Through my own adolescent experience and in my work with teenagers, I learned that if I were waiting for an adolescent to say “thank you,” I would have to wait a few years. After studying the important developmental milestones a teenager must successfully overcome, I realized that saying thank you pleased my mother so much that the words themselves brought us uncomfortably close in a time when it was imperative that I felt separate from her. I could only say thank you when she had finally caved in about something, because in these instances she didn’t feel good about giving into me, which allowed for a safe emotional distance in our connection. In my clinical work with teenagers, one of my greatest successes was helping to create this emotional distance in a healthy way, leaving enough room for a genuine “thank you” without compromising the teen’s independence. I will tell you how I did this with Christy and her mom:
Christy was three years behind in high school- super embarrassing for her to be older than everyone in her class and so far behind. Christy would storm in my office, conveniently located outside of her classes, slam her hands down at my desk, stare intensely into my eyes and scream at the top of her lungs, “I @!*&ing hate this, I hate my mom, I hate you, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I am quitting today.” Even though she did this almost every morning in the first month that she was on my caseload, I really thought she was serious each time, and I think she actually was. I would quickly acknowledge her anger and then distract her with whatever new fashionable item she was sporting that day. Literally, everyday she had something new. I would ask her what she thought and felt about her mom buying her exactly what she wanted, and she would say something like “I feel like she should pay me back for being such a #@!^* all the time.” Of course, I would point out that was a thought and not a feeling, and she rolls her eyes at me.
I knew from working with both her and her mother that Christy’s mother’s way of feeling close to her in their tumultuous relationship was through buying her clothing, even when she clearly had not earned it. I knew making Christy earn these gifts may be the only way of motivating her to finish school while forming a genuine connection with her mother that didn’t sacrifice Christy’s developmental need to become more independent. I spoke with her mom over the phone about my plan prior to having them together in my office. I asked her mom, “what does Christy really want right now that you have not given her?” She quickly stated, “oh this expensive coat that I have not agreed to buy yet.” So I suggested that she save the money that would normally be spent on Christy’s wardrobe to buy her this coat at the end of the quarter. I told her mom that the trick is that it needs to be Christy’s idea to earn the coat and she must tell us what she is going to do to earn the coat, as this would preserve her independence.
That afternoon, Christy was in her usual position during our family therapy sessions, on the floor of my office pretending like she was sleeping. I started by saying, “Christy, I think you deserve something for all of your hard work coming to school even though you are mortified to be with people so much younger than you.” She immediately sat up, “Yes, I do!” I continued, “The quarter isn’t over for almost another two months, you need something that will really keep you motivated to make it through all of this immaturity here, what do you think you would deserve for that?” Christy’s eyes lit up as she turned toward her mom looking up at her from the ground, “that coat you refuse to get me.” Christy’s mom looked down at her and said, “you know I will need to save the money that I usually splurge on your latest fashion statement to save up for…” Christy cut her off, “I don’t care, that is fine, just give me that coat.” I asked Christy what she thought she would need to do to earn the coat and she gave herself harder and stricter rules than either her mom or I would have come-up with. She said, “I will come to school everyday with my homework and be in before curfew every night.” Both her mom and I knew that if we would get Christy to just do that a few days a week, it would be huge progress. I knew that she needed to feel successful, so I offered an easier suggestion, “how about you make it to at least four days of school and have 80% of your homework in by the end of the week, and promise to be in by curfew.” Then I needed to give her a way to make up mistakes, “If you miss more than one day of school in a week, you can make it up the following week, and if you turn in less than 80% of your homework, you simply need to turn in a higher percentage the following week, and if you are not in by curfew, you can make up each hour you were late by coming in earlier the following night.” She eagerly got off of the floor jumped around happily and said “I will do it, that is easy.”
On the day when she got her coat and received her school credits, she looked her mom in the eye and gave her a huge genuine “thank you.” Not only did allowing her to earn what she was given motivate her to finish school, but it allowed her to feel that she earned it on her own making it perfectly safe to connect with her mother over those simple words of gratitude.
In the Create A Path program, each girl will earn everything that is given to her, from clothing to a better computer; making it safe to feel connected to authority figures as she is not sacrificing her independence.