Thoughts on Counselling Parent and Teen Relationships

Regardless of what someone’s aspirations are at the outset, parenthood is rife with moments of asking, “What should I do now?” These take on a particular intensity while parenting during the teen years. Despite lots of opinions about what parents ought to do, many parents feel quite alone in the challenging moments, feeling the weight of responsibility to “get it right.”

When there are concerns about the behaviours or development of the child, or when there is too much or too little attention, reinforcement, or role modelling, observers tend to heavily critique the parenting and download all responsibility onto the parent(s). It’s an unbearable weight, too often borne individually.

A Social-Ecological Framework

A social-ecological framework focuses on the interdependencies among the many systems – social, cultural, economic, political, and institutional – that make up the environments in which people live and make meaning of their lives. It is a lens that accepts that who we are, where we live, and how we interface with the world are always interacting and mutually informing one another. In order to understand the complexities of people’s identities, cultures, and lives, we need to always consider the impact of context and environment on how those lives are lived (Ungar, 2012, 2014).

Who we are, where we live, and how we interface with the world are always interacting and mutually informing one another.

Case Application 1: Sharon and Her Daughters

Sharon is an Indigenous single woman raising her two daughters in an urban centre, away from her family and Nation and without easy access to her cultural traditions and intergenerational roots. She has a fulltime job with the federal government. Her daughters, Minna (age 16) and Lottie (age 14), live with her and see their father, Don, every other weekend. Sharon initiated her separation from Don, and it was difficult.

By the time I meet Sharon, Don has been out of the home for six months, and she is concerned about the resistant behaviours she is seeing in her daughters. She’s worried that how Don treats her influences how the girls respond to her. She’s troubled at the thought that her relationship with her daughters is deteriorating.

When Sharon and the girls sit down in my office, what I see before me is a nervously smiling mother, looking from the girls to me saying, “We’re here to sort things out … just to make sure.” She speaks in half sentences, uncertain and tentative. Minna refutes most of what her mother says, correcting details and disagreeing with Sharon’s interpretations. (end case example)

Working with Sharon, I hear her uncertainty, the lure of popular media fixes, and the desire for a recipe to ensure good relationships. I hear these not as individual deficits of Sharon’s, but as reasonable responses given the consistent messaging from her environment. Sharon is actually responding perfectly to the construction being fed to her, deferring to the “experts” about how to parent.

In order to understand the complexities of people’s identities, cultures, and lives, we need to always consider the impact of context and environment on how those lives are lived.

On top of that broad messaging to all parents, being an Indigenous woman carries particular messaging. My understanding is that the weight of historic and contemporary systems designed to erase Indigenous peoples lives on in Sharon in her desire to minimize attention, not stand out, and do what is expected of her. Through stories that tie back to her grounding values and beliefs and are rooted in cultural and community connection, we unearth what is already there – the wisdom and knowledge passed down by her Elders, her own experiences of being a confident mother, and the strength of her reasoned intuition.

Case Application 2: Sharon and Her Daughters

Counsellor: “At the last session with the girls, you mentioned something about your parents being hard on you. I wonder if we could return to that now.”

Sharon: “Oh yeah, they were so strict and never let me go out. They were so afraid I was going to get caught up in the bad shit going around, which was ridiculous. I was a scared little mouse, never stepping out of line. They had nothing to worry about.”

Counsellor: “That was not your scene, eh? What made your parents think you were at risk of getting caught up in the bad shit?”

Sharon: “Oh, well I was no angel at home, that’s for sure. I covered up being a chicken with my peers by being a real hard-ass at home, talking back to my parents, giving them attitude. It was a rough few years. Since then, I’ve said that I’m so sorry for stressing them out. I used to stay out past curfew knowing it made them worry so much, even though I was just hanging at my friend’s house. My mom would plead with me to just call her, but I didn’t because it bugged me so much that she was always hovering all over me.”

Counsellor: “Can we pause for a moment on what you mean by ‘hardass’? I just want to be sure I understand how you use the term there.”

Sharon: “You know, just full of don’t-try-to-get-close-to-me energy. I would tell stories I knew would worry my mom, like about fights at school and kids shoplifting. I wasn’t doing that stuff, but I made it seem like I was into it. I was always telling her she was overreacting and so out of touch.”

Counsellor: “Okay, I see now. What do you think was happening for you back then?”

Sharon: “Oh my god, I was just a mess inside, trying to sort out who I was. There was so much stuff going on with other kids I knew, and some of it I wanted and some of it I didn’t, but the pressure was on to do all of it and be such a hard-ass. I took my parents for granted, for sure. I just figured they could handle it, and I guess I figured they would ride out the storm. And they did, thank god.”

Counsellor: “You know, I think it’s not unusual for teenagers to test their parents in a range of ways. Looking back, many of us shake our heads at how we behaved. The thing is, we feel so invincible when we’re young, like it’s impossible for us to be harmed and like nothing is a big deal. For those of us who eventually become parents, we suddenly see that there are lots of big deals!”

Sharon: “I know – like Minna wanting to go to these parties. I know there are serious drugs there and no parents home and all kinds of drunk sex. It scares the life right out of me. And now Lottie wants to go because she sees Minna going. I just want them home with me where I know they’ll be safe.”

Counsellor: “I wonder if you hear the similarities I do between your quest for independence and that of Minna and even Lottie.”

Sharon: “Oh yeah, I hear it. But it’s a totally different world now. Looking back, what I was up to really was pretty tame. But not now.”

Counsellor: “What did you want from your parents back then?”

Sharon: “For them to trust that I could make good decisions! For them to get off my back! My mother was so cloying, always wanting me to be with her, and I just needed to do my own thing … oh god, I hear myself. But it’s not the same, truly. It’s a way more dangerous world now.”

Counsellor: “I agree that there are differences. At the same time, I think this has been important because we’ve found that there are some parallels here between what you wanted when you were 16 and what Minna is saying she wants. I have also heard you talk about how you found ways to reassure your mother of your choices around safety and how you negotiated for the independence you were seeking. You have lots of ingredients that have built and sustained your relationship with your mother. I wonder about bringing these effective ingredients and negotiation skills back into your interactions with your girls. You have a bank of expertise to draw on – you as a child, you as a teen, your mother’s mothering, examples of friends and other family and community members. It can be easy to get distanced from what we know, but let’s return to it now and draw out the most relevant pieces to this time with your daughters.”

Talking about experiences as well as challenges in the past also led to talking about challenges Sharon faced as a teenager. I’m careful not to unravel these while in the family session; I want to explore them with Sharon in a setting away from her kids in order to respect the boundary of what parents share with their children. This approach weaves in several strategies of building awareness as action and finding and nurturing common ground.

Read the full chapter in our book, Counselling in Relationships –  Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections, available on our website.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Marion Brown

PhD, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

Marion is a co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling in Relationships – Insights for Helping Families Develop Healthy Connections. The book is available on our website.

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