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They Lead Common Lives: How Parents Can Lean In

By now we've discussed pandemic fatigue, languishing, anxiety, lack of services, suicide rates, social media, FOMO, triggers, fake news, school shootings, a former narcissistic, toxic, grandiose and insensitive leader (Trump), self-harm and trauma and more with our kids.  

By now things should go back to normal.  

Yet what is this new worry creeping into our consciousness?  I like to monitor new words I hear in therapy: intersectionality, amplify, conflate, weaponize, - fighting words. I'm also hearing this: "what's the point?" Or, the perennial, "how can I go to the best college?" These two extremes are not that far apart. One kid realizes she can check out and nobody will notice or care; another says the only way out is to torture herself with work and worry.  Neither is helpful or productive. Depression looks different in young adults in some ways.  So does mania.  Going to extremes and black and white thinking is a hallmark of the adolescent brain.  How do young adults find balance in a world increasingly in chaos?  How can I teach DBT or self-regulation when before my head hit the pillow I asked myself for the first time in my life, "what if there's nuclear war?"  

We start with the breathe says my yoga teacher.  I guess the fulcrum of yoga and psychotherapy, or eastern thought and psychotherapy are a potentially liberating place from which to launch, when all else fails.  According to Mark Epstein, 

  • “When we stop distancing ourselves from the pain in the world, our own or others’, we create the possibility of a new experience, one that often surprises because of how much joy, connection, or relief it yields. Destruction may continue, but humanity shines through.”― Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life

If I had a dollar for every time I asked a teen to stop avoiding and start living...  fear cannot help you treat anxiety.  Only exposure can.  If we face the thing we fear, and we don't get struck by a lightning bolt, we can continue on our journey.  The only way around is through.  Or as Pema Chodron said, 

  • “The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes. ”― Pema Chodron

Lisa DaMour, one of my favorite authors on teens and therapy, has discussed the enormous pressure on this generation in her book "Under Pressure."  One of the things she emphasizes is that we have to teach kids to TOLERATE discomfort, “Unfortunately, anxiety, like stress, has gotten a bad rap. Somewhere along the line we got the idea that emotional discomfort is always a bad thing.”― Lisa Damour, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls

Try telling that to a 16 year old who just had a break-up and refuses to go to school.  Or the almost 17 year old that her parents' divorce is not going to cause her grief and upset as long as they conduct themselves with respect for the family.  When asked how her parents were behaving, one pre-teen told me, "They lead 'common lives.'"  I thought that was funny -- but yes, isn't that the goal?!  Some of these parents are acting like teenagers themselves as they frantically run from partner to partner and forget to make dinner.  All the kid wants is the car keys and the answer key.  To which the answer is usually a hard NO.  Or what if that teen's behavior suddenly becomes erratic to the point of misjudgment on everyone's part -- now that's when you might call the therapist.  

But for all this to work, the precondition is openness.  

When I rattle off 25 things the person can do to self-regulate and they do none of them during the week, what do you think changes?  Nothing.  Because they didn't change anything!  Resistance, anger, judgment and shame are all barriers to care.  Take a step back and slow down the therapy.  Make time to breathe and be still.  Then maybe you'll have a fighting chance at change.  But with no effort or over-effort, the body tenses; the work gets stuck; the future is frozen.  As the great Irvin Yalom said, “Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you'll always find despair.”― Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept 

Despair is not the end -- it's the beginning of being seen, heard, understood.  Let's allow it some space.  Get ready.  Go.


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