapy by her father because she had been bullied, also had a history of trauma. The session started with her father in the room because she said that he was the only one she felt close to. Her father told me a bit about her history and she remained silent. I asked her if she wanted to meet with me for the rest of the session with her dad in the room or just her and I alone. She said that she would like to talk with me alone as long as I didn’t try to tell her what to do. I told her that I would hold space for her to talk about what she felt most comfortable to her. She then asked her father to leave the room.
Debbie talked about how she felt unsupported living with her father and his girlfriend. She discussed feeling sad that she felt so distant towards her mother who had been sexually unfaithful to her father. She was especially upset with her mother for not trying to work things out afterwards. She said that she loved her father, but felt that he was more like a friend than the stable adult she was longing for support from. She also said that she was upset with her father for taking on a new girlfriend who she felt was intrusive into her and her sister’s lives.
Debbie was dealing a with series of issues that she also struggled with, including trauma from being bullied, having had an abortion, and issues related to her sexual orientation. She was also taking a number of medications for depression, anxiety, and sleep issues. She had been so stressed out at the time she came in that she was uncharacteristically yelling at her father, sister, and father’s girlfriend. She had a history of helping out a lot around the home but was feeling unsupported and under-appreciated by the other members in her home. Although she had all of these issues to contend with, she also had a variety of strengths that we were able to use as resources to support her in her treatment.
Debbie had a job in the community and was a solid worker. She also had a number of hobbies she pursued, and had a small number of friends to support her. I ultimately was able to help her out by using EMDR therapy (see below) to process her trauma history.
The Process Used With Debbie
There are many directions I could have focused on with this teen and family. Although I did do a limited number of sessions with the family as a whole to work on communication issues, this was a small part of the therapy. At this point in Debbie’s life she was safe and no longer bullied, but was still getting triggered by seeing the youth who used to pick on her.
When there is trauma teens don’t feel safe. The experience of trauma is the sense of not having the right to exist. Some of the tools I used with her were doing mindfulness experiments to help her increase awareness of her boundaries. For many teens who have a trauma history, it is hard to feel comfortable setting limits and boundaries. They either over do it or under do it.
With trauma work we do a lot of resourcing before processing the trauma. Resourcing usually involves helping the teen use resources such as safe place, as well as qualities of nurturance, protection, and wisdom. The qualities that are included in the resourcing are the ones most needed to support them in being able to feel what was difficult about the trauma as it is being reprocessed.
Sometimes the resources themselves may be helpful enough that processing isn’t needed. At other times, if the person is too traumatized, it is too triggering to take a history right away. The teen needs to be stable and grounded enough before the processing can begin. Debbie was resourced enough to do the processing of the trauma using EMDR. (If you are are interested in learning more about EMDR counseling, follow this link).
EMDR counseling helped process through all of the mentioned problems, including the bullying, abortion, anxiety, and depression. Debbie ended up feeling better enough that she went off of her anti-depressant and anxiety medication, and started sleeping better. She would still take medication for sleep, but only occasionally instead of daily.
After processing issues related to the relationship with her mother, she and her mother were able to come back into connection with each other. In terms of her sexual orientation, Debbie felt like her sister was somewhat judgmental, but felt like the rest of her family was quite supportive. The issue of the abortion was initially compounded by the fact that her boyfriend at the time was dismissive about it, but after processing it, was able to feel more peace and let go of the intensity it initially held. It may seem like there were a lot of issues going on in the family and with this client and there were.
It is not, however, always necessary to fix everything in a family for a teen to move forward with their life. Debbie’s relationship with her father had some limitations, but she still felt loved. Her father was struggling with a number of life transition issues and had a tough time being as present as he wanted to be with his daughter, but by involving him in helping set stronger boundaries between his girlfriend and daughter, such as having his girlfriend knock to get permission to enter rather than automatically entering her room, also helped Debbie feel safer and more comfortable at home. She was able to reconnect with her mother. The trauma initially disrupted this teen’s access to her natural skills and resources, but once it was processed she was no longer held back.
As soon as she was able to, she went off to college and has been moving forward with her life ever since.
Special Notes For Parents
When a teenager is struggling, it’s important to know when to take action and what kind of action. Whenever a teen’s behavior changes significantly where the teen seems more emotionally reactive and especially when the change seems to last, rather than be a momentary issue, it’s important for parents to consult. Luckily, Debbie’s psychiatrist and MD recognized her trauma.
Some of the other issues discussed here including bullying are really important for parents to be aware of. Teens have been known to commit suicide after being bullied. It is important for parents to find out what’s going on and always support their teen in whatever way possible. Sometimes that may include calling the police or contacting a lawyer if other avenues are unsuccessful. What’s important is that the support comes immediately. You may notice that I did not focus too much on the depression or anxiety. That’s because it appeared to be connected to the trauma. The trauma was the more severe issue, which was the one that was most important in this case to treat first. If there is trauma present, it is often the root cause of many other issues.
With the issue of sexual orientation, luckily Debbie’s parents were compassionate. Many people in the US view sexual orientation with prejudice. So, unfortunately, it is often the case that when parents hear that their child is gay, bisexual, or identifies themselves with the opposite gender, many parents express disappointment rather than reminding their teen of how much they love them. When disappointment is expressed continuously about this issue, teens wire into their brain that the feelings and thoughts they have are shameful and this leave them feeling like there is something wrong with them. They are the same person they were before they disclosed. Same sex orientation attraction is nothing new and has been recorded throughout history. It’s also not unique to humans and has been observed in many different animal species. Scientific studies of hormones, genes and brain anatomy have lead most researchers to the conclusion that sexual orientation is rooted in the brain. So, if your teen happens to be gay, it’s important to get education about what this might mean for him or her and still have conversations with him or her about safe sex focusing most on the risks factors that fit with their sexual orientation.
Unlike Debbie, sometimes when teens get pregnant, they decide to follow through and actually have the baby. Having a child is a huge decision for any woman, but especially for a teen with their whole life in front of them. One of my colleagues, Ann Davidman, MFT specializes in helping women decide whether or not they are ready to be a mother. This is an issue definitely worth getting additional information about.
This quote from Hodding Carter summarizes the basic challenge parents face with this stage of development:
There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.