For many families the geographic distance between home and their program is a key component to help adolescents learn to take care of themselves and to allow a space for families to heal and change. It also means that the time allotted for communication and connection should be maximized to strengthen family relationships and to maximize therapeutic alliances.
To help families make the most of the communications they have with their son or daughter during the treatment process I have outlined the following 10 Do’s and Don’ts:
- Don’t get hung up on the day to day. While it can be effective to begin conversations by talking about the latest ‘big game’ or other common interests it is easy to spend the bulk of your time in small talk that may not foster meaningful connection.
- Don’t spend all of your time talking about incidents that may have taken place or giving lectures about poor academic or behavioral performance. The Anatomy of Peace pyramid teaches that when things aren’t going well it is important to spend more time building the relationship than trying to correct behavior.
- Do check in with them about their mental and emotional state. Remember these calls should be practice for communicating with your child when they return home. We know it can be difficult for teenagers to want to open up, particularly when they are angry. Asking generic questions like “how are you doing?” makes it easy for an adolescent to return a short response. Asking specific questions like, “how are you coping with new students on the home?” or “how did you feel when you completed that hike last week?” make it easier for an adolescent to share more meaningful responses.
- Do ask them about their relationships with specific teachers, friends and staff members. Understanding your child’s relationships with others will help you relate and connect.
- Do remember to share your life with your children (what you did over the weekend, new hobbies/coping skills and your own realization from therapy). Often teenagers in treatment can feel like treatment is all about fixing them. When they see that you are working to improve they will be more likely to engage in your conversation and the program. Too often phone calls consist of teenagers responding to parent questions. Guide your child in having a real conversation by sharing what they don’t think to ask or by giving them a prompt to ask you a question. This may be a little awkward at first but is a great opportunity for your child to learn relational/social skills from you and to have two-way conversations!
- Do hold boundaries. Your son or daughter might be angry with you for sending them to treatment but it does not make it OK for you to become their designated verbal punching bag. This is not to say your child is not allowed to be frustrated or vent but when it becomes an attack on everyone and everything around them it may be time to get off the phone. Also be supportive and aligned with others on the treatment team including family members. Your son or daughter might see you as their ‘out.’ If you take the position of their ‘rescuer’ or ‘the good guy’ you might also be their enabler.
- Don’t overreact. It is common for students in treatment to tell their parents exaggerated or fabricated stories in order to get an emotional reaction. Stay calm and take note of their report then address concerns with your child’s staff or therapist.
- Do praise your child. In every interaction make sure you set aside time to either process with your child what you each feel is going well or to offer them specific and meaningful praise for their positive efforts.
- Do tell your child that you love and miss them. It is simple but can easily be overlooked. Make sure your child knows even though they may be far away they are thought of and missed.
- Do talk with your therapist if you continue to struggle with having meaningful phone calls. Exploring ways to improve phone calls can be an effective use of time during family therapy sessions.