Why Isn’t My Teenager Honest With Me?

One of the problems teens struggle with is honesty. And it’s not only honesty with one’s parents or authority, but honesty with oneself.

Part of psychological distress comes from hiding the more difficult and disturbing aspects of experience from oneself. While this can sometimes be adaptive, it can become problematic when it comes to drinking, sexting, drug use, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and other situations teens can sometimes get themselves into.

Being honest about a situation means admitting it is actually happening, admitting it is real, admitting the distress is real, and addressing potential consequences. Not admitting it is real, not asking for help, and not coping with the situation can lead to even more problematic consequences. Addressing something openly- while often difficult- can lead to prevention of further problems.

Admitting to the reality of a situation also may involve admitting to one’s role or part in the situation. Teens can sometimes not be honest because they have a fear of getting into trouble or a fear that it will escalate an intense reaction in the person they tell. They would rather avoid the short-term pain of intense reactions than the long-term problems of the situation. And teenagers are often not thinking about long- term consequences! The double bind is to deal with it all alone. A teenager who is all about gaining independence and relying less on one’s parents may believe that secret keeping is the only way to gain privacy and independence.

If you are a parent and want to increase you teen’s ability to confide in you, consider the following:

What are you doing to invite conversations about difficult topics, and what are you doing to punish conversations about difficult topics?

Are there topics or themes in your own life that are “off topic”? Are there conversations that would be too emotional for you to handle if someone were to ask?

Is the short-term anxiety of “not knowing” something worth avoiding based on the long-term consequences of not having a conversation at all?

What types of things do you “hide” from yourself because if you admitted they were true, you’d have to face the consequences?

If you were being completely honest with yourself, what situations would you have to confront?

What types of things did you keep from your parent/s when you were a teen, and what do you wish could have been different?

Being open about emotionally “forbidden” topics will help create an environment where openness is encouraged. Being more and more comfortable with intense emotions, painful life situations, and one’s own ghosts will help you develop deeper relationships. Avoiding painful life situations can sometimes create more psychological distress than seeing what is in front of you, admitting it exists, and taking steps to address it.

Manchester By The Sea- A Psychologist’s Point Of View On How To Work With Lee

Recently I went to see an excellent movie: Manchester By the Sea. Here are some thoughts I have about how I would work with Lee.

As a provider of clients who experience intense, severe, and painful emotions; Lee really does fit the bill. General questions that I might consider asking include: What would it take to reduce pain, survive loss, and manage or cope in a way that made things better? What would help Lee feel less stuck? What resources or connections could sustain him better, enable him to bear the weight of his pain, or enhance his quality of life? What could him grieve more fully and to get through this crisis? What is he doing that is working, and what is he doing that is not working? Could he be more likable to himself, sustain the burden or his guilt, or have more fulfilling relationships?

One agenda item I have is getting Lee to stop doing things that could potentially make his current situation worse. Often times I have clients who have severe emotional pain and it is so intense and unbearable that they are looking for any distraction to take away the pain. The distractions sometimes have a short-term effect of feeling better, which makes them hard to stop. However, in most cases these distractions can make problems worse- and are not effective long-term strategies to mitigate the severity of what they feel.

So one treatment agenda is to reduce risk taking or crisis-generating behavior. Specifically, Lee tends to get drunk, pick fights, and throw punches. The natural consequences for this behavior can result in serious injury, concussions, brain damage, head injuries, broken jaw, soreness, swelling, or other various medical trauma. Drinking heavily can result in poor decision-making, hangovers, dehydration, and liver damage. Other natural consequences of his behavior include legal problems, court dates, jail time, being seen as a threat in the community, increased relationship conflict, and isolation. Grabbing the gun of an officer might result in unintended harm to other people. Not only would Lee have the current dilemma of living with the intense and painful losses he has suffered, but he would have to address the above consequences in addition to everything he has already gone through.

Some people actually believe Lee’s behavior is justified. They would say that because he is in unbearable pain, he should be able to act the way he does. Or he should be let “off the hook” because his behavior is understandable. I would encourage those people to consider: Would you recommend your closest confident or best friend- who is deeply hurting- do something that could result in head trauma? Liver disease? Incarceration?

Another “justification” for Lee’s behavior is that he has significant guilt and self-hatred and he is trying to punish himself. After all, the law did not punish him enough! What would be an effective punishment, and how long does he need to punish himself for his actions? Are self-inflicted/ high-risk behaviors actually effective in making him feel less guilty? What if a police officer was shot by accident? What type of effective repair work needs to be done? What lifestyle habits could he change to prevent bad things from happening in the future? What would he need to do to redeem himself in the community? And what would it take for members in the community to find forgiveness, employ him, or tolerate him being around?

How would treatment move Lee towards growth, movement, and decreased pain? There are several ways to approach this- the key being a sensitivity and flexibility to what Lee would be able to handle at the time he seeks help. One is a baseline ability to talk about what happened. As he pieces together his story, there may be parts that are difficult to talk about. Avoiding these topics might show up in the form of escaping, not talking about it, dissociating, becoming numb, becoming argumentative, keeping one’s distance, staying detached, avoiding intimate relationships, leaving, drinking, or even picking more fights. The difficulty is that there are multiple reminders (or stimuli) that will show up throughout his life that he may not be able to avoid. These may include:

  • Conversations about young children
  • Seeing a house fire in the news
  • Talking to his ex, Randi
  • Seeing Randi’s newborn
  • Getting news that young children die or are dying
  • Randi saying “I love you”

For instance, what if he is watching the evening news and suddenly there is coverage about a house fire? What if Lee has a building tenant who loses a child to death, and Lee is present when the tenant tries to discuss it with him? What if Randi tries to contact him again or “shows up” in an unexpected manner? Maybe Lee can try to avoid these situations in the short term, but inevitably life, reminders of life, and young children are the life that surrounds us.

Therapy would work on staying present with emotional discomfort when these topics come up; and doing so in the presence of one or more people. That means not attacking, hiding, or getting drunk. It means being willing to experience grief, pain, discomfort, or tears. It means staying in a conversation and having a willingness to tolerate the stuff that seems unbearable. The more Lee does to avoid it, the worse it is going to get.

Healing results when a person’s grief can be managed, survived, and tolerated. Healing is about experiencing, talking about, and coming to terms with what happened in the presence of others. Healing happens when people can forgive themselves and each other and can make changes to prevent bad things from happening in the future.

Healing doesn’t happen when a person is literally “stuck” in blocking out all things reminding them of pain, and lives a life where they are blind and deaf to such triggers; avoiding any stimulus in real life that will inevitably show up at some point.

Healing doesn’t happen when emotions literally control lives, and people can’t engage a full, meaningful, rich, and productive life as a result. Healing doesn’t happen when there is no compassion for self or others, when there is no forgiveness, and when there are no second chances.

 

What if I’m wrong?

Here are a couple of thoughts on the business of being “wrong.” First, the question itself begs a certain dichotomy to form in a relationship. It implies a one-up, one-down position. It can make one person more powerful, keep another at a distance, or in extreme circumstances serve as an opportunity to belittle or berate. What does being “wrong” imply about the relationship, the importance of keeping a relationship, or the way that people will continue to relate to each other? Is it worth it to damage or hurt a relationship to be “right”? If one person is “wrong”, then how is the relationship handled in the future? How do people move forward?

Next, being “wrong” might be rephrased as being technically inaccurate. If you are responding in a way to that does not match reality in a reasonable sort of way, you may be considered “wrong.” However, in some circumstances this begs the question of differences in opinion, perception, feelings, and agendas. A person can have a valid point of view, see things differently, or see aspects of a situation that another person is not able to see. This can prevent communities from being rigid, thinking “inside-the-box”, refusing to consider alternatives, or being racist or non-diverse in their thinking. Trying to understand the validity in where others come from can help us be more understanding, have better relationships, be more forgiving, and become less “stuck” in the right/wrong dichotomy. If you are technically “wrong”, this also might be your opportunity for self-correction, learning, or growth. Consider teasing out the differences of being “wrong” vs. being technically accurate, and if being “wrong” has anything to do with conflict around perspective, perception, intention, or emotion.

In addition, there is a certain cost to being “wrong.” Everyone at some point in their life has probably had an experience in which they thought something to be true, accurate, or reasonable but found this to not be the case. The cost to being “wrong” is often related to embarrassment, shame, humiliation, or perhaps the loss of trust or leadership. Are you able to correct your actions based on what happened? Can you tolerate the pain of your own humiliation and consider what really matters? If the inability to bear the cost of being “wrong” results in isolation, criticism, withdrawal, and becoming more adamant that you were “right”; you may want to give some thought to what it is costing you in terms of your relationships.

Here are some final questions for you to consider:

  • What are your intentions? Sometimes we are in long term work, romantic, or family relationships that must be giving careful consideration.
  • What are the intentions of the other person? (Are you sure, or are you assuming? What evidence do you have?)
  • What is the true cost of being told you are “wrong”? What do you have to gain by making sure others know you are “right”?
  • If you are “wrong,” can you tolerate your embarrassment enough to grow, learn, regroup, or reconsider how you will handle future situations?
  • Is it more important to be right than to be effective? (Consider what the relationship means to you and if your own self-respect in handling the situation is on the line).
  • Are you unforgiving of other people when they are “wrong”, thus unable to forgive yourself? Is your own criticism preventing you from moving on, getting unstuck, or responding in a way that is potentially painful but perhaps necessary?

Boston DBT Parent Class: Parenting the Emotionally Extreme Teen

 How did this class help you? Here is the feedback from four parents who took the Spring 2015 class:

 

“To try and react better..To try and anticipate my daughter’s behavior triggers..try to find out what is causing the extremes and deal those triggers… By accepting emotions and where they are coming from; not to deny my emotions but they are there for a reason. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer. “- Parent 1

“To better understand my emotions, and that they have a purpose…To explore that purpose. Better able to identify escalation in my daughter. I’ve learned to buy time, to put some time in between responding to my daughter and others. What was most helpful was the overall impact of the course which has left me better equipped and more curious about DBT.” -Parent 2

“It made me more willing to bit my tongue, take a deep breath, and not focus on ‘fixing things’. Acceptance was important, both dealing with my own emotions and allowing for acceptance of my child’s emotions. Using mindfulness techniques to tone down my level of arousal was also important. Understanding that emotions might be valid but ineffective in some circumstances. I thought the (video content shown in class) outlined some very pragmatic examples and techniques.” -Parent 3

“To be more present with my emotion. To validate how I feel as well as my daughter. To be calmer, to think things through. Being able to listen to others’ experiences. Each class was built on each other. Have learned many skills to be more effective with my daughter.” -Parent 4

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Have you been told to change your “bad mood”?

Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.

Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.

Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.

Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?

Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.

One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.

Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.

Is everything really going to be okay?

When people tell you that everything is going to be okay, sometimes it is helpful to hear. Sometimes it is soothing, and can give you a sense of hopefulness and shared understanding. There are many ways in which other people try to soothe us, and which we find help and assurance in cases of extreme distress.

However, people sometimes use this statement in a way that is unhelpful. For instance, the statement that everything is going to be okay may be an attempt to avoid the subject, offer a platitude, or inhibit communication of distress. Sometimes it is more helpful to obtain some acknowledgment or understanding of how you really feel. Sometimes worries, fears, or concerns about the future just need to be openly expressed. In addition, it is hard to know that things are going to be okay when you don’t have a way to solve the current problem.

The statement that everything is going to be okay is a statement of expressed hope. It can be offered to the person who is going through the most severe of all crises, and even though there may be some irony to it, there is some truth to it as well. Sometimes when we feel very hopeless it is hard for us to hear the usefulness of this statement. Sometimes in the worst of moments we can find and create experiences of hope and joy- despite significant loss. Being able to find and participate in these moments help people survive.

Thinking about the ways in which this statement is both helpful and not helpful at the same time can help us to create space for different perspectives. When we can see things from different angles, we have more flexibility in addressing situations, responding to our environment, and finding help that may actually be helpful. There is always some element of truth to things turning out okay, but there are also moments when hopelessness prevails. Sometimes it is nice to consider the kindness of another person’s intentions, even if their attempts to be helpful aren’t always exactly what we need to hear in our moment of our pain.

Three things you need to know about anger: Is it mentally “healthy”?

The problem with figuring out if anger is “good” or “bad”; “healthy” or “unhealthy” doesn’t allow any opportunity to figure out what anger does, how it works, and why it makes sense.

Think of your living room couch. Is it a “good” couch or a “bad” couch? Wouldn’t it sort of depend on a bunch of different things- such as comfort, style, how old the couch is, how many people can fit on the couch, or if the couch actually suits you? Usually if a couch has a use, serves a purpose, or does what it is supposed to it is considered valuable. While it is possible that you are sick of your living room couch- perhaps you think it is time to get a new one- your couch may be necessary to hang on to for now. On the flip side, you may be very happy with your living room couch. This could make it more likeable and increase your tendency to say, “It is a good couch.”

Emotions- like anger- are like couches. Instead of thinking about anger as being “good” or “bad”, it is more important to consider the following:

How is anger serving a purpose, fulfilling a function, or doing something useful? Anger can function to communicate, get someone to back off or change behavior, or change a situation for the better. Think of it like a red flag, a signal, or a message.

Is the way in which the expression of anger is effective? In other words, is the way you communicate your anger working for you?  What a person can make use of their anger by being aware of it (experiencing, tolerating, and understanding what it does for them) it increases the opportunity for effective expression (ie, another person heard, understood, and responded accordingly). On the other side, ranting or attacking often hurts relationships and doesn’t always send a clear message about expectations or desired change.

What are the relationship consequences for how the anger is being expressed? Relationships at some point might undergo rifts, misunderstandings, and irritation. The ability for people to tolerate these things in relationships sometimes help people grow, initiate important discussions, and bring about change or intimacy. On the other hand, anger that is overly intense can damage relationships, hurt other people, or add insult to injury.

Why does my teenager cut? A brief guide to understanding self-injury in adolescents

First of all, I’m going to say that focusing on the why this behavior occurs is probably not the most effective approach to addressing adolescent self-harm. I’ll give you some reasons why teenagers self-harm in a minute, but the one fallacy that people often have is that if they could explain why behavior occurs, then they would actually have the tools to fix or change it.  More specifically, teenagers who may not understand the behavior themselves can often be put in an awkward situation in which they are forced to explain the unexplainable. If they don’t understand why the behavior is occurring in the first place, they may end up giving inaccurate reasons simply to appease their environment.

Self-harm behaviors likely have something to do with emotional pain. Possibilities include ways to control feelings, ways to control oneself or one’s behavior, ways to increase intensity of feeling (ie, the need to feel “real” or the need to feel “something”), or ways to decrease intensity of feeling (“If I didn’t cut I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the situation”). Understanding how emotions work and what they do for people may is critical in understanding the role of self-harm behavior. For instance, feelings are functional in that they give useful information about what matters to us, communicate to ourselves and others, and help us become organized and prepare for action. Without feelings we just wouldn’t care.

In adolescence, self-harm behaviors may play a role in identity, communication, and intimacy. Self-harm may be kept very private or it may be made public. It may be an attempt at controlling one’s environment or letting someone else know that the person doing the self-harm cannot be controlled. The function of the behaviors may communicate to oneself (I know I matter, I know what I have to say is important, I can’t stand by and let nothing happen, I am not pleased by the situation, This is my way of making a statement), or to others (Back off, This is too much, I can control your reactions, I know you will be upset and freak out, There is nothing you can do about this, You can’t claim to know me, You think you know everything and you don’t).

Treatments for self-injury are not as simple as publicizing behavior (ie, making sure that others know about it), invading privacy by doing body checks, or just stopping doing it. If there was no benefit to doing it, no one would do it! That’s just simply how it works. Knowing the benefit can help someone to organize an effective solution. Teenagers who can obtain help in identifying, accurately labeling, understanding, and communicating their feelings effectively will have more options for what they can do when the urges to self harm show up. Increasing options, understanding the short and long term consequences of this behavior, and providing alternatives for how to tolerate intense, painful, and negative emotions is certainly one way to start.

It’s important to remember that teenagers also have their own feelings about this behavior. Some are opposed to changing it, some don’t want anyone to know about it, some want everyone to know about it, and some feel really hopeless that they can’t stop doing it. Most have some degree of mixed feelings. Assuming and communicating that a teenager simply doesn’t want to change is probably not going to help solve the situation. While it might be a likely, blaming a teenager for doing it usually only serves to communicate a parent’s frustration.

Similarly so, parents have their own feelings about it and may feel disgusted, hopeless, overwhelmed, inadequate, or guilty. How parents communicate and address painful emotion will also impact the situation; and thinking through the effectiveness and intensity of one’s own responses may be part of the work involved in addressing teen behavior.

I think it is important to consider that the problem of self-harm behavior has solutions. Sometimes providers, teachers, parents, and community react with an abject horror that stirs the pot, gets everyone all worked up, and in some cases emphasizes the solution (self-harm) and not the problem itself. Emotional problem solving is really just that- emotional problem solving. If a person can figure out how to problem solve (ie, address, tolerate, understand, deal with, validate, survive) painful emotions, then their way of solving problems (ie, self-harm) may decrease. Finding effective solutions means having an adequate way to assess and address these behaviors with a skilled professional who understands the role that these behaviors serve.

When individual therapy with adolescents doesn’t work

Individual outpatient therapy with adolescents can sometimes be limited in that

1) It can fall into Question and Answer sessions-losing the spontaneity and flow of a helpful interaction

2) Adolescents have shorter attention spans, and keeping them focused on painful topics on purpose can be, well, painful!

3) Sharing personal information with an adult you don’t know, but were paired up with because your parents are making you, doesn’t always have the desired results.

4) Adolescents aren’t necessarily going to do things differently because an adult is telling them to.

Group therapy has several advantages in that

1) Its members will be able to tell your daughter if they like it, how it is helpful, and what it has done for them.

2)  It is private (no one knows each other outside of the groups) and participation can be minimal (it doesn’t have to be about you all the time).

3) Group members can help each other think things through, make decisions, look at consequences, generate feedback, and put words on experiences in way that an adult provider may not be able to.

4) Talking about peer situations leads to identifying oneself in peer situations- thus what matters is sometimes brought up by someone other than yourself- or an adult, who may not have a clue.

(Hey! I’m not in high school anymore!)

Click here to see more on what group can do for your daughter. 

Is someone you love in extreme emotional distress?

Did you miss the teleseminar in February on

How to Be Around People in Extreme Emotional Distress? 

If so, make sure you sign up for my mailing list so you can be alerted to upcoming classes for April, May, and June of 2014.

Online classes cost about the same as an insurance co-pay, are packed with information, and present opportunities to listen live and ask questions.

Discounts and announcements for all upcoming classes are available to persons on my mailing list.