Someone asked about “relationship counseling” with their teen. I was struck by the phrasing because I tend to refer to it as “family therapy” when I work with parents and teens together, but I actually think relationship counseling is more accurate.

Relationship counseling suggests a few things: there is a relationship in trouble somehow, all parties contribute to the relationship, and all parties need to participate in making things better. Of course, the power dynamic between parent and teenager is different than the dynamic between adult partners, but that’s often at the heart of conflict between parents and teens: teenagers are by definition moving toward being adults with autonomy and equal power, while parents may experience this development as a series of losses. Parents can feel like a sinkhole is opening up beneath them, and they’re scrambling for solid ground.

Maintaining a healthy relationship while the power dynamic changes–while the teen takes on more decision-making, and the parent(s) must let go of the reins–is hard. This challenge is compounded by the teen’s brain (“a powerful engine with weak brakes” is my favorite metaphor), the parent’s own experiences as a young person, social factors, and more.

One option for coping with the rebalancing of power between a parent and teen is for the parent to increase their attempts to control their teen’s behavior. “You did something reckless and impulsive? OK. You’re grounded for a month. No phone. No Internet. No fun. No nothing.” I can understand the intent, but I can’t recommend this approach. It tends to end either with the parent relenting early or the teen getting better at hiding the behavior. Either way, the parent/child relationship isn’t strengthened, and the teen doesn’t learn the intended lesson.

I recommend a different option, one that asks more of both the parent and the teen. In couples’ counseling, clients might expect to work on effective communication, building or rebuilding trust, identifying unhealthy patterns of behavior and reaction, and strengthening the connection that makes working on the relationship worthwhile. A lot of the family therapy I do looks very similar. When a teen is acting out in some way, it’s important that the parent’s response addresses these core relationship issues: how could improved communication make the situation safer or better? in what ways was trust broken, and how can we rebuild? what pattern is evident in this situation, and how can we chart a new path forward? and finally, even when we’re angry and hurt and confused, how can we come back to the connection we share?

None of this is easy. No parent is going to navigate this journey without stumbling and making mistakes. No teen is going to grow up without making some massively stupid choices. My goal as a therapist is always to help families grow together and weather the mistakes, crises, conflicts, and frustrations when (not if) they happen. Because they will happen.


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