Adolescent distress shows up in many ways, from moodiness and irritability to more explicit acting-out behavior. Parents, on the receiving end of their teens’ intense emotions, can find themselves reacting in ways they are not proud of.
When teens act out, parents easily get caught up in worries about it: “If this means he’s smoking marijuana, things will only get worse; he’ll fail school; his life will be over.” They quickly experience feelings of anxiety and shame. All this takes parents away from the present moment. Noticing such thoughts and feelings, making room for them, and coming back to who and what matters is the work, according to acceptance and commitment therapy (“ACT” pronounced as a single word).
Asking parents to identify their parenting values and explore who they want to be in this important role can help them to do things differently. Common values include being caring, supportive, loving, attentive, and accepting. With values in mind, parents can shift to a new way of being with their teen.
Using values as a guide to behavior, I encourage parents to find their own “pause button,” to really see their teen and what they need in the present moment, and then make a values-based move. This move may be simply to reflect on their teens’ emotion, giving a name to the feeling, without trying to change anything. Remembering ones’ values can help to pivot from reactivity to responsivity.
As the therapist, guided by your own values, you can role-model this process in session when your client experiences intense feelings. Exploring what the moment was like for you and your client might be very impactful later, when your client is next faced with a distressed teenager.
Sheri L. Turrell, PhD, is a clinical psychologist living with her family in Toronto, ON, Canada. She is passionate about her clinical work with adolescents, helping them move toward a life that matters. Turrell is primary investigator, working in collaboration with Mary Bell, for studies of group-based acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT. She runs a full-time private practice, and enjoys being a consultant and trainer for graduate students and mental health professionals who are interested in learning ACT. Turrell teaches ACT at the university level, where she also facilitates therapy groups.