How Your Teen Gets In Their Own Way And How To Help Them Stop Sabatoging Themselves

istock_stockphoto4u-1-teen-girl-hugging-knees-looking-sad-cWorking with teenagers for as long as I have, I realize that many of them come with various challenges, from emotional and educational challenges to family issues that seem to drag them down. However, in a majority of the cases I’ve worked with, the teens themselves are usually the ones who are getting in their own way of success and happiness.

They often don’t see it that way and will blame their family, their friends, their environment, any and everything, but themselves and it will take many sessions before I am able to help them realize that they themselves are indeed the cause of their problems through self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors and thus are also the answer to their problems.

Most people who have been around adolescence know that many times they get in their own way and do things that are self-defeating or self-destructive. Self-defeating behaviors are behaviors that get in the way of constructive action while self-destructive behavior generally causes some type of harm to the person.

In early adolescence for example, teens often start focusing more on friends, fighting with their parents and other adults as they try to discover their own identity and may end up struggling in school in response to paying more attention to friends than to their grades.

During this time of conflict, (ages 9-13), it is common for certain self-injurious behaviors to start occurring, such as cutting as a way to deal with much of the psychological conflict and pain, especially with teenager girls while teenage boys may do things such as punching walls, getting into fights or destroying property even if it’s their own.

During mid adolescence, ages 13-15, friends are generally ultra important and so is being accepted by your peers. This is the age that teens are going to high school for the first time and can be overwhelmed by the pressure to fit in.

When a teenagers faces feelings of inadequacy about their self-image they may shy away from their peers and develop anxiety issues and/or depression or even self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.

During late adolescence, ages 15-18, teenagers may engage in self-defeating behaviors that include more risk taking such as drugs, alcohol, and sex simply for the excitement of it and not considering the dangers that can happen.

This is the age that I worked with the most to either help them stop drinking or using drugs, or to help them with issues surrounding sex including pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and even rape.

As someone who has worked with teens for a long time, it can be very frustrating to see a young lady with endless potential, waste it because she wants to be liked by her friends or a boy or she doesn’t like herself. The same rings true for many of the young men I worked with who were more concerned about having a  “tough guy” image, than actually doing something positive with their lives.

Parents indeed find this self-defeating and self-destructive behavior frustrating, but what can they do? Often times teenagers are too defensive to actually take and listen to advice from their parents so parents often would bring their children to me and then wonder what it was about me, or what did I say that got through to their teenager that they couldn’t and I would always tell them that they had to practice objective parenting.

They had to work on not telling their teenager what to do and think or what not to do or think, to not judge, but instead simply draw conclusion between their choices and the consequences of their choices in an empathetic and objective way, and then let their teen decide to either continue the behavior or to try something different.

This is often hard for parents to do because they would like to control their teenagers choices, but they can’t. They have to allow their teenager to make their own choices, however, parents can continuously attempt to put healthier and more constructive choices in front of their teenager for them to accept or not to accept.

The more healthy options you place in front of a teen, the more likely they are to accept at least some of them. As a therapist that is what I did. I would know that I wanted a teen to stop doing a particular self-destructive or self-defeating behavior, I would share my observations about what they are doing and what they are getting (or not getting) from their actions and then attempt to continuously give them multiple alternatives in hopes that they would try at least one.

For example, one teenage girl was obsessed with trying to get pregnant simply because she wanted a baby. I tried to help her see how having a baby would hinder many of her plans and goals for the future, but she didn’t really see that. I then gave her many other things she could be doing instead of trying to get pregnant and she finally decided to try one which is playing softball. She tried out for the team, made the team and two years later graduated from high school with a scholarship to play softball and never got pregnant.

While her mother thought I had worked some type of miracle (she was sure her daughter wouldn’t finish high school without getting pregnant) all I did was give her an opportunity to try something new and that ended up being self-affirming and she basically did the rest.

As a therapist, it is easy for me to be non-judgmental, to allow teenagers to continue making mistakes and learning from them while still giving them healthy alternatives until they finally realize that what they are doing isn’t working and are ready to try something different.

For parents, it’s hard for them to have that same amount of patience because the attachment they have with their teen makes it much more painful for them to witness their teenager continuously sabotage themselves by making poor choices. It’s very difficult for them to be as objective as I try to be.

Because this is very difficult for most parents to do, seeking help from a therapist is often the best solution, especially if the behavior is self-destructive such as cutting, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, etc.

A book I recommend for teenagers who are constantly self-sabotaging themselves is How to Get Out of Your Own Way by Tyrese Gibson.

Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 3: The Stages Of Change

iStock_000011734632XSmallAll changes has both negative and positive consequences, which is why it is normal for people to want to change and not want to change simultaneously.

That is the hallmark of ambivalence.

Indecisiveness is a natural part of the change process and something that often drives parents crazy when they are trying to move their teenager in a certain direction that may seem like the obvious better decision to them.

It is natural however to be ambivalent about change, to be hesitant and unsure if the change is worth making.

For example, while doing better in school may allow for a teen to have more freedom at home, get better grades and improve their chances of going to college, the extra time spent studying may come at the cost of less time available to spend with friends, for after school activities or with a boyfriend and that may determine if the cost outweigh the benefits in the teen’s mind.

That’s why it’s important to know that teens may both want to do better and at the same time, not want to do better and are probably unaware of this ambivalence. The indecisiveness has to be resolved in order for the teen to see the value in the change, or little to no improvement is likely to happen.

Helping your child resolve the ambivalence may be all that is needed. By having a relationship with your child that allows open, non-judgmental communication and acceptance, the indecisiveness may be resolved on it’s own which may be all that’s needed to get the teenager to reflect on their situations and decisions.

The Stages of Change

When change happens it’s not usually on motion, instead it usually happens in five stages, identified in Motivational Interviewing through research done by James Prochaska as pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

1. Pre-contemplation:

In pre-contemplation, the teen hasn’t given any consideration to change. They see no reason to change. They don’t see a downside to their current situation, so the thought of changing hasn’t even entered into their head.

Trying to force change when your teen is in the pre-contemplation is a battle you are not likely to win, and may even sabotage motivation and the possibilities of change.

Dennis Bumgarner, ACSW, LCSW finds it helpful to ask “what if” questions when your teen is in the pre-contemplation stage, such as, “What if your grades improved?”, “What wouldn’t be different?”, “What will happen if things continue in their current direction?”, “What would be different if you did improve?”

During pre-contemplation, you want to ask questions that don’t take a particular position, but questions that get your teen to think and this thinking is what is going to move them to the contemplation phase.

When your child starts considering making a change, remember that they are still considering making the change, so fight the urge to push them too hard or start making plans for their future or they are likely to pull back.

2. Contemplation

At this phase, your teenager is considering the pros and cons of changing. They are thinking, “Maybe I should do something about my current situation.” It’s easy for parents to get overly excited at this point and start helping the teenager make plans for what they need to do to make the changes. This push may be too much and cause your teen to not move forward.

Instead, ask questions that continue to get them thinking and reminds them that you are not the expert. You are here to listen to them, hear what they are thinking and not to offer or force your opinions. You are merely being an agent of change.

Ask questions instead of making statements. Try to avoid offering advice, but instead listen as your teen contemplates making a change.

You do not want to tell your teenager how to change or try to try to make them change at this point, but what you are doing is sparking their intrinsic desire for change. Remember, intrinsic motivation is more powerful and long lasting than extrinsic motivation, so this is what you want to elicit in your teen by guiding them to and allowing them to find their own motivations for change.

3. Preparation

At this phase, thanks to your guidance, your teenager has worked through much of the ambivalence. He or she has decided to start making some changes. Perhaps they have met a study buddy, signed up for the ACT or asked a teacher for extra help. They are literally preparing to make a change.

Once again, it’s easy at this stage to get overly excited and pushy, but don’t. Instead, allow your child to make the preparations and resist the urge to help unless asked, and even then don’t over do it. Show interest and ask questions that are genuine, but not questions that appear to be to intruding and critical.

The contemplation and preparation phases are considered to be the most important part of the change process and it’s easy to sabotage your teen’s motivation at this point by going back to old ways of dealing with their unapproved behavior.

It’s natural for people to go back and forth between preparation and contemplation, and so it’s easy for parents to see this as a sign that their teen is unmotivated or unwilling to change.

Instead of looking at this as a negative, understand that it’s a natural part of the change process as what may appear to be a simple change to you may be worth considerable contemplation by your teenager.

Don’t be frustrated or judgemental, but allow your teenager space to prepare for the change at hand. Continue to support them through genuine questions and as always, listening to their thoughts.

4. Action

At this stage, your teen is actually making the change. They are actually studying, doing homework, going to all their classes, whatever the change may be. They may from time to time revert back to one of the earlier stages, but for the most part, they are making steady change and progress.

At this stage, parents are thrilled that their teen is making better choices and that’s natural, but refuse the urge to become a cheerleader. Remember, this change is not about you, but about your teenager. It’s okay to ask them what has this successful change been like for them, and that simple question is saying a lot.

Your teen may stumble as they continue to find their way through this change and that’s okay. Don’t jump in to redirect them unless they ask for it.

It’s very important that they do this on their own so at the end of the day they will know that they were responsible for making a positive change in their life and they can do it again and again.

Helping them build self-efficacy is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child.

5. Maintenance

When your child has maintained the change for six months, they are in the maintenance stage. You are very proud of the changes your teenager has made. There is likely less arguing going on and more peace in the house as you have made successful efforts in motivating your teenager!

Next post we will discuss key concepts of motivation including goals and empathy.