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Parenting: Dealing with a Teen’s Need to Fit In

Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoorsOverheard in therapy from a teenager to her parents: “You made me look like the biggest retard ever.” First: Apologies for the socially incorrect statement. But what does this say about teenagers? (Other than that this comment has not changed in the past 4 decades since I was a teen!)

It signifies that their biggest fear is the fear of social exclusion, a fancy way to say they don’t like to feel left out.

Teenage brains are actually heavily wired to focus on social inclusion, acceptance, belonging or fitting in. There is actually a biological and evolutionary reason for this. In our ancient past, to find mates who were not biologically related young adults were often forced to leave their tribes or clans to venture out and attach themselves to a new tribe. What skills would be needed for a solo young adult to approach and join an unknown group of people? Great social skills!

These “pro-social” skills of approval-seeking, caring, submission, compliance, altruism and a need for acceptance would be life-savers in that scary situation for an adventurous teen.  (See, there is an actual reason your teen MUST HAVE that brand of jacket.)

The teen who uttered that phrase in therapy wanted to go to a party and feared being ostracized by her friends if she did not. Her parents, in attempting to keep this teen safe physically, were provoking an emotionally driven fear response in her. The fear response triggers “freeze-flight-fight-fold” responses as a means of self-protection, either from physical or emotional threats.

If parents react to statements such as this one merely as an attack they may lose sight of the fact that the teen is actually acting in a self-protective way to reduce the feeling of fear she is experiencing. Many human emotions and behaviors are a means to reduce a feeling of fear or to attempt to calm or soothe dysregulated emotions. At this point in her life, the fear of being rejected by her peers is surmounting her fear of being oppositional to her parents.

But today, in situations where teens want desperately to fit in, parents may only focus on the statement above as defiance and strive to get the teen to submit and comply. “Don’t disrespect your parents,” and “You’ll do what you are told,” may be phrases parents say to a teen in this situation. But parents would be forgetting an important fact that underlies the teen’s comment and behavior.

I urge parents of all ages of children to always remember that kids act in ways that help to keep them feeling safe or they may act out with defiance when they feel scared. My parenting takeaway is based on the fear response. Ask yourself: “What is my child really afraid of? Is my parenting making my child feel safe or scared?” A scared teen, whose main fear is being cast out of her tribe of fellow teens, will protest anything that increases that fear. Being kept from a party of her peers will trigger fear and she will protest — scream, sulk, sneak out of the house.

Reflective listening is always a great parenting solution. Rather than immediately impose your opinion as a parent, ask the teen what her real concern is. Reflect back to her what you understand — that she is fearful of being called “a retard” and being rejected by her friends. This fear is normal and age-appropriate, so parents should be accepting of the fear and work to understand it, rather than punish it. If the teen feels her fears are understood, it may de-escalate her fear and then her cognitive brain might be able to comprehend her parents’ decision to keep her away from the party. Or maybe not. But at least she will feel heard and understood, which is a great way for the parent-child relationship to be repaired and to flourish, even if there is disagreement on whether the teen can actually go to the party.

Parents Must Be the Umbrella

Parents must be the umbrella for a child’s black clouds. The parent’s problems must never be the black cloud.

I spoke recently about attachment theory in parenting, which, in its simplest form is the fact that parents must be attuned, responsive, and engaged with a child’s emotional state to help her learn to manage her emotions well.

To be attuned, a parent cannot be overwhelmed with her own fears or insecurities.

Sadly, too many parents “over-share” with children and do not mask their own problems. This over-sharing might be about financial concerns or it might be a parent’s phobias or anxieties or depression. I have so many children in therapy who can speak at length about a parent’s fear of spiders, depression episodes, panic attacks or other emotional problems.

This leads the child to belief that a parent’s emotional needs are more important than the child’s. It leads a child to wonder if a parent is going to be emotionally present for the child’s concerns. Deferring to a parent leads directly to a child with low self-worth, lack of sense of self and, possibly, emotional problems such as anxiety or depression.

A parent must get her own emotional house in order first, before she can be a good parent. A parent must be able to regulate his own emotions and remain calm, so that he is able to help the child learn to regulate his emotions.

Parents: Be the umbrella, not the black cloud.

 

Benzodiazepines linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

Doctors prescribe benzodiazepines like Xanax (alprazolam) and Klonopin (clonazepam) as if they have no side effects or long-term risk, but a new study links the use of these “benzos” to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Just a 3-month course of benzos was related to a 51 percent increase in the likelihood of a dementia diagnosis. That’s significant! The disclaimer is that this is not a causal link, and that benzos are often used to treat the symptoms of dementia, but… why take the risk.

I’ve said for years that Big Pharma and Big Medicine are using psychotropic medications to treat emotional problems with a chemical solution. Why not try therapy FIRST to address issues of anxiety or depression, rather than just slather some chemicals on the brain? Anxiety and depression are merely the body and mind’s use of emotions, such as the alarm/fear response, that has gone into over-drive.

Another disclaimer if you are currently taking benzos:  Do not abruptly stop using these drugs. Work with your doctor to slowly wean off of them. And get a therapist!

Compliments: Can you give or accept them graciously?

 

Often in therapy patients speak of being unable to give or accept compliments easily and graciously. As a psychotherapist, rather than treat this as merely a sign of poor social skills, I latch onto it and explore it as a symbol of deeper emotional issues.

People who have difficulty with these tasks often struggle with several related issues.

At a basic level, they have low self-worth, so that at they do not believe a compliment when one is given to them: “I couldn’t possibly be as smart as they say I am.” These Submissive types of people, as I describe them in my book “Pack Leader Psychology,” tend to please and appease in relationships. They don’t want to feel “one-up” or more powerful than others, but instead strive to appear less powerful. Denying compliments or being self-deprecating is one way to do that.

Yet these people also subconsciously dislike this feeling of self-deprecation because they sense that it puts them in a weakened position.

These Submissive people have come to believe that relationships ought be manipulative. Perhaps their early attachments to parents or other caregivers were insecure and conditional. Perhaps these people, as children, had to attend to the emotional needs of their self-absorbed parents. They learned to prop up their parents emotionally, placing their own needs second. This taught them that compliments are false and manipulative — a method some people adopt to manage a relationship to earn approval and acceptance: “I’ll give you this compliment if you then like me or submit to me or don’t hurt me.”

Therefore, giving or accepting a compliment can be felt as a minor form of vulnerability. If a person has learned to be distrustful of relationships, being emotionally open can be a fear-provoking experience: “If I accept a compliment from this person, I’ll be in their emotional debt. That feels unsafe to me, so I’ll demure.”

In my experience, by becoming more self-accepting, a person can naturally become more comfortable with giving the gift of a compliment. A self-accepting person has strong self-worth so that she can disconnect the gift of a compliment from any neediness for approval.

She can freely give and receive compliments without feeling indebted.

A self-accepting person does not fear relationships, so can be fully present in conversations, stating what she is experiencing, and express real feelings. If I experience someone as, say, pleasant and helpful, I will share that with them, knowing that I am giving them a gift that will, likely, improve their day. But I am not doing this in hopes of receiving anything in return. It is a true gift — with no agenda or expectation of anything in return.

To get better at compliments, it often just takes some practice. Start with giving an insignificant compliment to a stranger — praise the waitress for her good service. Then move on to people who are closer to you and try to give a compliment to them regularly. Feel how those experiences resonate with you.

When someone gives you a compliment, merely smile and thank them as sincerely as you can. Don’t brush off the praise. Think of a compliment as a gift — would you take someone’s gift and throw it in the trash in front of them? That’s what you’re doing when you dismiss their praise. This behavior is not likely to strengthen the relationship!

I believe that dismissing compliments also sends a signal to others that you have low self-worth. To Dominators, this is a sign they can take advantage of you and your insecure weakness.

With practice, you can be better at the social art of giving compliments. In the process, you may also start to really hear how others experience you. I find that many people have been told repeatedly about a talent that they have, but they were so busy dismissing these compliments that they never really absorbed what others were saying.

Brushing off compliments also tells people you aren’t comfortable getting them, so they will likely stop. If you want more praise, don’t train people to quit giving it!

 

 

Best Baby Shower Gift Ever

Help new parents be better parents by giving them the book “The Science of Parenting,” by Margot Sunderland (DK Publishing, 2006, $16.95 paperback).  The title may be off-putting, but this book is beautifully designed, and is easy to read and understand.

Loaded with useful information and tips, it is based on the latest neuroscience on how parents can help raise happy, emotionally balanced children.

The book is based on the simple idea that parents are the key source for teaching children how to feel safe, especially in relationships — what in psychology we call “attachment.”  A securely attached child feels confident, relaxed, happy and is often more socially and intellectually intelligent. Insecurely attached children become anxious, depressed, angry, have difficulty learning, and often misbehave.

It gives solid evidence for exactly how to parent, including tips on handling tantrums, the co-sleeping debate, and when to use timeout (rarely!).

I very strongly recommend this book for any new parent or parents of toddlers or young children. I teach these ideas to parents in family therapy every day.

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