• vzaffos

Preparing Teens to Launch


Houston, There Doesn't Have to Be a Problem

As a therapist, when I tell people I love working with teens the usual response is "Really? Really? I wouldn't want to do that if you paid me!" Well, I do get paid for it. But that's not why I love it. I enjoy working with teens because this life stage is a game changer. Played well, a teen emerges with a clear sense of:

"Who am I?"

"Where do I want to go from here?"

"What is special about me that will get me there?"

What could be more exciting than witnessing a young person discover the answers to those questions?

All of which begs yet another question: Why do so many of us look at 13 as the beginning of a miserable period of suffering?


1 Acne

2 Mood swings

3 Peer pressure

4 Cliques

5 Bullying

6 Conflict with parents -- whether those parents are well meaning, clueless or somewhere in between

7 A body that's changing at warp speed

8 Budding sexuality and the task of navigating intimate relationships for the first time

9 The threats of addiction, cutting, eating disorders (or worse) that may begin when childhood ends

10 The high stakes of succeeding in high school, college and looking ahead to establishing a career and family

No wonder teens now are experiencing clinical levels of anxiety and depression at unprecedented levels.



1 in 10 Children and Teens is depressed at any given time

Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among teens and young adults

1 in 5 teens has a diagnosable mental disorder

Many mental health disorders first emerge during adolescence

Between 20% and 30% of teens will have a major depressive episode before reaching adulthood


In spite of all that, I truly believe . . .


Stay with me. There is another way of looking at this.

I like to think of being a teen as a re-do of the toddler years. After all, the life stage task of a toddler is to explore, to discover a wider world, trusting that as they do so Mommy and Daddy will be there to put the breaks on when Little One toddles into the danger zone. Encouraged in this way, a child cultivates a sense of initiative and personal power. That's why the first thing we think of when we hear the word "toddler" is "No!" And "ME do it!" Later, in teen-speak, that becomes "My way or the highway. And by the way, I need the keys to your car."

So when a teen scowls and rolls his eyes when we go postal because he appears at the dinner table with a blue Mohawk, realize this is just a more sophisticated version of experimenting with being in charge of himself. At the same time, it is our responsibility as parents to set appropriate limits. No parent in their right mind would let a toddler stick a chubby little finger in a light socket in the name of exploration. Likewise with teens, no parent would condone a teen's intention to text and drive. Appropriate limits must be set.


Psychologist Erik Erikson outlined seven distinct life stages, each with a developmental task to complete. According to Erikson, a teen's mission is to create her own identity apart from the one her parents envision for her. Teens aren't getting nose rings or begging for a $300 pair of Air Jordans simply to annoy us. Well maybe that's exactly what your teen is doing. Either way, the underlying motivation is the need to differentiate, to discover an identity that fits with who they truly are, as opposed to who we expect them to be. You can comfort yourself with the reality that your teen's vision for himself will naturally include at least some elements of your vision for him, even if he doesn't want to admit it.

So, what happens when a teen struggles with the task of forging an identity for herself? A perceptive parent will notice the warning signs, including but not limited to:

  • Irritability waaaaay out of proportion to the situation (don't panic if you notice this one; a certain amount of drama is to be expected)

  • Social withdrawal

  • Panic attacks

  • Losing interest in activities that usually are pleasurable

  • Suddenly tanking in school

If you notice your teen expressing a few of these behaviors and your attempts to guide them fall on deaf ears, therapy might be the way to go. Before you judge yourself a failure as a parent, think about it this way: If a teen is trying to differentiate from YOU, it kinda makes sense that you would be the last person on earth they'd want to talk to about it. Really it's nothing personal, as much as they might lead you to believe that it is. Click HERE to for tips on how to talk about therapy with your teen in a way that helps them feel good about going.

That said, how can therapy help? First, teen's love love loooove the idea of having a safe place to vent to a person who will listen without judging. In my experience, they especially like the part where I explain to parents that what the two of us talk about in session is confidential and private, and that it is 100% the teen's choice what and what not to share. (Caveat: I also specify that if at any time I feel the teen is at risk for self-harm, or intending to hurt someone else, all bets are off.)

Usually, at least at first, they will share nothing with you. As in NO-THING. NADA. ZIP. ZILCH. It feels powerful for them, and that's exactly what they're after. A sense of power and control over their own life.


Beyond that, therapy for struggling teens involves more than just providing a safe place to spout off. Ideally, the therapist will guide the teen to identify his core values, to express those values with the choices he makes, to understand that independence is balanced with responsibility. Yes, you DO have to drag that Hefty bag to the curb on garbage day, because you are part of a family and everyone contributes...

We also talk about setting boundaries, and respecting the boundaries of others. How to communicate in a way that fosters mutual understanding and connection. How to handle conflict in a healthy way, which includes learning to disagree agreeably. And realizing that "Everything doesn't have to be perfect for me to be OK."

Countdown to Blast Off

There's much more to it than that, but these are the basics for preparing a teen to launch. If your teen is able to test her wings in a supportive environment, there will be no crash and burn. Some turbulence at times maybe, but she will have a clear destination in mind and will be comfortable in the cockpit. Who knows? Your emerging young adult might even occasionally ask you for some assistance with navigating. Fly the friendly skies indeed.

Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Weston Town Center. Working with Teens is a special area of interest. To inquire about counseling for your teen, call her at 954.494.3848, or email vzaffos@aol.com

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