Jenna is waiting for me, perched on the edge of her seat outside my office. The moment I open my door, she springs out of the chair. Though it’s just a few feet to my sofa, she can’t wait to cross the threshold before she bursts into a tirade. Today, she works herself into a high-pitched lather about the mean woman at the DMV who wouldn’t accept her documentation to get a learner’s permit. As with many of the tougher adolescents I treat, Jenna’s defiance and woundedness go hand in hand. I sit back, nodding and clucking supportively. Until she gets the story out in full, there’s no bigger role for me.
My work is still hard, though. I have to be as fully present and attentive as I can, letting go of my anxiety about her, a tendency toward judgment, and some informed skepticism about her version of events. If I respond too soon, or too fully, or ask a question that suggests, even in the slightest way, that I’m not all in, she’s furious with me. ”Just listen to me and don’t interrupt,” she demands.
Despite my aversion to conflict in my personal life, I take in her searing glare head on, knowing my work is strongest when I’m fully engaged with her disappointment in me---when I feel wretched, too.
Although patience isn’t her strong suit, Jenna is beginning to know, in her heart, that I’ll do what I can to fix things between us. My job is to feel calm with her. It’s not a matter of just teaching her isolated coping skills. If she can be mad at me, she can also come to feel, in real time, what it’s like to let go of smaller injustices. Practicing that with her loving but befuddled therapist is as safe as it gets. And her nascent acts of forgiveness are thrilling to me; they mean we can get back onto the road with more traction, together.
By the end of the hour, even when we begin with her raging and sobbing, Jenna usually leaves more cheerful. She’s much less reactive than when she entered, and best of all, we’re more in sync. When I’m able to be present in this way, my cooler, more regulated brain lowers the emotional temperature of her hot head. Over the year or so that we’ve been meeting regularly, she’s allowed me to comfort her more and more, using me more effectively for soothing. This is the wonder of what I call Time In.
Essential to the reflective practice of Time In is an intentional relationship with an adult who really shows up---self-aware, engaged, and compassionate. For me, and for most people I know, these vital qualities aren’t automatic: they have to be developed and practiced. To play our part, we must first foster our own capacity to self-regulate before we can demand it of a terrified or furious teen. Thus, we need to be aware of our own attachment styles and of theirs. We may sometimes have difficulty believing we can be important to a defiant teen, but this uncertainty often reflects our own history of insecure love and desire for self-protection. Attachment is a two-way street: it’s not just about them.
For a child to develop, parents need to “loan” the infant---and then the child, the adolescent, and the emerging adult---their adult regulatory system. But most complexly traumatized teens have missed out on this opportunity when they were little, and so a major goal of therapy is to backfill this absolutely essential experience. For these kids, it’s a gigantic leap to allow someone to provide comfort to them. They don’t trust others to be reliable, nor do they believe they merit such care. Their behavior puts to the test the most important question: will you be there for me when I need you? When we send them away as punishment, or chide them for being irrational, or get upset because we can’t tolerate what they’re doing, our answer to that question is no.
Releasing the Hook
For adolescents to become more securely attached in general, they need to learn to attach to us, specifically. This means that their healing, the way they develop a sense of connectedness in the world, the way their brains will change---it all hinges on their becoming more like us. It might seem obvious that we therapists should be more securely attached than our clients, but they don’t teach us that in grad school, and we can write hundreds of treatment plans without giving our own attachment styles a second thought. To do this kind of practice, we need to have awareness, not just of the adolescent’s internal working models, but of our own.
Personally, I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying about what people think of me and working strenuously, even obsessively at times, to keep them happy. When conflicts arise, my first reaction is to rush in and crush it down into a tidy “it’s all good now, right?” package. I used to think I intervened in this way to be therapeutic, but now I realize this reaction was for my sake: I needed people---adolescent clients, their families, even my own daughters---to calm down so I could too. I first became aware of this pattern when I became increasingly agitated when one of my daughters was going through a rough patch. “It’s not her job to make you less anxious,” my therapist said.
I think of this now when I work with clients like Jenna, who demand I be fully present and centered but can be so activating for me. Indeed, our reactions to our clients have deep roots in our own attachment histories, and our capacity to remain attuned to them largely depends on our own self-awareness. We can’t get unhooked from their self-defeating relational patterns until we recognize we’re bringing some of our own stuff into the room as well. It’s our own immediate reaction that informs the hook---the point where their worries and expectations about relationships grab hold of our own. As therapists, we work to bring this reaction into conscious awareness and enter into more careful reflection---some mindful, compassionate reframe that can bring us closer together. Only then can we release the hook and become capable of offering something better and different from what our initial reaction would have produced.
This blog is excerpted from "Getting Unhooked: Connecting with Traumatized Kids Who Push Your Buttons" by Martha Straus. The full version is available in the issue, There and Not There: Growing Up in an Age of Distraction.
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