Tag Archives: adolescents

Getting Your Buttons Pushed by Teenage Clients

The following material is adapted from Tough Kids, Cool Counseling.

Although we generally suggest not taking your client’s degrading comments personally, in the real world, we all get our buttons pushed sometimes. A graphic example of a therapist over-reacting to provocative client behavior was captured in the feature film, Good Will Hunting (Van Sant, 1997). 

You may recall the scene. The main character, Will, played by Matt Damon, is an extremely intelligent but emotionally disturbed young man with mathematical genius. His would-be mentor, in an effort to help Will fulfill his potential, sends him to several different counselors, none of whom are able to help Will. Finally, Will ends up in the office of Sean McGuire, played by Robin Williams.

During his initial session with McGuire, Will is his provocative and nasty self. He begins insulting McGuire’s deceased wife which “activates” McGuire’s emotional buttons. The result: McGuire grabs Will around the neck and slams him up against the wall. Of course, McGuire also decides to take on Will as a client and eventually (and rather magically) he successfully helps Will move forward in his life.

We’d like to emphasize two key points related to this excellent example of resistance and countertransference from Good Will Hunting. First, be aware of your emotional buttons. If you’re getting your buttons pushed, seek support and counseling for yourself. Second, no matter how provocative your young clients may act, avoid using Robin Williams’s “Choking the client” technique.  It may play well in Hollywood, but physical contact with resistant, aggressive, and/or angry clients is highly ill-advised. If you think rationally about the “Will Hunting” character and the fact that he had a history of physical trauma, touching him in an aggressive way would be ESPECIALLY contraindicated.

 If you’re having your emotional buttons pushed occasionally by teenage clients or students, consider yourself normal. On the other hand, if the button pushing begins to cause you to contemplate acting on destructive impulses, it’s time to get therapy for yourself, and/or support from a collegial supervision group. Many psychoanalytically-oriented writers have warned about the powerful regressive countransference impulses that young clients can ignite in their counselors (Dass-Brailsford, 2003; Horne, 2001). 

Flaws in the Satanic Golden Rule

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Nearly always I learn tons of good stuff from my adolescent clients. A few years ago I learned what “Macking” meant. When I asked my 16-year-old Latino client if it meant having sex (I gently employed a slang word while posing my question), his head shot up and he made eye contact with me for the first time ever and quickly corrected me with a look of shock and disgust. “Macking means . . . like flirting,” he said. And as he continued shaking his head, he said, “Geeze. You’re crazy man.”

The next half hour of counseling was our best half hour ever.

I’m not advocating using the F-word or being an obtuse adult . . . just pointing out how much there is to learn from teenagers.

More recently I learned about the Satanic Golden Rule. A 17-year-old girl told me that it goes like this: “Do unto others as they did unto you.”

Now that’s pretty darn interesting.

Ever since learning about the Satanic Golden Rule I’ve been able to use it productively when counseling teenagers. The Satanic Golden Rule is all about the immensely tempting revenge impulse we all sometimes feel and experience. It’s easy (and often gratifying) to give in to the powerful temptation to strike back at others whom you think have offended you. Whether it’s a gloomy and nasty grocery cashier or someone who’s consistently arrogant and self-righteous, it’s harder to take the high road and to treat others in ways we would like to be treated than it is to stoop to their level to give them a taste of their own medicine.

There are many flaws with the Satanic Golden Rule . . . but my favorite and the most useful for making a good point in counseling is the fact that, by definition, if you practice the Satanic Golden Rule, you’re giving your personal control over to other people. It’s like letting someone else steer your emotional ship. And to most my teenage clients this is a very aversive idea.

After talking about the Satanic Golden Rule many teenage clients are more interested in talking about how they can become leaders. . . leaders who are in control of their own emotions and who proactively treat others with respect.

An excellent side effect of all this is that it also inspires me to try harder to be proactively respectful, which helps me be and become a better captain of my own emotional ship.

Serious Advice for Parents of Teens

When Parenting Teenagers — Age Matters

Most parents easily recognize that when it comes to parenting, age matters a great deal.  If you’re not convinced, try giving your teen a nice, cuddly hug, preferably in public.  Not surprisingly, what’s fun and rewarding for one age group, is stupid, incomprehensible, or embarrassing for another.

Teens can be especially challenging for parents. Forgive the blunt language, but the truth is:  Teens often think adults in general, and their parents in particular, don’t know squat.  When I recently shared this well-known fact with a teenager, she gently corrected me by saying, “I think what you mean to say is that adults only know squat.”  I just rolled my eyes and said, “Whatever.”

In contrast to some of my teenage friends, I happen to believe that adults usually do have their squat together.  Therefore, I’ve written a short guide (with attitude) for anyone who has the daunting task of communicating with teenagers.

Principle 1: Always remember, on average, adults are usually smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This fact comes with a certain responsibility.  It means we should strive to really act like we’re smarter and wiser than teenagers.  This means, unfortunately, we have to act mature.  Sometimes we have to go the extra mile when trying to understand today’s youth.  It also means quickly forgiving them when their brains seem to malfunction.

Think about what it means to be more mature – and maybe even wiser – than your teenager.  Think of how to demonstrate your adult maturity in a way that your teen will respect.  Be concrete and specific.  For example, don’t think: “I’ll show my wisdom and maturity by trying to be more patient when he talks on and on about skateboarding.”  Instead, think something like: “I’ll make a point of asking him about his skateboarding at least twice a week. Then, if he’s up for talking, I’ll pay attention to him for at least 5 minutes before I change the subject or get distracted with something else.”

Principle 2: Many teenagers have a special invisible antenna that sticks out from the top of their head. Don’t bother looking for this antenna because it’s invisible.  It’s a “Respect Antenna.”  It functions to instantly ascertain whether a given adult likes or respects a given teen.  Consequently, although teens may act like they’re not paying any attention to you, they’ll still be able to psychically determine whether or not you like and respect them.  And if their invisible antennae signals that you don’t like or respect them, they’ll treat you miserably. Oh yeah. One more thing about this: Like everyone else, the teenager invisible respect antenna regularly malfunctions.

Principle 3: Many teens have dysfunctional eye rolls that appear completely beyond their voluntary control.  For some unknown reason, these eye rolls are triggered when adult authority figures make serious comments.  If you notice teens having this eye roll problem try your best to treat them with the sympathy they deserve.  This means you should smile while looking deeply into their eyes with every ounce of kindness left in your heart. You may think your teen is being disrespectful, but really she or he really needs your sympathy for this problem.

Principle 4: Teenagers are insecure.  Often, they cover their insecurity with a thin veneer of self-confidence and bravado.  This veneer has the effect of making adults assume that young people are confident or overconfident. Such an assumption can cause adults to back off and not offer help, when sometimes, help is exactly what your teen needs.

Principle 5: Young people are very good at tuning out adults while following the sometimes incredibly bad advice of their peers.  The best weapon we have against this sad trend is to sit and listen to young people as they talk about their lives, while, at the same time, resisting the impulse to give them our sage advice.  After listening for a considerable length of time, it can be effective to dress up one of your good ideas as one of their bad ideas and pretend that they came up with it.  If this subtle technique for influencing young people gathers no moss, then you may be forced back into the Dr. Science approach.  The Dr. Science approach essentially involves informing the youth that you know more than they do and therefore they MUST abide by your wishes.  This approach is usually effective only if you have way more money and way more valuable property than the young person.

Principle 6: Scientific research has clearly shown that, down deep, young people really want positive relationships with adults. . . AND that they greatly profit from such relationships.  Try to ignore the fact that adults conceived and conducted this research.  Instead, just go right on doing your best to develop positive relationships with as many teenagers as possible and go right on assuming they want those relationships.

Principle 7: In the end, you’ll find that communicating with teenagers is a lot like baseball.  In professional baseball, if you get a base hit 3 out of 10 times you go to the plate, you have a great chance of getting voted onto the All Star team.  The same is true for communicating with teens.  If you’re a lifetime .300 hitter, your child will probably eventually vote for your induction into the parental Hall of Fame!

If you want additional information about how to communicate more effectively with teens, we recommend parent education classes. You might discover several things: (a) there are other parents out there, besides you, who are struggling and want a better relationship with their teens; (b) many parents (and maybe even the class leaders) will have great ideas about how to improve your teen communication skills; and (c) by meeting with parents and talking opening about our challenges, we’re conspiring to prove that we’re indeed wiser than our teenagers.

[This blog is adapted from an old newspaper article in the Missoulian and from “The Last Best Divorce Workbook” (written by John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan and published by Families First Missoula, 2005)]