Parenting Teens by Parenting Toddlers

Parenting teens is a lot like parenting toddlers. Their process of individuation through saying no, isolating, or outright rebelling is frustrating and difficult to work with. And how you work through this process with your teen affects how they will grow up.

Toddlers and teens may not seem like they have much in common, but developmentally, they’re going through a very similar process both biologically and psychologically.

Toddlers are going through the process of individuating, or discovering who they are aside from their parents. You may recognize this as the main task of the “No!” phase. While infants are generally happy to go along with their caregivers, toddlers are learning that they have their own preferences and individuality. They’re becoming more aware that others are separate people with their own thoughts, emotions, and preferences.

Parenting toddlers in this phase requires patience and gentle boundaries. You want your child to explore and grow while still making sure they are safe. Most parents are familiar with how to support toddlers through the difficult phase of individuation. But even though teens are very similar to toddlers in their needs for individual development, parents are often reactive and fearful about the teenage years.

Teens are going through the exact same process as toddlers, although they aren’t small and cute anymore. They may or may not be saying, “No!” out loud, but they are separating from their parents either through isolating and withdrawing or joining with outside social groups. After puberty, many teens look more like adults than children, so it can be hard to remember that they still need the patience and gentleness their parents gave them as young children.

Consider these scenarios:

  • A two year old doesn’t want to stop playing with her toys to go to the store with her family. When her parents insist, she throws a tantrum.
  • A sixteen year old doesn’t want to leave her bedroom to go to her cousin’s birthday party with the family. When her parents insist, she refuses to go.

It’s hard for most parents to treat the sixteen year old with the same compassion and patience as the two year old. We expect tantrums and explosions from toddlers, and most parents know how to hold quiet boundaries while they cry and throw things until they are able to calm down and get back on track. But the sixteen year old has the same needs as the toddler in this case- to establish herself as an individual with her own preferences. She wants to be heard and respected. The parents have the same task as well- to help her express her thoughts and feelings so she feels heard and supported while maintaining adult control and ensuring the toddler and teen follow the rules and expectations of the family.

Parenting teens ideally should look a lot like parenting toddlers. Parents need to learn how to navigate teen individuation with the same patience, modeling, and safety with which they navigated the toddler years.

With that in mind, here are 3 lessons from parenting toddlers you can use in parenting teens through their second individuation phase and managing their withdrawing, sulking, and rebellion.

  1. Safety first. Too many parents of teens get caught up in the trap of focusing on power and control instead of safety. The goal of parenting is to raise an adult, not to maintain control forever. When a baby is learning to walk, we expect them to fall down and make sure their environment is safe enough they can fall without injury. Likewise with teens, as they learn how to make adult decisions, we can expect them to fail at times. Let them fail without stepping in to help, but make sure they are able to fail in a way that doesn’t injure them.
  2. Don’t take it personally. Your teen’s rebellion is not a challenge to your parental authority but their way of testing boundaries and developing independence. Neither isolating nor arguing are about you as the parent, they are a way for your teen to explore their identity apart from you.
  3. Keep seeking connection. Nearly every teen I’ve talked to in therapy has told me they wish they could talk to their parents about big things in their life. They want to talk through major life decisions with you. They want to process their feelings about their friends, about drugs and alcohol, about cutting and suicide, and about self-esteem. Teens often test their parents by bringing up small issues to see how you will react before they’ll risk venturing into deeper waters. If you want to keep communication open, watch how you respond in the little things to make sure they will feel safe talking about big things.

About Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are common. Learn about the three types of anxiety and the best ways to treat them in this introductory post.

Anxiety

Along with depression, anxiety disorders are the most prevalent of all mental health problems. The majority of people, sometimes estimated as high as 80%, will experience clinically significant anxiety during their lifetimes.

What Causes Anxiety?
There are a number of possible causes for anxiety. The three general categories are environmental, biological, and psychological. A serious anxiety disorder may involve one source or several. Different treatments will be more or less effective depending on the reason for your anxiety. Talking with a therapist about your anxiety can help you identify the reason for your anxiety and how it can be treated.

Environmental anxiety comes up when you are in a stressful situation. Outside stressors from your personal life, work, school, or home can result in clinically significant anxiety. When you deal with the stress, either by managing the situation or increasing your coping skills, the anxiety usually diminishes or goes away. Therapy can help you find ways to manage your environment to reduce stress. A therapist can also help you develop skills to increase your internal resilience to stressful situations that you can’t control and come up with things you can do to manage your feelings of anxiety in those situations.

Biological anxiety is caused by neurochemical imbalances in your brain that result in you feeling anxious even though there is no apparent reason for the feeling. These imbalances can happen for a number of reasons, and they can be treated by re-balancing your neurotransmitters through medication. There are several different kinds of medications that can be effective, and your doctor or psychiatrist can walk you
through your options. You may also benefit from therapy even with medication because when you experience anxiety, you can learn negative thought patterns that may continue even on medication.

Psychological anxiety is the result of your thought patterns. When you focus on anxiety-provoking thoughts, you begin to feel anxious. The feeling of anxiety reinforces the negative thought patterns which results in feeling even more anxiety. This kind of anxiety is treated best with therapy, though you may need medication to help break the cycle of negative thoughts before therapy is effective. Therapy can help you change the way you think to help you feel better.

Any questions about anxiety you want answered by a therapist? Leave a comment below or send a message and we may feature your question in a future post.

Who Owns Your Feelings

Do you find yourself saying things like “You make me so angry!” Stop blaming others for your emotions and take control of your own feelings.

In therapy, we have an idea called the locus of control. 

Locus means “position, point, or place,” and your locus of control is basically the place where your emotional control comes from. Your locus of control can be internal or external, but everyone has one.

Having an external locus of control means that whatever is controlling your emotions is outside of your own self. An external locus of control makes statements like “You make me so angry!” or “I get sad when you don’t listen to me.” Do either of these sound familiar? An external locus of control relies on others to feel okay.

An internal locus of control means that you are the one in charge of your emotions no matter what happens around you. You are able to respond appropriately to events, but you are able to choose how you feel. If the two statements above were reworked to have an internal locus of control, they would acknowledge the same emotion with a different reaction.

The first statement “You make me so angry!” could turn into a direct request- “When you come home late, please text me so I know you’re okay,” or “Please clean your room the first time I ask. If you can’t clean it by lunch, we’ll donate the toys you can’t find a home for.” The statement “You make me so angry!” doesn’t tell the other person what needs to be different. It’s also inaccurate. You are the only one with control over yourself and your emotions. Nobody else has the power to make you angry, only you can do that. In addition, nothing gets solved. An internal locus of control acknowledges that you’re feeling anger in response to the situation, whether it’s because your partner is late or your child isn’t cleaning their room, but instead of reacting in anger you’re able to proactively ask for change that can resolve the situation.

The second statement is one I hear a lot from parents. They’re trying to emotionally manipulate their children or partners into behaving the way they want. The problem is, we can’t control others and most people resent being manipulated. “I get sad when you don’t listen to me” doesn’t teach your child or partner to listen to you, it only teaches them that they can easily control your emotions with their actions. An internal locus of control sees the sad feelings that come up when others seem not to hear you, but it doesn’t blame others for your sadness. Instead, an internal locus of control would say something like “This is really important to me and I’d like to talk to you without the TV on” or “When we need to leave the park, I’d appreciate it if you would come and help me pack up the toys when I ask you, especially when I’ve given you a five minute warning.”

During the process of therapy, I teach people how to move their locus of control from external to internal. This is especially important for people who are sensitive to the emotions of others or who tend to overreact to situations.

Say to yourself, “I am in charge of how I feel.” Try to notice when you make statements that give others control of your emotions. With your observations, pay attention to who has control of your feelings if it’s not you. Many times, we have a certain person we give control to. It’s usually a parent, partner, or child- someone close to us who knows how to push our buttons.

Carefully consider how you are going to take back control of your emotions. When you are feeling calm and separated from the situation, look back and try to figure out what you really want and come up with a way to ask for what you need without giving up control of your emotions. Whether you need better communication, firmer boundaries, or just some peace and quiet, you are the only one in charge of your emotions and you are the one responsible for making sure you get your needs met.

Just like you can’t control others, they can’t really control you- it just seems like they can sometimes. Others can’t read your mind to know what you want out of a situation, you need to ask for what you want in a way that doesn’t blame them for what you’re feeling.

Protecting Your Children From Predators

With all the news about sexual abuse in schools, how can you keep your kids safe?

This morning, I opened the news to see that yet another sexual predator was caught. This time it was a woman- a school administrator at a local private school. A few months ago, a male teacher was reported. Before that, a female teacher. Before that, a special education aide.

School is not necessarily a safe place, but your children are legally required to attend. And unless you pull them out of school and decide to homeschool your children, you have to trust the administration and staff to be decent, non-abusive people. As we have seen, both public and private schools have problems with sexual abuse.

So what can you do as a parent or caregiver to make sure your child is safe?

Talk to them about abuse. Sit down with your child and tell them that there are adults out there who hurt children and touch them on their private parts or ask the kids to touch the adult’s private parts. Make sure they know that they should tell you if it happens to them or someone they know and it’s never something to keep secret.

Tell them that those adults are wrong to do that to kids, that it’s never the kid’s fault, and we can’t catch the bad adults without kids telling someone when it happens.

Tell them that abuse can happen from strangers, but also from adults at school or other children or even from family members. It’s not okay no matter who is the abuser.

Tell them that the bad adults know what they’re doing is wrong and they lie to kids to make them too scared to tell. Bad adults tell kids that nobody will believe them if they tell, or that the adult will hurt their pet or friend or sibling if they tell. Make sure your child knows that those are lies- that when a child tells a good adult about abuse, the abuser is the one who gets in trouble and that the good adults will make sure the child’s pets and friends and siblings are safe too.

Tell your child it’s okay to talk to you if someone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Tell them that you’ll believe them and mean it. Believe them even if they name someone you think wouldn’t be an abuser- abusers often groom the parents as much as the kids, making themselves into someone you’d absolutely trust with your children.

If your child does say that someone abused them or someone they know, call the police immediately. You don’t have to verify their claim, confront the abuser, or even be certain that it happened. The police will work with child protective services to conduct an interview of everyone involved. Their interviewers are trained in how to ask children about sexual abuse, and the police will make sure the kids are safe until the investigation can be completed.

Childhood Friendships and Fights

Children’s friendships can be turbulent. Here’s a quick guide to how and when to intervene.

I get a lot of questions from parents of elementary aged children about what normal childhood friendships look like. Whether you see your child making bad friendships, getting bullied by friends, or consistently having fights with friends, it’s hard to know when and how to intervene as the parent.

Here are three strategies to avoid and three to employ:

Don’t:

  1. Tell your child to stop hanging out with a bully or bad friend. Why? If it was that easy, they’d do it already. There’s something about that particular person that keeps your child coming back. It is important to figure out why your child can’t get away from the bad relationship and address that as the core issue. Friends who bully are usually hot and cold- one day your child is this kid’s best friend and everything is great, then suddenly everything changes. It’s almost like gambling.
  2. Jump in immediately to fix the situation. Let your child come up with the ideas about what to do with a bad friend or a nasty fight. Use your judgment to help guide them toward effective, appropriate solutions, but the child should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to the solution. Why? Because you’re not going to be there at school or on the playground with your child. If they come up with the solution, they’re more likely to try it out.
  3. Ask the teacher to monitor the situation. Teachers have a job to do aside from reporting on individual students’ behavior. If something big happens that you need to know about, the teacher will probably tell you.

Do:

  1. Point out aspects of good and bad friendships whenever they come up. If your child shares a story about how Ron shared his sandwich with someone whose lunch fell in a puddle, make a big deal about how Ron was a good friend by showing kindness and sharing. And when your child tells you about how Sarah wouldn’t include Tiffany in tag at recess, it’s enough for you to comment that Sarah wasn’t being a good friend and how excluding people is unkind. You can also do this as you’re watching TV with your kids. It’s actually a bit easier with TV because the simple storylines almost always end with good outcomes for good behavior and negative consequences for bad behavior.
  2. Model good relationships. When you have a fight with your children, how do you repair the relationship? When Mom and Dad are mad, how do they treat each other? The way you act is what the child sees. If you have turbulent, dramatic relationships with your friends and spouse, your child is more likely to see that type of relationship as normal and even positive.
  3. Listen well. Without interrupting. Without offering your opinion. If your child feels truly heard, they’re more likely to talk to you. Playground drama doesn’t seem like critical information, but it opens the door for your child to express their thoughts and feelings. Listening without judgment shows your child that you can handle their difficult situations. And when you demonstrate that you can hear elementary problems without reacting, they’re more likely to confide in you as a teen.

Kids choose to stay with bad friends for a few reasons.

First is the helper personality. This child feels like it’s their duty to monitor and control the behavior of their classmates. If this is your child, work with them to understand boundaries. They need to know that there are things outside of their control and that they are not responsible for other kids’ behavior. They need to let go.

Second is the victim mentality. This child doesn’t think they deserve to have good friends, or perhaps they think that this is how real friends act. If this is your child, boost their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy (no, this won’t spoil them). Some of these kids may not be able to find friends in their peer group because of their reputation as someone who can be easily bullied. It may help to get them involved in extracurricular activities with a different group of kids.

Third is the imitation factor. Even if you’re modeling healthy relationships, the media has a major influence on what kids (and adults) consider normal. If your child’s fights with friends seem like something out of daytime television, make sure you know what they’re watching, playing, and reading. You don’t have to get rid of the TV or the tablet, but make sure to have a conversation about how the characters in your favorite show are just characters. The things they do are funny and exaggerated, but they’re not real. Follow up with a discussion of how you (or another real person) would handle the situation.

When is Medicating Your Child a Good Idea?

It’s hard to know when medication is the right step for you and your child. This guide will walk you through the main issues to consider.

Mental health is a delicate balance of the holy trinity- biological, psychological, and social factors. Medication acts primarily on the biological side.

If only it were that simple. Mental health medication is still highly stigmatized. I’m sure we’ve all heard horror stories of the kid who was put on something that turned him into a blank zombie. Sure, he wasn’t bouncing off the walls anymore, but he also lost his personality.

On the other side, maybe you’ve seen the kid whose parents chose to give her only natural medicine for her ADHD. She’s completely unable to focus in class and she’s falling farther and farther behind grade level each year.

Or maybe you know a kid whose medication is helping him get through seventh grade. For the first time, he’s able to be present and participate in class. Too bad it couldn’t have happened earlier. His parents have been trying different meds and combinations since kindergarten. Between the nasty side effects and ineffective dosages, he’s been held back already, and he’s missed a lot of school.

Here are some guidelines I use when suggesting that medication might be the next step in mental health care:

  1. You’ve tried therapy. Therapy can be great. As a therapist, it’s my go-to solution. But therapy should show progress after a few months of consistent sessions with a person your kid has a good relationship with. This is why it’s important to set concrete goals with tangible benchmarks- so you’ll know if there’s change.
  2. Your child is not able to perform normal tasks of daily life without assistance at a level compared to other children of the same age. They should be able to follow a string of logical instructions- for example, asking your child to finish their bath, brush their teeth, change into pajamas, and then come tell you they’re done so you can read a story. If you need to remind your child of their tasks every few minutes, there’s a problem.
  3. They’re falling behind in school. This is the most important reason I recommend medication. Being held back affects a child’s self-esteem, their peer group, their reputation, and their sense of self-efficacy. It’s one of the most damaging and devastating experiences at that age. Many of my adult clients who have been held back listed it as a pivotal event, even as young as kindergarten.
  4. They are isolated from friends. Kids who have dramatic outbursts from ADHD, bipolar, psychosis, and other disorders tend to attract labels, and not very nice ones. This keeps them from normal social activities with peers and may make them a target for bullying- or turn them into a bully if loneliness shifts to anger.
  5. They recognize there’s a problem and want a solution. Lots of kids I’ve talked to over the years have told me they want to be able to sit down and concentrate on their work but they just can’t. This is the big difference between the class clown’s acting out and the disruptions from a mental disorder. Most children don’t want to interrupt, do poorly, or fail classes. When there’s a problem, they know.

Medication isn’t all-or-nothing. It’s possible to give your child a dosage that will take them through the school day and wear off in the evening. Many kids take medication holidays when school isn’t in session. Some kids need the additional help so they are able to try therapy and are able to stop the medication once things are under control.

But advice from the internet can only be vague. I don’t know your child or your situation. The best way to find out how medication could work for your family is to talk to someone in person.

The first person I always suggest is your pediatrician because they know your child and they know about normal child development. Doctors aren’t as well trained in mental health as a therapist or psychologist, but they can diagnose and prescribe psychiatric medication. You can ask during your child’s routine appointments, and this is usually covered by insurance.

The next person to talk to is your school’s psychologist, if your child qualifies for services through a 504 or IEP. These services are usually free through the district. Although the school psychologist won’t prescribe medication, they can assess your child, describe the diagnosis, and discuss the possibility of medicating.

The last person I recommend is a psychiatrist. This is because most communities have very few psychiatrists, so it can take months to get an initial appointment, if you can get one at all and aren’t placed on a waiting list. When you get there, the psychiatrist likely doesn’t know you or your child, so you have to explain the history of the problem. And if there are any issues with the dosage or side effects, it can be a while before you can get in for a follow up appointment.

You can talk to your regular therapist about medication too. Therapists in California are trained in psychopharmacology- knowledge of medications for mental health issues. But therapists can’t prescribe medication or even suggest medication. They’re available for you to talk about your thoughts or feelings about medicating your child, and they can help you find local referrals for doctors, psychologists, or psychiatrists.

Choosing a Therapy Dollhouse

Dollhouses are excellent additions to a play therapy room. But a therapy dollhouse is different from one a parent would buy. Here are six things to consider when buying a dollhouse for use in child therapy.

Play therapists agree that a dollhouse is one of the essential items in assessment and treatment. Why? Because much of a child’s life takes place at home, and a dollhouse allows them to express their feelings and worries about home nonverbally. Multigenerational, multiethnic dolls allow the child to tell you about their home life, family, and routines in a nonthreatening way.

Not all dollhouses are suited to therapy. The best dollhouse is modular, meaning you can restructure the number and location of rooms to match the child’s home. But those are not very common and certainly not cheap. I’ve made a list below of things to look for and accessories to get.

Look for:

  1. Neutral colors. Many dollhouses come in bright pinks and purples, which can turn many kids away. The best dollhouses for therapy are either plain finished wood or a mix of colors that invite girls and boys to play.
  2. Empty rooms without decorations on the walls. Let the child use furniture to indicate the layout of the house that is most similar to their own at home.
  3. At least two stories. The upper and lower floors can represent separate levels of an apartment complex or multiple levels of a home.
  4. No external walls. Many dollhouses have a front door and an external wall on one side. This blocks the therapist’s view of what the child is doing. You should be able to see every room as the child is playing.
  5. Wood construction. Plastic gets brittle with time and use. Wood tends to last longer and hold up better to play. Wood also tends to be the material of choice for open frame and modular dollhouses, so it would probably be easier to find.
  6. Portable. While you may not be carrying it around, it should be easy enough for a child to turn around and for you to lift up onto a table. Heavier materials are sturdier, but you also need to be able to access it when you want to.

Accessories:

  1. People! Make sure to get a variety of skin colors, hair colors, ages, and genders. This can be a good tool to find out who lives with the child, who are close, who fight, and how the family is structured.
  2. Furniture. You’ll need everything people usually have in their homes. These allow you to code the rooms as kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, etc.
  3. Pets. Optional, but many children have or want pets. Sand tray pets work well too if you don’t want to buy separate dollhouse and sand tray animals. Many kids have nontraditional pets like farm animals or reptiles.

Kinetic Sand

Kinetic sand is a great addition to any play therapy room. We use it in every phase from assessment to saying goodbye.

Kinetic sand is one of my favorite things to have in a play therapy room. It’s so much more versatile than regular play sand and is easier to clean up. It sticks to itself (and sometimes your hands) but not to surfaces or sand toys. Store bought kinetic sand is made of regular sand mixed with silicone oil to get the unique texture.

You can also make your own kinetic sand for use in the office or at home with sand, cornstarch, dish soap, and water. Other recipes call for vegetable oil and plain flour, and I would recommend this recipe for therapeutic use because of potential problems with cornstarch and dish soap. Dried out kinetic sand can be refreshed with soapy water.

Kinetic sand tips:

  1. Don’t buy or make sand with glitter unless you’re prepared to have a glittery room… and clothes… and hands
  2. Because it sticks to itself but not other surfaces, you can clean up spills easily by gathering a packed ball of sand and running it over the spill.
  3. Make sure to get a container that’s large enough to hold all the sand plus plenty of room for playing.
  4. Get lots of toys! Play therapy works best when there are options to choose from!