Engaging the WildThings

Upcoming Conference Helps Parents and Professionals Communicate
with Teens

by Michael O.L. Seabaugh, PhD

Back in the ’60s, parents everywhere were in a permanent state
of shock about the strange and wild behavior of their rebellious
children. My parents were no exception. My grandmother, always good
for making peace, was fond of reminding them: “Nothing is new.
Everyone is doing the same things; it’s just a different crowd
doing it.”

It was a bit difficult for me to imagine this. After all, I
couldn’t picture my Victorian-era grandmother going braless, let
alone burning one. And I certainly couldn’t imagine her screaming
at her mother that all-too-common war cry of today’s teens: “F***
you, you (female dog)!” Is this just another example of “Kids say
the darndest things”? I don’t think so.

A new generation is now sporting its own version of that shocked
countenance as parents try to grapple with New Millennium teens.
And if you are one of those parents, or work with their hormonal
offspring, you will probably be thinking that this is not only a
new century, but a whole new breed of adolescents with whom we are

“Teenagers today are flying further from the family than any
generation before them, redefining adolescence in the bargain,”
according to the influential book, The Second Family: How
Adolescent Power Is Challenging the American Family. The book’s
author, Dr. Ron Taffel, along with Dr. Robert Brooks, is coming to
Santa Barbara next week to participate in a three-day seminar
sponsored by the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara on the
compelling subject of the modern adolescent.When Dr. Taffel spoke
to me recently on the phone from his home in Manhattan, he
emphasized the point by saying that today’s teens are “way ahead of
the researchers” when it comes to redefining what it means to be an
adolescent in modern-day America.“They are redefining sexuality,
redefining consciousness (because they have a whole different way
of focusing), and they are redefining communication. They are much
more graphic in their communication, and this is redefining how
parents relate to them,” Dr. Taffel said. We all know about the
“mean girls,” and we understand that what qualifies as sex is now
very different from our old categories of first, second, and third

We unfortunately know about the scary talk of death and
destruction, and the outrageous insults and sexual propositions
that fly around the MySpace pages of the Internet. I have long
suspected that the profession of psychology might be somehow
complicit in this permissive atmosphere of “letting it all hang
out.” God forbid we should do anything to squash our children’s
spirit, their “sense of self”! And Dr. Taffel’s latest book,
Breaking Through to Teens: A New Psychotherapy for the New
Adolescence (2005, The Guilford Press), discusses this: “Casual
communication between kids pulsates with a verbal brutality that
makes adults wince. And this carries over into the home, where many
parents tolerate enormous abuse from kids because they’re frozen in
place by 30-year-old pop psychology bugaboos: If kids aren’t
allowed to freely express themselves, they won’t develop proper

His book also compares the kind of rebellious “rage against the
machine” anger of the parents’ generation and the anger of today’s
teenagers.Those from that earlier generation may have been deluded
by youth and fueled by too much rock ’n’ roll, but the expressed
anger was consequential — it had an object, a point of reference.
Today’s adolescent anger is expressed without any real sense of
consequence. Dr. Taffel pointed out that modern-day kids don’t face
each other as they let loose with their invective; outlandish
expressions can fly without any real acceptance of

There are many reasons for this.There is the greater impact of
the child’s “second family” — which Dr. Taffel defined as the
collective force of peers and pop culture — over that of the
original family. And then there are cell phones, email, text
messaging: The whole manner in which teenagers communicate with
each other today is an obvious culprit.

In our conversation, Dr. Taffel added a more nuanced spin on the
impact of the technologically driven world in which today’s
adolescents live, where this tsunami of external stimuli and
imagery that bombards us interferes with the formation of an
internal fantasy world. “The need for an internal fantasy and
imagination world is lessened,” Dr. Taffel said; this, plus the
resulting lowered threshold for boredom, creates some serious
problems. “An internal fantasy world mediates emotions. Without a
developed internal imagination, feelings aren’t absorbed and
digested, resulting in an easy pathway for sudden, outward

As to why all of these modern forces have become so powerful,
the reason isn’t — as many might assume — that parents are spending
less time with their teens. In fact, Dr. Taffel reported research
indicating parents today aren’t spending any less time with their
children than they did in the ’60s. “What they are doing is
spending more ‘divided’ time,” he said. I suppose this means that
teenagers aren’t the only ones who are getting distracted by all
the pings and pangs of modern life.

The Taffel prescription for healing the rift between parents and
their adolescent children has to do with one word: engagement. One
of the biggest challenges in bridging the divide and actually
engaging is how parents and their children behold one another.
Parents often perceive their teens with apprehension, and vice
versa. An adolescent may view any attempt by a parent to talk to
them about themselves as open season on blame. This is a critical
situation now more than ever, as adolescents are faced with making
decisions about higher-risk behaviors. And they could use the
advice and counsel of their predecessors.

So why isn’t this happening? Why aren’t parents today able to
genuinely engage their children? One reason Dr. Taffel gave is that
parents are talking psychobabble to kids, evoking a “whatever”
response. “Today’s adolescents live in the details of their lives.
The details matter to them. Too often parents, even trained
therapists, aren’t the best listeners to these teenagers because
those details don’t matter to them.”

Dr. Taffel also contended that most parents don’t know how to
give that much needed advice to 21st-century teens. So I asked him
for some pointers on how to give advice, and this is what he

1. Give advice at the right time. All kids have a conversational
style. Some are more available in the morning, some in the evening.
Know your child and when he/she is the most open and available to
parental counsel.

2. Don’t assume what your child is thinking. One of the worst
things you can say to a teenager is that you know what they are
thinking or feeling. They will only end up feeling usurped by you.
Remember, these are beings hell-bent on defining themselves. One of
the worst things you can say is, “I know how you are feeling; when
I was a teenager, I …”

3. Be brief. Remember, these kids live in a text messaging,
multitasking, totally ADD world. You have to get your message
across before they start rolling their eyes.

4. Be dramatic. That’s right — don’t pull your punches. There’s
too much competing for their attention. In this special-effects
world, your message won’t register without some impact.

Dr. Taffel emphasized the importance of understanding a
teenager’s specific temperament. “The more you can see them
clearly, the more you can really engage them, the more you create
an empathic alliance with them,” he said.

This echoes a major focus of Dr. Robert Brooks, another
nationally recognized developmental psychologist who will share the
podium with Dr. Taffel next week. The symposium will be open to
both parents and professionals, and will discuss ways to deal more
effectively with troubled youth in modern times.

As Dr. Brooks writes in his book Raising Resilient Children:
Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child: “Being an
effective disciplinarian involves empathy, the use of communication
skills, the ability to modify negative scripts in ourselves and in
our children, and an appreciation of each child’s unique
temperament.” According to Dr. Brooks, it is also important to
prepare a strategy in advance based on these factors. “When
discipline takes on the air of urgency, we typically become
reactive rather than proactive, punitive rather than

Dr. Brooks sees the act of discipline as an important
opportunity to teach and develop a resilient mindset in children.
If discipline does not promote self-discipline and problem-solving
skills, then it has failed. And you can be sure that failure is
going to show up in spades when the child reaches that hormonally
infused “whatever” stage.

Like Dr. Taffel, Dr. Brooks emphasizes the importance of
engaging the child and emphasizes that it is important to encourage
the teenager to be proactive about finding solutions to his/her own
behavioral problems. By helping to bring about meaningful change in
their behavior, teens learn to bounce back through their own
efforts. This develops resilience and a problem-solving orientation
to life. “Engagement is what heals the fragmentation that goes on
within kids today, and also within family life,” according to Dr.
Taffel. Finding a way for the parent to engage the child, or the
child to engage the parent, not only creates the environment for
effective discipline and advice, but also helps the generations
truly get to know each other “across the divide.”

4•1•1 Help is on the way. Check out Family
Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara’s upcoming conference:

• An evening lecture by Dr. Robert Brooks titled The Power of
Resilience: Nurturing Motivation and Hope in Our Youth. Thu., Oct.
19, 7:30-9:00pm. San Marcos High School auditorium, 4750 Hollister
Ave. • An all-day workshop with Dr. Robert Brooks titled Troubled
Times, Troubled Youth: A Strength-Based Approach to Helping
Families Become Resilient. Fri., Oct. 20, 9am-5pm. Victoria Hall
Theater, 33 W. Victoria St. • An all-day workshop with Dr. Ron
Taffel titled Breaking Through to 21st-Century Teens and Parents:
Uncommon Wisdom for Child Professionals. Sat., Oct. 21, 9am-5pm.
Victoria Hall Theater, 33 W. Victoria St. For registration and
information, call the Family Therapy Institute at 569-2272 x303 or
x111, or visit ftisb.org.


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