This week I met with two parents concerned with how they could get their son to come see me for counselling. We spoke briefly about what problems they were experiencing at home and some of the things they had tried before, such as previous psychologists, a change of school and many of the normal things that occur when a teenager is struggling with depression and anxiety. As we spent this time together we started brainstorming some ideas for possible solutions. The couple began to disagree.
As this continued it began to grow. In the bush it takes just a small spark to start a fire and I could sense that this conversation, centred around the goal of helping their son, was flaming itself into a larger problem.
I was able to interrupt briefly reminding the parents that one thing was definitely for sure: “The two of you are both interested and invested with the same goal. That is finding help for your son and your family. But sometimes we disagree about how to get there.”
As a psychotherapist, I want people to leave each session with ideas for what they can do to feel better and achieve better results. So as our session winded down I provided an experiment for these parents to try: The Parental Business Meeting.
I explained that the meeting must be scheduled a few days in advance and with one specific aim in regards to helping their child. It needs to be very specific. Ideas such as bedtimes, getting him to school, what to do during the next argument or getting him to a therapist were all options on the table. Improving behaviour would have been too broad of a choice. The parents chose to plan a time where they could meet in order to prepare the best idea for helping get their teenager to see me.
When we feel stuck or at a loss on how to help one of our family members it is obviously very normal to feel a whole range of emotions. This is probably more ok than not (remind yourself of this). One of the issues that can occur is that when we sit to try and find solutions the emotions can get in the way like wearing a blindfold while trying to solve a maze.
While studying in Maryland, I was trained as a firefighter and to run an ambulance (seems like a past life now!). There was a great metaphor that I was taught during this time that has stuck with me when working with families, groups of teens in the bush and in managing my own relationships. Don’t Create a Second Victim.
I was the member of a few firehouses and one that was in a particularly dangerous part of town just outside Washington DC. For me, it felt like what would be the normal ambulance run or call to a car accident was always concealed with something to make it a much more complicated scenario. No matter what happened we had to think on our toes and not let any situation get worse than it already was.
I had to assess any physical risks before stepping into these potentially unsafe situations but also needed to check in with my emotional wellbeing. If I was injured or acted out in a way that put my team at risk then I would have become that second victim that I was trained to avoid. If this were the case, the group would need to not only work on fixing the difficult situation and save an injured person’s life but then worry about one of their team members who had increased the stress of the situation.
The Parental Business Meeting is a good technique for making sure that we are planning actual time for solving problems with our children. Here is how to do it:
It is important to have each other’s back during this time, similar to a group of fire fighters entering a burning building. This time is surely to be stressful for you both and you may have different opinions about parenting. This is ok and very normal.
Honour their opinion and your own. Listen actively to what they are saying and think about what aspects of their solution may be worth trying.
If this meeting does not work or gets too stressful, it may be a good idea to have a therapist or mediator present to help facilitate the meeting.
See you on the trail...
Will Dobud MSW
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.