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If families bring it up these days, I don't flinch from seizing on the opportunity to discuss the role of the sacred in sessions. As I helped a client stave off depression after the sudden loss of her husband, I was relieved to hear that families around her were rotating Sabbath meals, providing a place for her and her three adolescent boys every Friday night. You might think that an ancient practice couldn't possibly thwart the weekend escapades of 21st-century teens, but its sacred, "I-mean-it" intentionality anchored the boys and keyed Irene into their moods through their casual conversation about adolescent goings-on.
When families in treatment attend services, I encourage them to experience these events not only as ritual, but as a shared space in time—an opportunity to hear melodies that touch the soul and an enlightened message that opens the heart. Sometimes this can soften the hard edges of dysfunction.
Ten years ago, Billy's mom insisted he go to Sunday service with her despite an almost physical battle over curfew. True to adolescent form, he agreed, but then sat alone in the last row of the balcony, practically out on the roof. Nonetheless, at the end of the service, mother and son went to the local diner to eat together, albeit silently. This experience led to a slightly less strident discussion that evening, which allowed for real negotiations about curfews during our next session.
In church, Susan, a late elementary schoolgirl with an eating disorder, leaned over to her mother and whispered, "Every second I worry about the way I look. It makes a difference to not be thinking about it for a while." This is a child responding to the open heart of faith that relieves for moments the viselike grip of our appearance-obsessed culture. I encouraged Mom to place her hand over her daughter's during hymns they both loved. Susan later reported, "Mom's doing that reminded me I'm more than an eating disorder. I'm still a human being." This was far deeper communication than I could possibly have provided in the consulting room.
Not all treatments go so well. As I finish this long, hopeful piece, I feel sadness for the cases in which I couldn't budge families from their pain. Looking back, most of those instances contained a common thread: I couldn't get mothers and fathers, usually older in years or mindset, to understand that we've entered a new era. They were stuck in beliefs about how a family ought to be, the way communication should happen; they were committed to outdated formalities between parent and child. So was I! After all, I revered "the village" of my childhood, but there was a price for that order: many of us now grasp how little our parents knew of us, and we understand how much of ourselves we were unable or unwilling to reveal across the generational divide.
Childhood and family life became chaotically unbound in the late 20th and early 21st century, and therapists feel the repercussions of that every day in the consulting room, often uncomfortably. But we must try not to be afraid of kids who know no bounds and are often contemptuous of their uncertain mothers and fathers. We must let post-boomer parents and their children, fellow-travelers that they are, teach us where we need to go.
Today's family members want to be known to each other, even teens and their parents! They're asking us to help them move toward their shared humanity—together. It's an intensely challenging mission, especially for therapists raised on ideas conceived in boomer times, and it's ultimately hopeful.
Things have changed. This is the post-boomer era. And these are not your parents' children.
Ron Taffel, Ph.D., is the author most recently of Childhood Unbound: Saving Our Kids' Best Selves, from which this article is adapted. His other books include Breaking Through to Teens: Psychotherapy for the New Adolescence. He's chairman of the board of The Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York. Contact: email@example.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.