Therapy is a space that provides an outlet for many things: exploration of fears, regrets, dreams, and secrets. Therapy is also a space where clients can tackle the messy stuff, those seemingly awkward moments that just don’t seem passable without a 3rd party to tag in when you are about to throw in the towel.
One of my favorite messy moments to work through is those between parents and their tweens/teens and the topic of sex & sexuality. You read it right – the “Birds and the Bees” convo is probably in my top 5 of topics I enjoy supporting parents and their teens in breaching with one another. WHY?! Because what each person learns about the other goes beyond the topic at hand (after a few cringe worthy moments of course!). Walk with me…
Ana* brought her daughter Ella* to therapy as a last ditch effort to understand what was going on with her teenager. A classic scenario presented itself: Ella felt like her mother didn’t trust her, didn’t respect her privacy, and was becoming more and more irritable and angry at home. Ana felt like she didn’t recognize her daughter anymore (from the irritable mood, foul language and “smart mouthed” remarks, to the disregard for rules like curfew and phone check ins). We decided working with Ella first in individual therapy was the priority. This intelligent and witty 15 yr. old walked me through the ins and outs of her complicated self, with strong feelings and opinions on her family, school life and even her developing sexuality. As Ella became more comfortable expressing her voice in therapy, it became clear that this self-expression would benefit her in other relationships in her life… and where to start? Mom
Now if you can remember way back when, during your teenage years – speaking openly and honestly with your parents may not have been at the top of your priority list. So creating and providing a space for a teenage client to forge that type of relationship with a parent or caregiver is incredibly important and empowering.
Fast forward to three months in to treatment – Ella has done fantastic work in therapy and I had met with Ana a couple times to support her in her parental role and prepare her for joint sessions with her daughter. The big day finally arrived – the first family session. Ella slouched back in an oversized chair and picked at her nails while Ana bit her lip nervously and made small talk. I opened up the session, reiterating why we were meeting all together today, and then handed the mic over to my teenage client. At first things progressed well – Ella began expressing uncomfortable emotions, Ana was receptive and validated how her daughter was feeling….and then BAM! Honeymoon was over –somewhere between talking about Ella’s dad being in and out of her life and Ana feeling disrespected after Ella didn’t call while sleeping over at a friends house… Ella blurted out “I had sex! I had sex! And I liked it!” which was met with a “YOU DID WHAT?!?!”
Could the delivery have been a little better? Sure. Would Mom have felt a little less blindsided had she known her daughter was considering becoming sexually active… Absolutely. But this isn’t the movies, it’s real life. It’s messy, with mistakes, total face plants and awkward timing.
But after the band aid is ripped off – the pain eventually subsides. The redness goes away – and the focus shifts on how to deal with what was hiding below. After the dust had settled, Ella was able to unpack some complicated experiences in the presence of her mother, and for the first time Ana was beginning to see Ella not only as her little girl, but a young woman who was coming in to her own. Ana was also beginning to change in Ella’s eyes. She slowly began to acknowledge that her mother’s primary goal in life was not to destroy her social circle or shackle her with unnecessary rules. In the space of therapy , Ella and Ana were able to see each other as individuals – outside of their stereotypical roles as mother and daughter, and gain a context for where each person was coming from.
Now this process occurred over several family sessions – with missteps and misunderstandings, and you may be thinking – she didn’t focus very much on how she intervened in the therapist role, and that’s because the majority of the work was being done by my clients. My role fluctuated between time out referee, toolbox holder and providing continuous validation and encouragement. Of course, Ella and I had done transformative work in individual therapy – but success for this family meant being able to put in to practice the skills they learned in session.
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
— Henry Ford