New session – Parenting the Extreme Teen

Tara McGee and I are running another series of workshops in Collingwood in January.  These workshops are proving to be quite popular.  We were both amazed at the participation in the session we ran in November, and with the value that people were getting out of it.  We did the first session on “The Maturity Model” using the material from Dr. John McKinnon’s book An Unchanged Mind.  This session helps parent understand that their teen’s behavior is actually a flawed approach to solving their problems.  These kids are in over their head and are missing some critical skills to function in the world.  They don’t understand why, and they are in genuine pain about not succeeding.  Self-destructive behavior like not attending school, using drugs, cutting, and more, are solutions that their immature brains have come up with to provide immediate relief — without considering longer-term consequences.  We outline the 7 maturity factors that teens who have lost their way are lacking in:  Social Ethics, Lack of Narcissism, Empathy, Emotional Regulation, Future Orientation, Abstract versus Black-and-White Thinking, and Separateness in Relationships.

In the next session we focus on the building blocks for helping teens mature.  The first step is about attunement, which is the parents’ ability to see their child for who they are and to connect with them where they are at.  Without attunement it is impossible to set limits that a teen will respect, so we start with this topic.  We notice that parents often have unrealistic or “mis-attuned” expectations for their child, for example, everyone can relate to the concept of their child as a mini-me — and to a teenager whose behavior is screaming  “I AM NOT YOU!!”  As our teens fumble around and search for an identity that they feel comfortable with, it is critical that parents truly “see” them and learn to connect.  We teach you practical skills to listen and talk so that communication is not just an illusion, so that you are getting and giving the respect that everyone deserves.

Our third session focuses on setting limits.  We demonstrate the difference between a privilege, an expectation, and a limit, and we discuss how privileges are granted, and limits loosened only when the teen demonstrates that they are responsibly meeting expectations.  This is the big eye-opener for most participants, and all of the other stuff in the previous sessions start to make more sense.

The parents who have attended these sessions are invited to continue on with a bi-weekly group where they can continue to discuss how they are doing with implementing the strategies we are teaching.  If only it were as simple as just implementing the strategies!!  But it is not that simple, so some self-exploration  about the barriers we set up for ourselves is necessary.  As well, it takes time to really figure out what is going on for a particular child and what parts of the strategy need to be emphasized more for that child.  The ongoing support and education sessions help increase understanding abuot the problems and fine-tune the approach so that it is successful for the particular parent/child combination and the particular extenuating circumstances.

We had a great deal of fun and laughter in the workshops, even though some of the participants have very serious difficulties to contend with.  The atmosphere was accepting and supportive.  Our new sessions will start on January 24th.  My website has details and how to register:  Feel free to pass the info along to anyone who is struggling with a teen.



No Shame in Reaching Out for Help With “Extreme” Teens

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Not all children thrive like dandelions – some of them are orchids, and when these “special” kids become teens, trouble is sometimes not far behind.  An “extreme” teen might be a teen with a learning disability, some social anxiety, a pre-disposition to depression, a sense of entitlement, or a just a good old strong will.  Parenting takes on an added twist with these kids.  Add in the legalization of marijuana, social media pressure, or busy parents, and a tipping point into trouble can happen fairly quickly.  Fortunately, help is on the way.  Tara McGee and Liz van Ryn are two local therapist who have joined forces to run an education and support group to help parents who are either struggling with their teen, or just worried.  Both are experienced clinicians trained in the “Maturity Model” at the Pine River Institute, a local residential treatment program for youth.  Their workshops will help parents understand teen behavior in a totally different way, making it easier to respond rather than react to behavior, developing a healthy connection with teens, setting appropriate limits for them, and getting parents the respect they deserve.

“We will start with teaching you how the teenage brain works, and then move into practical strategies for increasing what we call attunement, and setting boundaries and limits that work.  Over the course of four evening session we will cover off everyday concerns such as curfews, chores, and cell phone rules, as well as more extreme behaviors such as substance abuse, excessive gaming, self-harming behavior, and poor school attendance.”  Following the series of four workshops, van Ryn and McGee will launch an ongoing bi-weekly support group for parents.  More intense therapy for the teen, the parents, or the family is also available if necessary.

“We live in a world where there is tremendous pressure to have well-adjusted kids, who are succeeding and moving forward in their lives. And we know that there are lots of parents out there with teens who have lost their way, and who feel alone because of the stigma about reaching out for help,” says van Ryn.  McGee adds that, “parents with kids who are struggling with behavior, substance abuse, or mental health are sometimes so embarrassed that they live in fear of running into a friend at the grocery store who might ask about how the kids are doing.”  But what McGee and van Ryn know is that teen troubles are not isolated to any particular type of family.  It is often a perfect storm of factors that can centre around one child in the family.  “Our workshops are designed to help you overcome the stigma and the embarrassment so that you can accept that this is where you are at, and move forward to support your teenager in the best way possible.”


Thu Oct 25:  6 – 7 pm:    Understanding the Teen-Age Brain

Thu Nov 01:  6 – 7 pm:   Setting Limits with Success:  Limit setting from boundaries and values

Thu Nov 08:  6 – 7 pm:   Connecting With Your Teen:  Communication strategies that give and get respect

Thu Nov 22:  6 – 7 pm:   Substance Use, Broken Curfews and More:  Dealing with extreme behaviors

Where:              74 Hurontario Street, Suite 213, Collingwood

Cost:                   $20 per workshop or $75 for the series

Contact:           Liz Van Ryn

705 351 1285


Tara McGee

705 888 7731

Collingwood Psychotherapy and Yoga Centre

Elizabeth (Liz) van Ryn, M.Sc. is the Director of Family Programs at the Pine River Institute, Canada’s pre-eminent residential treatment centre for youth with addictive behaviours and mental health issues.  Liz is a Registered Psychotherapist and Registered Marriage and Family Therapist.  She has a private practice called Creekside Therapy.    

Tara McGee, MSW, RSW is the Director of the Collingwood Psychotherapy and Yoga Centre. She received her MSW from the University of Toronto and her Diploma in Psychotherapy from the Toronto Institute for Relational Psychotherapy. She has spent the last 15 years working in the youth mental health field as a Psychotherapist both in private practice and at organizations that are innovating in the field of Adolescent Mental Health care such as the Pine River Institute, Blake Boultbee Youth Outreach Service and Eva’s Initiatives homeless shelters for youth.

The Real “Must Have’s” for Back to School

Some parents are running around in circles this week trying to get organized for sending the kids back to school.  It is a lot of work to set up after-school care, plan lunches that kids will actually eat, and hunt out deals on new backpacks and clothing.  And some kids have a pretty long list of things they think they need, as well as a whining, pleading, desperate tone to their voice when they are talking about it.  This is the time of year when you wonder if you have raised a spoiled, entitled, little brat.  And the answer is probably not – you just have a very anxious kid on your hands.  Imagine if we all had two months off (oh yes!) and then suddenly got thrust back into a crowded, high pressure working environment with a new team, a new boss, maybe even a new workplace.  For most of us this would be terrifying.  And we would sure hope that our organization’s leadership team had come up with some change management strategies to prepare us for the transition.

Often the way we “prepare” our kids for the change of going back to school is to buy them things.  And we are inadvertently teaching them that buying things will alleviate anxiety.  If your child is being “a brat” about needing the latest and most expensive pair of running shoes you can likely guess that his or her fears and worries are pretty high, in fact, the more whining, the higher the anxiety. Will I look right?  Will I fit in?  Am I cool enough? Am I good enough?  Recognizing this is the first step to a cheap solution, because the good news is that we don’t have to spend more money to deal with this.  In fact, spending more money will be counter-productive because every kid knows deep inside that if they do not have their own self-confidence, everyone will see through the Air Jordans.

We can help our kids prepare for school by building self-confidence in their own ability to handle that change.  If you engage in a quick internet search of how to help people manage the change process, buying them shoes is not on the list!  Taking time to listen, demonstrating your concern, fixing what you can, helping them have a sense of control, etc. are the strategies that are suggested.  The real “must-haves” for going back to school are your time and attention as a parent.  So when you are out at the mall this weekend, know that the time you spend having a bite to eat in the food court talking about their worries and fears, and helping them develop solutions to their social anxieties is worth more than any pair of shoes that money can buy.  Your child’s self-confidence will grow if you take the time to listen because it lets them know they are important.  Their sense of competence and control will increase when you help them develop ideas for how to get involved in school.  And the whining will decrease.  Eventually!

Family Drama in the Face of Change

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Family Drama in the Face of Change

There is often a lot of family drama that unfolds when one person in the family decides that something needs to change.  Many of us humans like things to stay the same, especially when it comes to family.  We find comfort in the “familiar”, even if it is unpleasant.  When someone wants to change things, the more primitive parts of our brain send out danger signals and we take evasive action.  We each have our own unique evasion strategies that are basic variations on fight, or flight – hence the family drama.  There may be arguments (fight), or an increase in avoidance behavior (flight). It is important to understand that family members feel genuinely threatened.

Why is change so threatening? At the simplest level, being asked to change automatically implies that something wasn’t good enough.  “I want to change something” from one family member gets translated into “I must not be good enough” for the other family member. Change stirs up our fears about inadequacy, unloveableness, and unmet expectations, whether they are our own or someone else’s.  These doubts are inside all of us and nobody like to have them stirred up!

We also know that change involves loss.  In gaining something, it is inevitable that something else is lost.  It never seems quite fair, but that’s how it works.  So why take a chance on giving up what you have for something new that might not be as good? Add to that the risk of stirring up a “fight” response, or experiencing the loneliness created by a loved one’s flight response – it is a wonder that anyone ever has the courage to change at all!

But surely, the ability to make a change is within our fundamental human rights?  When one person is no longer willing or able to tolerate a situation, there must be a way that they can say, “I want things to change” without the threat of the whole household falling into chaos.  Fortunately, there are some tried and true methods.  Owning your feelings is a courageous key step that is often missed in favour of the  ever-popular strategy of blaming your feelings on someone else!   And having compassion and understanding instead of judgement for the other family members is another key step. Let’s face it – we all are familiar with judgement and blame!  However, when we voice our feelings without blame, and take into account the fact that our feelings are going to create anxiety in the other family members we have started on the road to making things better for the family.  It won’t feel “familiar” or good in the beginning, but the pay-off is huge when we persist.

As with all things in the inter-personal realm, none of this is particularly easy.  But as we move through the stages of our lives as human beings, we need to continue to grow, because if we don’t, we will stagnate.  Annoying habits become worse, comfort zones become narrower, coping mechanisms no longer work, and our world becomes smaller and more constrained.  Asking for change is about supporting our family to grow – it is a huge act of love that requires courage, compassion, and persistence.