The Static Relationship: No Fairytale for Troubled Teens

A few months ago I was involved in a therapeutic intervention with a 15 yr old young man who was stalled out in his treatment.  He had decided to resist all efforts to re-engage the therapeutic process and take personal accountability for the state of his relationship with his parents.  It appeared that he was satisfied with the distress he was causing his parents and seemed willing to continue in his present course. 

The treatment team discussed his case at length and determined that the battle between this young man and his parents was a very common one with adolescents who are placed in treatment.  At the core of this issue is the desire for the young man to keep his relationship with his parents in a holding pattern. H wanted to keep himself and his needs as a priority. He saw his parent’s responsibility as meeting those needs.  As long as the parent child relationship continued to support this holding pattern, the young man will reward his parents with a degree of positive behavior.  The variable in this toxic relationship, however, is the fact that the young man’s needs seem to be fairly fluid in nature.  What satisfies him one day does not the next and he had become very adept at keeping his parents hopping from one unfulfilled need to another by an array of temper tantrum techniques.  What we were seeing in treatment was just more of the same. 

But something happened that this young man did not calculate.  His parents decided that they no longer would support the static relationship they had been in for the last 15 years.  The words they spoke to their son were well thought out and did not come packaged in bubble wrap.  They went like this, “We are no longer going to support the lack of progress in our relationship. As of today, we are walking away from the table and you have some choices to make.  We will support your basic needs but will no longer support your lack of progress with our attention.  The only contact we will have with you will be through your therapist.  We hope that one day you will choose us and accept your responsibility to an evolving relationship with us”.  Then the click of the phone being hung up echoed in the room. 

The young man was taken back, but the past years’ had a history of similar events.  He had seen this before, so he thought.  It was around day 30 where the young man’s countenance changed.  He began to ask the question, “Could this be for real? Could my parents really get along without taking care of all my needs?  Is it possible that I am not the center of my parents universe?”  That was the turning point.

This once very entitled young man began to see how much he needed a relationship with his parents.  Not just to take care of the things he lacked the skill, experience, and influence to manage, but emotionally he started to see his relationship with his parents in a new light.  It took a while for him to manage the pain and regret that settled in on him.  He was now in a very vulnerable position and at this point started to ask the right questions.  “What do I need to do to fix my relationship with my parents?”  His therapist had to take a moment to compose himself before returning the same question. “What do you think you need to do to fix the relationship with your parents?”  

The months that followed were filled with tears, frustration, regret, forgiveness, but above all, honesty.  This young man had made some very serious, relationship wrecking, choices that would take time to fix.  But he had gained understanding that keeping his relationship with his parents in a holding pattern was no longer acceptable. He knew he was responsible for meeting them where they were and accepting them as his parents, not as his subordinates or even as his equal. 

This story has a positive ending. The young man earned access to his parents and did the work necessary to play a participating role in their evolving relationship.  Mom and Dad took the role of King and Queen of the family kingdom and Son accepted his role as the Prince with loads of potential.  The courage it took for those parents to save their son was amazing but they did it and now their son, who they love beyond measure, has a chance. by Shawn Brooks, Executive Director, Oxbow Academy