Question:

I have a 17 year-old daughter and 15 year-old son who I am extremely concerned about. They both seem to be one type of person at times and then almost completely opposite at others. I have recently found some articles and books about personality disorders. How should I get my children properly diagnosed and what would be the right steps for treatment if they do have a personality disorder? I have struggled my entire life with depression and anxiety. I have been much better in the last 5 years with proper medication and I often go to therapy. My husband has ADD and anxiety. He is also on medication and very stable. As adults, we have been very stable and are able to work through our tough days together due to therapy and proper medications. Both our daughter and our son have had several romantic relationships and move from one relationship to another. They both lie to us about grades. They often don’t want to go to school even though they have both been A-students in general. They are very smart and well liked by their peers. Randomly our daughter will lash out at others because she perceives something that was said or done as an attack against her. Our son feels deeply that no one likes him or that others don’t think well of him even though he has many friends. Our daughter’s relationship with others is very unstable. Sometimes she is very happy and thinks we are great. Then later she says we are terrible parents when we don’t give her exactly what she wants. Our daughter is never at fault for anything with anyone. She blames everything on others at least 90% of the time. On a rare good day she is quick to say something was her fault when it really was and will apologize. This has increased a lot in the past 3 years. Our son struggles with anger and being physically mean to his brothers when he is angry. He is the oldest and very strong. On his good days he is VERY kind and quick to help. He has bad days almost 50% of the time. We love them dearly but don’t know where to begin and we don’t want to make them feel like they are a burden. We try to discuss their bad behavior kindly because we want them to feel loved. Thanks for your time and any direction you can give is appreciated.

Answer:

Adolescence is such a stormy time full of uncertainty, insecurity, changes, transition, and countless other adjustments that it’s difficult to see what might really be going on with teens. Trying to figure out the cause of their behaviors is a complicated process. Before jumping to conclusions diagnosing your kids, I recommend you consider some of the following points.

How is the quality of your personal relationship with each of your children? Sometimes the redirecting and disciplining can take up so much time that the parent/child relationship never gets nurtured.

When’s the last time you took time to be with them alone? You may wonder what you would talk about or do, especially if things have been tense lately. Find out what interests them and find ways to spend time with them doing it. Even if you can’t think of anything, try spending time with them over a meal or dessert. Just being with them is important. They may appear bored or disinterested. Stay with it. Remember, contact is more important than consent.

Your kids have some tough reactions and certainly need some redirection and boundaries. There will be times you will need to step in and set firm limits. In between those times, however, it’s critical that you build a relationship with them. I’m not a big fan of the saying, “I’m not your friend, I’m your parent.” I get the sentiment and how parents need to ultimately err on the side of being the parent instead of trying to be popular. I agree with that mindset. What I see happen, though, is that parents stop being friendly to their kids while they enforce limits. They become probation officers who only become interested in outcomes.

If your goal is to help your children become respectful and considerate of others, you must model that while you’re setting limits with them. If you’re already in therapy, make sure you don’t just turn into a co-therapist and diagnose your kids so you can fix them. Instead, learn how your reactions to your children might influence the relationship you have with them. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and learn how everyone can work to improve relationships in the family.

Sometimes working with a family counselor can help you better understand these dynamics and help you discover ways to work more effectively with your children.

I encourage you to check out “The Anatomy of Peace” by the Arbinger Institute. It’s a wonderful book that helps parents work on getting their hearts right so they can more effectively guide their families toward healthy relationships.

While you’re working to connect with them, you might better understand what they need as you observe them and listen to them. They may not share much, but I trust that parents can gain insight and understanding as they spend time and pay close attention. Sometimes parents spend so much time talking and lecturing that they really never learn anything about their children and what they need.

Again, I don’t doubt that your children have some behavioral struggles that need attention. I’m encouraging you to start with the less intrusive approach of working on building a more secure relationship with them while you enforce firm limits. Both are possible and will help communicate the respect and love you have for them better than simply diagnosing and controlling their behavior. 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday.


  You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Twitter: @geoffsteurer