J: What are you talking about? My parents know about it and they think it's okay. The school even wrote a flyer home about it.
Me: I don't care who thinks what. It's going to be really late. You'll have had too much to drink and you're legally responsible for everybody in that car.
J: I don't believe that. They know what they're doing and they're responsible for what they do.
Me: No! You're responsible, even if they don't buckle up their seat belts. Look, I'm telling you again, I won't be there and can't stop you, but this is a crazy, insane, lunatic idea, and I'll do anything I can to talk you out of it."
We argued over every detail until the last minute of the session--what his girl might think, what his friends expected, why he thought he had to do it. I had absolutely no idea of what he'd do, but the anxiety Jimmy came in with had now been transformed into engagement between us and at least a few questions within himself. Two weeks later, Jimmy came in again. The prom was long forgotten by now, a distant speck on an adolescent's constantly shifting horizon. "The after-prom?" I nudged. "Oh, we didn't go. I was too tired. We were all wasted, and it felt pointless to drive 100 miles. So we crashed at somebody's house and went to sleep." Not a single reference was made to our heated discussion.
It doesn't matter. The therapeutic action is the dialogue in which the advice is embedded. Engagement "holds" kids, calming them just enough to allow reason to begin trickling down into their feverish, revved-up psyches. In Jimmy's case, his inchoate, almost unrecognized, anxiety was transformed into a good kind of resistance to me, like bumping up against a familiar object after racing through pitch-black darkness. In their lightning-paced, careening lives, kids have few adults to slow them down. Twenty years ago, a teen's reaction to all this might have been, "Stop preaching; you sound like my parents!" Today, more often than not, it's relief.