I studied family therapy for many years. Then I studied working with teens. Then I studied trauma. So when I got a new case that had all three I thought, whoa, why not? After more than 20 years in private practice you’d think I’d be at least confident. But I would argue each person is unique and therefore each case is new, no matter how skilled you are. Then again, maybe people are more the same than different, and a good therapist is a good therapist regardless. No matter. I said yes when I should have said no.
The case unfolded slowly. The 16 year old girl was reticent so I “rolled with the resistance.” Not to mention zoom. Yeah. So when she finally told me about her Mother and the family dynamics I was still pretty shocked. You’d think I’d heard it all. The girl was smart, pretty and isolated. Her moods were up and down. She was good at school. But her first issue was a break-up with a girlfriend. Not a girlfriend. A girl friend. Sorry. These days that means a lot. Kids want you to be “relatable,” (I love how they introduce me to new hip words). They don’t necessarily want to “amplify” their differences, but they do want to name them.
I get it. I’m woke. HAHA. At 58 I’m old enough to be their grandmother. But luckily I got the young-looking gene, so even though I let my hair go grey during the pandemic, I can still attempt to skew young. You have to call it "weed" also. Never pot -- then they know exactly how old you are. They wait for you to smile when you say it. They are always testing if they can trust you. Teens today, during COVID, don’t trust any adults, even more than they didn’t before. I smile and say “Oh they let you keep a mini fridge in your room and think alcohol won’t be stored in it? Interesting.” I wait. She laughs nervously. Like I’m going to bust her. But why would I? If she’s being honest, the one thing I CANNOT do is rat her out. That would bust the therapy, not her. Everything is confidential, they understand, until it’s not. They understand very well.
In this case it comes to light that the Mother is an addict. Not just any addict. An out in the open, no adequate treatment addict. The Father won't leave his three teens alone with her, so he quit his high level job. This is not some “low class” family mind you. They are in the upper echelons of suburbia in professional jobs. Just sayin’. The other sibling is in college. So my client is left alone with her absolutely adorable loving Mom by day, who becomes wholly “out of it” by eve. That’s right, she “sundowns” or something like that. So if my client needs something, she has to deal in the daytime. She knows all the telltale signs of when it’s too late. She knows how to tip toe, walk on eggshells, fend for herself, stay in her room, come out, watch a movie or go away. If all hell breaks loose, you can bet it’s “after hours.”
“Why not go to Dad when you need something?” I say.
She says, "Oh no, then he’ll blame it on Mom."
"Why not go to sis?" Then sis will come down on Mom and Dad and her. So you see each protects each. Then no one is protected. The family therapy scenario is -- with all these secret alliances, how can there be trust or safety? The teen scenario is, she can’t separate from her friends because she has no one else. The trauma piece is still unfolding. Shut in her room like, well, a “shut-in,” how can she make new friends with any hope of keeping them if “everyone leaves.” Whether it be emotionally or physically or both.
After just a few sessions of this I say, “This is making me very sad.” She looks at me smiling. She knows. I say, “We have to look at what this is doing to you.” You know what I think is the worst part? That when she got caught with alcohol, she didn’t get punished, as if to say, the parents sanctioned it. Ask my kids how often they got punished. Like never. I’m not the punishing type. But they begged for it, as all kids do. Because they NEED BOUNDARIES. The age old literature will remind you, when they push, they need something to push against. If one parent is weak, they can smell it from a mile away. If this kid got a simple grounding boy would that be a relief. Instead she gets a “Shhhh don’t tell Mom." Or "shhhh don’t tell Dad." Or worse, stuff all your feelings because don’t you know, Mom has Borderline Personality Disorder and she CAN'T TAKE IT! This is Bad Stuff. How she longs to tell her feelings but can’t. Where do they all go then? Take a guess. She is now medicated same as her sister. Because you have to be in this house. No matter how much it costs. I ask if I can have a meeting with Dad. What would you say, she asks. I would say he needs to lean in to what she needs not protect Mom, who is an adult.
She says, “Don’t bother. It will make it worse." So I don’t. I respect her wishes (I am transparent that way). I shudder to think about the kid’s future isolation into herself. Her race to nowhere with college on the horizon. Her retreat to her room, as they all do there in that really big house, especially after dinner. Especially alone.