A Special Education

Insight into troubled kids, and ourselves.

“Getting Real” with Difficult Teens

Can we let go of being right long enough to do right by our teens?

One of my most important lessons across the many teens I've worked with as a therapist is that kids usually have good "inauthenticity" radar. Put another way, they are pretty good at detecting bull in those who claim to control their lives - us adults. There are aspects of how the brain functions that make this so, and there are good reasons for us - therapists, teachers, coaches, aunts and uncles, and yes, parents - to consider responding differently when we've messed up. This is true even when the kid is messing up quite a bit themselves. And it's especially true if you're hoping to influence them toward better choices. This lesson came very early in my training as a psychologist.

I was working in a correctional setting for adolescent boys who had committed serious offenses. Basically, it was a prison for boys. One of my young clients was a 16 year old boy from the worst of neighborhoods. He'd been convicted of selling cocaine, attempted car theft, as well as aggravated assault. He was a "tough" kid. And I was convinced I could crack things open for him - that I could help him own up to what he'd done, and truly rehabilitate him - help him so that he no longer hurt others.

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"I didn't do a damn thing," he said when asked whether he had done what was clearly spelled out in the black and white of his clinical file. Here was an adolescent who was truly at risk. He needed to admit what he'd done. He needed to learn how to not do these things again. And I was convinced I was the one who could march into the therapy room with him and wrangle him toward change like I had some sort of therapeutic lasso.


I was in my late twenties, but at least in a professional sense, I was an adolescent myself with something to prove. I had to be right and he needed to help me check off the items on my therapeutic agenda.


The short version of the story is that this young, street-savvy kid broke down in my office during our first session. His girlfriend at home was going to give birth to his baby while he was locked up. He'd miss it, and that was digging at him. "I wanna do right by her," he said. He seemed to mean it.


In our second session, I pressed him about his criminal history. "You need to talk about this. Now you have a chance to get this off your chest." I wanted him to take the leap and make himself accountable for his crimes. I wanted to be able to say I got my "thug" client to do so in only two sessions. He sat there silently picking at a hangnail. I was aware of the slow creep of the clock on the wall.


"You talked to me last week about your little baby who's about to be born, right?" I reminded him that he'd told me the week before that his own dad had missed his own birth. I reminded him how much he wanted to "do right" by his own child. I then reminded him of how the judge might decide to postpone his release if he failed to complete treatment in our program. "So you need to get honest about what you did," I said. "Do you want to get home sooner or later?"


At the time, I was fairly pleased with myself. I thought of myself as Robert Redford's character in the baseball movie "The Natural." I'd just hit a therapeutic homerun into the outfield lights. My supervisor would be impressed.
Instead, I soon needed to slink into my supervisor's office and admit that the boy shut down on me, muttered under his breath for me to "F*** off." I'd made a huge mistake.


I expected a lashing (and deserved it), but instead was given a significant piece of wisdom that I think applies to all of us trying to help kids when they're stuck, particularly when we've played a role in the stuck-ness of things. It comes down to authenticity.


"He had the guts to be real with you," my supervisor said. "So maybe you should think about being real with him."
I learned a lot that day about taking a "one down" position with teenagers, particularly when I've screwed up. Decades of research, and some very recent studies, give significant support to this idea of the importance of owning our mistakes in order to better our credibility and connection with kids.


When you authentically apologize, your brain registers it in emotional expressions - contractions of the face (eyes and mouth in particular) and modifications of aspects of voice (tone, volume). The teen (your observer) is immediately and automatically processing your apology in structures of his or her brain specialized for handling emotional messages - the insula and anterior cingulate cortex in particular - these areas give the teen a sense of what you're saying emotionally. Other cells called "mirror neurons" are helping them prepare to respond, perhaps with authenticity themselves.


For many years, research studies in the realm of psychotherapy have shown that the relationship that develops between therapists and clients is the best predictor of how therapy will ultimately turn out. This "alliance" is more powerful than technique, theory, or any other variable in predicting outcomes. And as often happens, therapists make mistakes and "rupture" the relationship with their clients. How effective they are at authentically owning these mistakes has a lot to do with whether the relationship will get back on track. Perhaps it will even, in broken bone fashion, be stronger than it was before.


Kids are looking at us when we screw up. They are paying close attention. Their brains are registering our response, and if we're willing to turn, look them in the eye and sincerely express our sense of regret, our hope for how the relationship will move forward, then something else happens in the brain - the bond can deepen. Scientists have repeatedly shown the role of the neuromodulator oxytocin in the brain when we're forming connections with each other. When we authentically take a "one down" and apologize instead of debate, lecture, scold or dismiss an angry, resentful teenager, we might spark oxytocin's release, as opposed to the chemicals of further angst (such as cortisol).


The temptation in moments of tension and conflict with a ramped up teenager is to follow our brain's lead with flashes of anger (sparked by our neural alarm bell - the amgydala, and informed by our brain's storage of memories of past nasty exchanges). When kids are in our faces, or walking away just when we were about to deliver a well-crafted reason for why we did what we did (such as let them down in some way), the pull is for anger-based finger-pointing. We tell ourselves we're "teaching" kids, but really we're caught up in the torrent of emotion in our brains, and we aren't doing the teen (or our relationship) any good.


So how do we best take a "one down" position?
• First, review your history with a particular kid. How "old" does your pattern of reaction to them feel? What typically happens when you lecture, debate, try to teach, or avoid the issue when they point out that you've dropped the ball, or when you've lost control? Take an honest inventory of your reactions. Are you satisfied?
• If you're not, then consider making a commitment to catch yourself. Make it even more solid by letting someone know that you're working on improving your relationship with this particular kid (maybe even the kid themselves?)
• After you know you've made a significant error, catch and prevent your reaction. Take some space if you need to. Deep breaths, a walk around the blog - anything such that you're allowing your emotional surge to subside.
• Return to the teen when you're ready and ask to talk to them. Tell them they don't need to say or do anything. You just want to let them know something that you've felt badly about. Usually, this will spark a natural sense of curiosity in the kid. You're already doing a difference "dance step" than he or she is used to. They might want to see what will come next.
• Say what feels right, and say it with a direct, honest, respectful attitude. You don't need to gush (and doing so might make a kid confused and might get in the way of your message). Look them in the eyes and tell them what you did, tell them how it wasn't right, and tell them how you want to fix things for the future. Don't beat yourself up, and don't own mistakes that were not yours.
• Steer clear of any temptation to end your admission with a negating "BUT." Don't launch into a laundry list of what they did wrong and how they need to address it. This is not a time for teaching. It's a time for repairing the relationship, and for modeling sincerity. That's a much more important lesson anyway.
• Know when to end the conversation. Don't expect anything miraculous. Walk away with them still feeling however they happen to feel. You've planted a seed, and generally, it will take hold. The relationship can grow from moments like this.

This was the case with my "tough" teen client. I asked him to take a walk with me one day not long after my blunder. We sat on a bench and I told him he didn't need to say or do anything. "You had the courage to tell me about your baby," I said. "And I tried to use it against you to get you to do something I wanted - that was wrong, and I'm sorry for it."


I think he could tell I meant what I said. I think his brain read the truth of things and sparked a bit of something inside. That something became a therapy relationship where the possibility of healthy change emerged for him.
It may not always turn out this way, but I've witnessed this sort of thing many times. Even if the relationship doesn't rebound in a dramatic way, I like the metaphor of a seed being planted. Kids know when we've had the guts to get real with them.

Mitch Abblett, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, supervisor, trainer and writer, specializing in work with troubled youth and their families.

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