Teens do things that their parents just don’t understand and vice versa. Then, by the end of the night, it’s become A Thing and no one knows how to find a solution without yelling and/or crying. There’s usually grounding involved and an adolescent oath to never trust adults again. We get the morning after calls from the parents and texts from the students, both trying to figure out what went wrong and why the other just doesn’t see sense.
In order to help families become better communicators and healthier units, our responses can be helpful with a basic understanding of family systems theory.
Dr. Murray Bowen suggests that individuals can’t be understood in isolation. We have to look at a person’s problem as part of the whole family unit and emotional structure. Each family member has a role to play and when those roles shift, and the rest of the family responds in order to restore balance to the unit. The way each person responds is impacted by a number of factors including their family of origin, their birth order, their susceptibility to depend on others for approval, how society responds to conflict, and the flaws present in the nuclear family’s emotional system.
Now what do we do with all of that? How does that help us as youth workers? It can help us move our conversations with parents and teens who are freaking out into conversations that help them understand, navigate and reshape the family dynamics.
Let’s look at a real-life example.
One early Saturday morning, my phone started ringing in that maniacal way all pre-7am phone calls do. Without my glasses on, I deciphered the name of a youth parent, attempted to clear my throat, and hit the green button. I could barely get out a croaky “hello” before she burst into tears, launching into a recap of her latest fight with her teenage daughter.
The parent on the other end of my phone that morning was upset because her daughter came home smelling like marijuana. She had confronted her daughter, who casually admitted that her friend’s boyfriend had been smoking, but she had not partaken. You can probably imagine how the rest of that played out into the night. This one escalated pretty quickly and pretty severely, like most of the previous fights had.
The mom reacted in similar proportion to how her own mom had treated her in high school. The daughter, who desperately needed to be accepted, no longer felt valued by her family because of one decision she had made. The role of a nurturing mother became that of distrustful authoritarian mother. The role of loving and respectful daughter became that of indignant and righteous daughter.
My response to that mom through the early morning brain fog was first to listen, and then guide her through a few questions to help her reflect on the rapid escalation of the fight:
- How did her parents respond when she made a similar decision at that age?
- Did that impact the way she handled the situation?
- How does the daughter’s need to be accepted by others impact the decision she made?
- How can we help the daughter become a more valued part of the family system and build her confidence in a way so she doesn’t make the same mistake again?
The use or non-use of marijuana wasn’t the focus of our conversation, it was the family system. I was working to give her perspective that would pave the way for healthier arguments that wouldn’t escalate to such a serious level again. We talked through the reality that simply due to age, their roles within the family were changing and how to handle that.
They totally fought again, but these kind of self awareness conversations with both the the daughter and the mom helped each one understand more about themselves and each other. Eventually, they figured out how to fight in a less harmful way.
If this kind of conversation is not an option for you try pen and paper.
Have family members write letters to each other. Using pen and paper, the brain processes differently. Parents and teens are forced to think about what they are feeling and communicate it in writing. Have them write down everything they want the other party(s) to know about them and the situation using an actual pen and paper – a la 1989 – and encourage them to revise and edit with an end goal stated in the closing.
They can do whatever they want with the letter once it’s done, but this way they’ve (hopefully) processed through many emotions and set a goal in place for both the student and the parent to achieve together.
You can read more about Family Systems Theory here. https://thebowencenter.org/theory/