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 dealing.

“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 bases.

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 self-esteem.”

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 responsibility.

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 explosions.”

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 offered:

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 educational.”

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

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