8 Essentials for Less Family Drama
Years ago, before I was a mother, I worked as the Senior Clinician at an adolescent day treatment facility near Boston.
The kids who attended the program were between the ages of 12 and 18. They struggled with problems at home, school, and in their communities due to emotional, behavioral, and/or learning difficulties. They attended Monday through Friday from 9 am to 3 pm and participated in several group therapy sessions each day. These groups focused on a number of topics, including conflict resolution, self-esteem, family issues, healthy living, and independence.
The program and staff had a reputation in the community for being extremely skilled at helping teenagers improve their relationships at home and manage their difficulties enough to return to a school setting.
Time and time again, I witnessed teenagers who entered the program with symptoms of major mental illness — depression, eating disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), substance abuse, and even schizophrenia — leave thriving emotionally and socially.
So, what was so special about the program? What were the dynamics that helped these kids and their families go from desperation and hopelessness to progress and optimism within just a few months?
I’ve identified eight essentials that the program provided for these kids and their families. If they could help families with severe dysfunction, they could definitely help yours, too.
I think this was the #1 factor in transforming these kids' lives. Many of the children had never experienced relationships with adults who didn’t yell, criticize, or berate them. Without ever raising our voices or using any physical contact whatsoever, we were able to uphold authority and engage cooperation.
Oh, they tested the limits and tried to get us to react to their shenanigans. But when we consistently responded with firmness, compassion, and politeness, they eventually trusted us enough to let down their guards, connect with us, and show us respect in return.
2. Clear limits and consequences
We ran a tight ship. There were lots and lots of rules. There was a dress code. There was no physical contact allowed. There was no contact allowed between participants outside the program until one of them was discharged. They were not allowed to go off the property without adult supervision. If they needed to go to the bathroom during a group session, they would not be permitted back until the start of the next group. And so on.
At first, the teens viewed these rules as arbitrary and strict. They often rebelled against them and tried to get away with breaking them, but by the end of their treatment, they were helping to enforce them. They came to understand the value of rules in keeping everyone safe and maintaining a sense of order.
As much as possible, we tried to let kids know the consequences for breaking rules BEFORE they broke them. That way, there were no surprises and the emphasis lay on their choices and responsibility.
Consequences are not effective unless they're enforced on a consistent basis, so we were ridiculously consistent.
When a child learns that you only impose consequences some of the time, they'll have a hard time trusting you, and they’ll continue to demonstrate the unwanted behavior you’re trying to eliminate.
Each week, the teens were responsible for coming up with weekly and daily goals for themselves. The goals were structured in a way that required some type of action on their part. So, instead of a goal like, “Have a good day” the goal became, “Have a good day by taking personal space when I feel angry.”
At the end of every day, they reviewed their goal. Did they accomplish it? Why or why not? What would help them achieve it the next day?
When they consistently met their individual goals and their overall treatment goals (which we helped them identify), they would be able to have certain privileges, such as skipping their least favorite group or going out for ice cream with their clinician (I often pushed for that one, since I got to eat ice cream, too).
Having goals to work toward and motivation to accomplish them put the emphasis on the only thing these teens had control over — their own behavior. When they attained privileges as a direct result of their efforts, their self-esteem and self-confidence improved.
There was a predictable and reliable structure to every day. We reviewed the schedule each morning and there were schedules posted around the room, so kids would always know what to expect next. We started and ended on time. There were little to no surprises.
This is so important for kids, whose agendas are often determined for them by adults without any advance notice.
Routines are important, even as kids get older. When they know what to expect and when, kids feel more calm and in control.
When I was in the room with those teenagers, my focus was completely on them. There were no distractions interfering with our time together. I gave them my undivided attention and listened to what they had to say. How often do kids get that kind of attention from their own families?
When we regularly put distractions aside and focus exclusively on our kids, it helps build a deeper sense of trust and connection with them.
There were four of us who made up the team of clinicians. The Program Coordinator, two of us who were directly responsible for working with the teens and their families, and one part-time therapist who helped run the groups.
We worked hard to communicate with one another about each child, so that there was consistency in our responses to them and it would be less likely that they could “split” us.
An example of “splitting” is when your child asks you for something and when you say “no,” they go and ask your spouse. Strong communication allows you and your spouse to respond as a team, so your child learns he can’t take advantage.
Working with kids who suffered from major mental illness wasn't easy, but we always found ways to bring humor into our day. When appropriate, we would sing, dance, joke around, and act silly. It was important for the kids to see our playful side, not just the business side. Humor is such an important way to connect with children and teens. Those big belly laughs are music to my ears.
These eight elements helped the teenagers get the support they needed in learning new skills to manage their lives. When the parents were able to take the concepts listed above and put them into practice at home, their child's transition out of the program was smoother and there was less of a chance that they would require the same level of treatment again in the future.
What are the skills from this list that you already practice? Which could use some improvement? Leave a comment below and let me know!
And if you'd like to incorporate these 8 essentials into your family life, check out my private coaching page and let me help you!