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On Being a Mother & a Therapist
By Leah M. Niehaus
This article is really a love story about my profession of working with adolescents and my role being a mother, which is so central and important to who I am…and the challenge of bridging the two roles at times. We have one child at MBMS and two at Pacific Elementary. As a therapist in a small community, it is tricky to open up about my work with local adolescents and their families while maintaining their confidentiality… and it also feels vulnerable as a mother to share my own struggles and maintain some privacy for our own family. I am hoping that I can provide a glimpse for you into my thinking about adolescents, ways in which I grapple as a parent, and ultimately some tips and goals as we parent our growing teens. I love to work with adolescents, but it is a whole new endeavor to parent them!
While part of me is excited about this new parenting territory that my husband and I are embarking on with our oldest, the other part of me is a bit terrified. Ask my husband. Ask my friends. Ask my kids—I’m sure they pick up on my current growing pains in this area. I know too much. I work with teens and hear the inner workings of their thinking and emotional life. I know their experiences with alcohol, drugs, sex, and the new landscape of social media. I know how they are affected by school stresses and pressures, friendship troubles, trauma, and family discord. I see the high rates of anxiety, depression, and disconnection—despite the fact that most of them live in a safe area, many with intact families, good schools, and community support. I hospitalize them when they are suicidal, put them in preventative drug treatment when it’s gone beyond experimentation, and I send them to Residential Treatment when they need more containment than their families and support team can provide. These dilemmas cause me to toss and turn at night. Then I try to remind myself of the stories of resilience, triumph, and courage that I also hear from these same adolescents.
Many parents don’t really want to know the details of adolescent angst. I can empathize with that feeling in my role as a parent—I don’t want to know everything and my children will need to keep some feelings and experiences separate from me. This is a normal and healthy boundary—we cannot be everything for our children, nor should we attempt to try. The reality is that I might well know more about the inner life of my adolescent clients than of my own children, as they become teenagers. And the flip side is also true—that in the likely situation that my children would someday need the support of a therapist—that person would know them at a different level than I will as their mother. I value therapy…and so this idea does not scare me. I hope that our children have an open mind about therapy and personal growth—and can appreciate their mother’s profession as they mature. So while, it’s not right for me to try to be their therapist and I won’t know all their specific inner struggles, I can’t escape the general “knowing” because of the nature of my work. I often wish that I could quiet my brain and not overanalyze or worry so much. Sometimes, I just want to be a mom without all the knowledge creeping in. Like you, I am a parent—we have similar hopes and dreams for our kids…and similar concerns and fears.
Does my training as a therapist help me to be a better parent? I might be more educated on child and adolescent development and have read more parenting and self-help books than the average parent. I likely have a few more tools in my pocket during rational parenting moments—though in my experience as a mom, the most difficult parenting dilemmas are often fraught with emotion and I am likely to forget some of my useful tools. I am also probably more agitated by my knowledge, having a tendency to overthink and worry more than I need to. I often rely upon my husband to help contain my concerns and remind me that I don’t need to be fearful for our children’s teen years just because I work with teens. Often the things that we are anxious about in life, aren’t actually the challenges that we ultimately face. I am definitely harder on myself and my partner when we make parenting mistakes…and harder on my children when they misstep because of my profession—therapists and their families are put on a pedestal of sorts and that makes it challenging to struggle in the public eye. Would I trade it? Not a chance. I’ll take the low level of worry that I walk around with on a daily basis—because I love this meaningful work and because I am fueled to be “good enough” for my own kids.
So for my own children, I need to be their mother—the one who tucks them in at night, the one who makes them soup when they’re sick, and the one who just loves them for being who they are. I need to keep my two different hats, mother and therapist, separate but informing each other. I need to heed my own advice to other parents: take a deep breath, don’t be so hard on them, get my own support when it’s called for, work out the co-parenting struggles with my spouse, slow down, lighten up, call a friend, role model appropriately for them, prioritize family time, pray, and apologize and forgive. I need to remind myself it’s all about keeping the connection paramount and keeping the door open to communication. It’s about unconditional love—which is much harder to do than we all admit. I know that I feel more confidant as a therapist than as a mother. It is ever so much easier to be a good sounding board to an adolescent that is not related to me. Being a parent is a humbling experience and I’m skeptical of anyone who thinks they have it all figured out. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I keep seeking…trying…contemplating…grappling…and putting one foot in front of the other each day on this parenting journey. As challenging as some of the moments can be, it is indeed precious and fleeting time that we have while our children are living under our roofs.
from my observations and work with
South Bay adolescents
· Begin to think of yourself as going from a “manager” to a “consultant” role with your adolescent. You want to earn the respect from them so that they consider “consulting” with you. Respecting them fosters their respect of you.
· Rethink ultimate goal of happiness for our children. It is unrealistic to think or hope they will be happy all the time—life has many struggles. Allow them opportunities to struggle and sit with uncomfortable feelings or consequences. Model this yourselves and verbalize to them how you navigate through tough times. Remind them when they are struggling how they have persevered in the past. Reimagine life goals to include close relationships, purpose, and meaning.
· Rest, play, joy, and gratitude as family values to be upheld.
· Think of your family as a team—work together and foster belonging.
· Unplug and connect with them. Think family dinner, taking a walk, talking in the car, getting to know their interests and their friends, and let your face light up when you see them.
· Rethink Zero period and whether your kid can cope with less sleep. Seriously consider what type of realistic academic load your child can handle and adjust accordingly. If they need extra tutors and support, they are likely in the wrong level class. They often end up in the therapist’s office if they cannot meet the academic expectations in their family.
· Good coping strategies are necessary and can be taught. However, there are times when one has to sit and be still with something uncomfortable (grief, loss, break-ups, divorce). Often our coping strategies make us run away from pain, instead of going through it—which ultimately makes the suffering last much longer.
· Monitor and observe your teen—let them know that you are paying attention.
· Set boundaries for cell phone usage and social media parameters—be clear with expectations and take away privileges when necessary. Focus on character, kindness, and respect for self and others when coaching them about posting.
· Strong social skills and a sense of belonging is more critical to teens’ feelings of happiness and success, than school performance.
· In general, teach your daughters not to be constant “pleasers” and teach your sons to be respectful. Model this. It becomes important as they date and become intimate.
· Try not to come at the college admissions process with an attitude of scarcity. There is a match for everyone. If your child is close-minded, encourage them to be open. If you are close-minded, work to stay open and encouraging.
· Allow room in their schedule for them to have a part-time job or volunteer, mellow time to “hang” alone/and with friends, and to date if they are interested. These are critical skills for them to learn while having some guidance. They are supposed to be having fun and enjoying their time in high school.
· Consider service to others/animals/environment. Teens are developmentally self-absorbed, which is normal. If your teen is anxious or depressed, they spend way too much time in their own heads and on themselves. Get out there and expose them to situations that encourage growth and thinking of others.
· Teens, like all of us, truly want to be seen and valued for who they are. The rub and conflict often comes when they don’t feel like they will be accepted for who they are.
· When they are behaving in an un-loveable way, love them more.
Leah M. Niehaus is a psychotherapist in private practice in Hermosa Beach. She specializes in working with adolescents and their families, individually and as families. She also runs a High School Girls’ Group and a Middle School Girls’ Group for typical teens that are struggling with anxiety, depression, stress, and friendship difficulties. Leah can be reached at (310) 546-4111 or [email protected]. Check out her website at www.leahmniehaus.com.