Therapy in the New World of Kids and Teens

Ron Taffel on How Today's Child Therapist Can Build Rapport

Ron Taffel

For decades before and after World War II, children all over the United States hung out, had slumber parties, made crank phone calls, and played sports unsupervised. They didn't need the help of adults to set up play dates or hand out certificates of participation. As we know all too well by now, we no longer live in that world. What's less apparent is that, despite the appearance of greater parental involvement and psychological sophistication, most adults are just as clueless about the "second family" of their children's peer group and adolescent pop culture as they ever were.

Increasingly, kids feel the fabric of connection tearing. From an early age, they've learned that most of the time they spend with their families could best be described by the old movie line "Hello, I must be going!" They "get" that life with mom or dad is a series of transitions, interrupted conversations, and moments hurried along so that the next activity can go on as planned.

But obvious overscheduling and invisible disconnection from parents is only part of what's changed. While at first glance, 21st-century adolescents appear impossibly cool---cooler than we could've ever been ourselves---teens today are running hot. They're not just hormonally hot, but hot with cultural forces that have redefined the nature of their consciousness and experience of selfhood. Millennial kids live in a context that spawns fragmentation, what I call a "divided-self" experience: cool and often cruel on the surface, they hide surprisingly healthy passions beneath.

The Fast and the Furious

Most of the kids I see are buried under a crazy quilt of digital connections every single moment of every single night. A typical evening can be spent on the computer engaging in five online discussions at once, talking on a cellphone while waiting those interminable nanoseconds for a response, listening to music, with a TV on in the background, and, naturally, focusing on homework at the same time.

"Hey mom, don't get all unhinged, can't you see I'm doing my work!!!" yells 12-year-old John, looking very cool as he effortlessly moves from one screen to another. But talk to John the next day and he's depleted by his conversations of the night before. Trying to return every instant message, he's gotten into several arguments with friends that'll need to be tackled throughout the school day. It happened so fast, John doesn't really know what hit him.

Every day in my practice, I hear about sudden bursts of unmediated anger or acting out. While parents do logistical somersaults on the margins of connection, their children surf down the slopes of media-stimulated consciousness, habitually split off from their own feelings. When emotions do cross the divide into awareness, the experience is often jarring. With a hundred friends bumping into each other on Facebook or emailing each other, or texting, all of a sudden, some spaghetti of interpersonal energy sticks to the wall and splatters everyone around.

Strategies for Breaking Through

Our job as helping professionals, then, is daunting but within our reach. It's to feel the passion beneath the cool, to recognize how split off 21st-century kids are from themselves, and to understand that therapy with adolescents needs to change fundamentally. We may not have the power to alter the techno-pop culture that defines so much of teen experience today, but by focusing treatment squarely on how to engage adolescents in a vital relationship, we can make an enormous difference in their lives.

Most of us are constrained by our training from expressing edgy feelings to clients. To stay three-dimensional and get kids' attention, however, you must go against those invisible constraints and in a responsible way---using your own beliefs, style, and words---respond in a fashion your teen client absolutely can't miss. Anything less is just static in a gigahertz, high-tech world. For most of us, learning to respond in a real manner to today's teens means engaging first in a quick, internal dialogue between what we feel like saying and the voice of our therapy training.

For example, when Peter first told me about his online dating scheme to meet someone in an abandoned garage, I yelled (silently berating myself for worrying too much), "Are you out of your mind?!" To Louis, who smoked up in his middle school, I instinctively commented (though not without hesitating several moments), "Are you trying to drive me insane?" To Ernie, who told me that he really liked a girl and that every adult he knew had warned him that high school relationships are doomed, I said in a hushed voice (all the while concerned about the intensity of this message), "With all my heart, I believe there's a chance for you and Chloe to make it. It really is possible."

The words aren't unusual; it's the strength of the emotions they carry that's important. But regardless of differing approaches, we consistently flatten our feelings because we consider them unprofessional or nontherapeutic. Yet, in every one of these situations, I finally got kids to hear me.

This blog is excerpted from “The Divided Self.” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Children/Adolescents | Aging

Tags: acting out | consciousness | conversation | emotion | fighting | helicopter parenting | kids | learning | overprotective | overscheduling | parents | Ron Taffel | second family | talking | technology | teenagers | teens | therapy

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