Upper School Parents Learn About Relationships With Their Teens

Mr. David Hotaling, Upper School Counselor, hosted an informative session for Upper School parents this week. He introduced Julia Katzman and Ned Presnall, professional therapists who work with adolescents and their parents at Plan Your Recovery, who shared valuable insights about parent-teen relationships, communication, effective boundary setting, and healthy parenting in general.

Presnall began by explaining that there are two primary tasks when it comes to parenting: the personal task of delighting in your child and then helping your child learn to successfully navigate the impersonal world.

He challenges parents to consider what percentage of their interactions with their teenagers are positive versus negative or, perhaps just as damaging, perfunctory. The tone of these interactions defines the character of the relationship, and for a child, can set the stage for all future interpersonal relationships. (This also works when assessing the health of spousal relationships, too.) Presnall said, “We’re just animals. Humans, yes, but fundamentally animals. We are wired to seek out those places where we get little rewards.”

Parent-child relationships are a developmental expectancy, and not neutral right from the beginning. Children are born with the expectation that when they look into the eyes of their primary caregiver(s), they’re going to get attention and delight. “Think of babies,” he said. “The first thing they do is make eye contact.” Studies show that babies have disproportionate preferences for faces over objects, and attachment is based on biological expectancy and fundamental dependency on the caregiver from infancy through adulthood.

The most important characteristic of this gaze of delight helps children develop one of two dimensions of self-esteem: “I am likable.” Obvious delight nurtures this basic expectation of children that they are delightful, lovable, and likable. “If your child is going to navigate the world based on feeling they are likable and lovable, that makes all their interpersonal relationships richer,” he said.

For most parents, this task of showing delight in your child is really easy…until you start feeling that your child is not doing what they’re supposed to. If your student is failing classes, misbehaving, and being disrespectful, parents forget about delighting and go straight into the work of discipline. Discipline is necessary, of course, but Presnall cautions that it needs to be kept separate from delight. One is impersonal, and the other is quite personal.

Presnall admits that in the teenage years when kids are testing boundaries, it can be really hard not to personalize the impersonal world; we tend to delight less and instead deal with the boundaries we are trying to set. And that’s where the second big task of parenting comes in: helping your kids learn to successfully navigate the impersonal world.

Perhaps one of the most common mistakes parents make is personalizing the impersonal world when it comes to their children. When children break boundaries, parents are tempted to feel as though “they’re doing this to me.” They may wonder why their children are choosing to disrespect them. Parents will respond to these feelings, and then their children grow confused and wonder if they are no longer delightful. The parent thinks they can appeal to the kid’s love for them and everything gets confused. Presnall called this “over-personal parenting.”

The two biggest mistakes parents make are being too permissive and being too rigid. There’s a middle area, Presnall said, and parents should still delight in their children while not trying to be their friend. When children are facing a boundary (you’ve taken away their phone or told them they can’t do something, making them angry and upset), they’ll try to personalize it to get you to change your mind. They may claim you don’t love them. The trick is to resist that, make it impersonal, and then when things are stable again start re-engaging in the personal. “You’re grounded, but let’s go get some lunch,” for instance. Presnall advises showing that you can be affirming personally even as you impose impersonal boundaries. Kids begin to realize, “I am always delightful to my parent, but there’s a world where I have to live up to expectation.”

The key to all this? Presnall said you must be able to tolerate the negative emotions of your teen. There’s a strong spike in negative behavior when you first set a new boundary, but once they get used to it, that behavior goes away. “It gets worse and then it gets better,” he said, sharing that some parents have to learn to tolerate negative emotions in their teens. “Set the boundary, let them experience their negative emotions, then when they realize the boundary won’t change, they will start to feel better.”

He also spoke about the four traits of addiction, whether that’s addiction to drugs and alcohol, technology, gaming, or any number of stimuli that cause students to underperform in all kinds of ways, including socially, academically, or at home:


  • Hopelessness
  • Anxiety sensitivity


  • Sensation seeking
  • Impulsivity

Hopelessness is the symptom of depression that most predicts suicide. Presnall said it could be environmental or genetic, but the point is that they just don’t feel hopeful about the future. They might feel sad. And parents might not notice it all the time, but teens struggling with this carry it around constantly. Then, when they discover addictive things like alcohol, marijuana, or gaming, that helps them escape their hopelessness.

Every kid has anxiety and that’s a good thing, as a healthy amount of anxiety tells us where to go and what to avoid and what to do. Anxiety tells students to study for the test, or anxiety in a social situation causes them to engage socially and in an acceptable way. Kids who have anxiety sensitivity are hyper-aware of their anxiety and they problematize it. They are scared of the symptoms, scared their heart is racing or that they’re sweating. This causes a feedback loop, where now the teen is getting anxious because of the symptoms, not the original cause for anxiety, which makes everything worse. Presnall said this is the foundation for panic disorder, which is a runaway feedback loop. When you find something that helps you escape that, it’s highly rewarding and reinforcing; it takes that awareness away of the symptoms and allows them to live their life.

Externalizing actions include sensation seeking, where teens are looking for something to hold their attention. Substances can do that, so they’re self-medicating in a sense. Impulsivity is about the ability to inhibit an impulse. Teens struggling with this will engage more in risky behaviors because they don’t have the inhibition that gets them to slow down or stop.

All of these situations require a different type of parenting. Presnall said the first step is to get to the heart of what makes them feel helpless or hopeless. They might need therapy or medical treatment or a change in environment. Anxiety sensitivity can be treated with exposure therapy, which helps teens be aware and develop a stronger sense of self-efficacy. A sensation-seeking kid needs to have sensations, so he recommends a very rich extracurricular life that keeps them too busy to find unhealthy, addictive things. They also need structure and supervision. Impulsivity needs scaffolding to help teens with their slowly-developing inhibitions.

Katzman spoke about contingency management, which is another phrase for “dealing with the consequences of your actions,” because reinforcing desirable behaviors makes behaviors more desirable. Contingency management is effective when done in a step by step approach.

With drug use for example, often teens come to Plan Your Recovery without the same consequences of their drug use that adults are experiencing. “They’re really only feeling the good parts of drugs and not the bad,” said Katzman.

She recommends starting by identifying one or two behaviors you want to see changed. If you choose more than that, it becomes more of a power struggle and makes the reinforcing aspect a lot less effective. Next, you have to figure out how to make the behavior measurable. This can get tricky with the boundary between the personal and impersonal world, and parents will need to find a way to objectively observe the behavior. Presnall gave an example of homework and the ability for parents to see online when assignments are turned in. “We do a lot of academic contingencies that have nothing to do with drugs,” he said. “We’re helping kids work up to their aptitude.” You have to resolve the measurement problems at the beginning of the contingency management because if it’s not measurable, it’s not enforceable. There must be rewards and consequences for your teenager.

It’s important for teens to have a sense of self, and within that is a sense of accomplishment. They must also develop the ability to communicate their needs. Sometimes teens don’t necessarily want to talk about how they’re feeling, but they do want to have an authentic conversation with someone about what’s going on with their lives, so parents should give them space to open up and share and create that narrative for themselves. Every teen has areas they need to work on, such as emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and resilience when things don’t go as planned. Teens should also work on self-assertiveness. A great example of this is being comfortable scheduling time to meet with a teacher when an assignment or test didn’t go well. It’s important for teens to learn this self-reliance and authority. They can’t see a path forward when their parents have solved everything for them.

Katzman uses a tool called “value assessment” that helps teens identify what they value, which then helps them prioritize their lives to support those values. “When there’s a discrepancy between what I feel are my values and what my life looks like day to day, that’s motivating to change,” she said. Usually, what teens value are different than adults. For instance, if a teen values their friends and they’re currently feeling hurt by a friend, understanding that value can help them work toward either repairing that friendship or determining whether the friendship is even in line with their values. If success is a value, teens can evaluate how much of their energy each day they are spending on achievement. The discrepancy between values and behavior can drive motivation to change.

One parent asked a question that many MICDS families can relate to: what about kids who are too focused on grades, sports, and success? Presnall said that teens are looking to learn life skills for adulthood and that one important skill is developing a work-life balance. They need to create boundaries between the time invested in doing well and achieving, and the time investing in play. He counseled finding things that make your teen feel good about themselves and doing things with them that aren’t achievement-oriented, that allow you to simply delight in them.

Hotaling has helped many students realize that working a little bit less can actually create a better result. Backing off and engaging in self-care creates better long-term outcomes than continuing to push. This is not to say that achievement is inherently bad; it’s more about learning how to recognize over-effort and learning to shave off a bit. A lot of what happens in the teenage years is figuring out how you want to move forward and build a life you want to live in adulthood.

Presnall summarized the session by saying that unconditional love and unconditional positive regard (instilling the fundamental belief that children are lovable, likable, and good) combined with developing self-efficacy in preparation for navigating the impersonal world are the two core areas of development for children.

Need help or want to learn more? Visit PlanYourRecovery.com.