“You just don’t understand me at all!”
“You never listen to anything I say!”
“Everyone is smarter than me!”
Chances are that if you have been caught in an argument with your teen that starts with one of these polarizing statements, you have found it quite tricky to get out of. It can be extremely challenging for your teen to regulate their emotions and have a constructive conversation once they have escalated from rational into black and white thinking. However, our teens are not the only ones facing black and white thinking challenges. Parenting teens can present us adults with challenging dichotomies like being too strict versus too lenient or holding on too tight versus forcing independence. By showing our teens that we too have this struggle, we are able to normalize the challenges and model healthy ways to problem solve.
One way we can make sense of and learn how to handle these difficult parenting moments is through the metaphor of “walking the middle path,” a tenet of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to hold two truths that seem like opposites and accept there is more than one way to see a situation or solve a problem. Dialectics also considers that all people have unique qualities and different points of view. Dialectical thinking can help us find the middle path by moving away from a polarized way of thinking (e.g., all or none, there is only one right way) to a more flexible and collaborative one. We can make room for compromise, become more approachable to our teens, and avoid getting stuck in the “I am right and you are wrong” power struggle.
Although it is difficult to become less stuck in our own way of thinking and acting, it is possible to change. In fact, DBT asserts that the only constant thing is change. Here are three ways to adopt a more dialectical way of thinking and acting:
- Move away from “either-or” thinking to “both-and” thinking. Avoid words like “never” and “always.” Be descriptive. For example, instead of saying “we are always fighting” say “sometimes we have difficulty communicating, and other times we communicate well.” Or, instead of saying “You’re a teenager. You need to be independent,” say “you can be independent and ask for help.” Finally, instead of saying “You never do your homework,” say “sometimes you do your homework, and sometimes you forget.”
- Accept that different opinions can be legitimate, even though you might not agree with them. DBT asserts that no one has the absolute truth, and that we need to be open to alternatives. Even if we do not think our teen is right, it is important to try and validate what they think. By validating, we show our teens that what they feel matters to us. It allows them to feel both cared for and respected.
- Check your assumptions and do not expect others can read your mind. We cannot assume that we know what is happening in our teen’s head, just as we cannot expect that they know what is going on in ours. We should ask our teens clarifying questions like “can you tell me more about that?” We should also strive to be clear by saying things like “what I am trying to say is that I feel ___ about ____.”
The Middle Path and Dialectical Dilemmas
Walking the middle path is particularly important for teenagers because we are faced with some of the most common and challenging dialectical dilemmas during adolescence. For example, as parents, we are often on one end of the spectrum of being too strict or too lenient. Staying mostly to one side will knock us off balance. We should, instead, strive for staying in the middle. DBT affirms that we should communicate clear rules and enforce them consistently while we allow for negotiation on some issues and refrain from overusing consequences.
Another dialectical dilemma where we should strive for balance is between making light of our teen’s problem behaviors and putting too much focus on typical adolescent challenges. It is important that we recognize and seek help from mental health professionals when behaviors “cross the line” and begin to cause major problems in our teen’s school life, social life, and family life. However, we should also seek to learn about and understand typical adolescent development so that we do not pathologize typical and age-appropriate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Finally, there is a dialectical dilemma that parents face between fostering dependence (holding on too tight) and forcing independence. As parents, we want to give our adolescents support, guidance, and rules to help them learn how to be responsible with their increased freedom. At the same time, we want to slowly increase their freedom and independence, while we encourage the appropriate amount of reliance on others.
When you are faced with a dialectical dilemma, there is no definitive way to handle it. What we know from DBT is that taking an extreme position is often unhelpful. It is important to consider where you fall with each dilemma, strive for balance, and communicate with your teen. If you are more willing and able to shift your position towards the middle path, your teen will be more willing and able to shift theirs and see things from your point of view.
Linehan, M. (2015). Dbt® skills training handouts and worksheets. New York: The Guilford Press
Rathus, J. H., Miller, A. L., & Linehan, M. (2017). Dbt skills manual for adolescents. New York: The Guilford Press