Ep 285: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Drama

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Louis Weinstock, talking about some toxic communication patterns that often play out in parent teen relationships, and how we can break out of the cycle.

Do you find yourself falling into a common pattern over and over again, where you're the bad guy and your kid is the good guy? Or your kid is having the crisis and you're swooping in to save the day?

These are common archetypal communication patterns that are as old as time, and they're only getting worse in our modern culture.

But the good news is there are things we can do to break out of the cycle.

Our guest today is a therapist. He works with parents and teenagers. He spent years running a school in London for troubled kids.

He's a founder of an incredible charity called A Part of Me, and he's the author of How the World is Making Our Children Mad.

Louis Weinstock is on the show with us. Louis, thanks for coming on the show today.

Louis Weinstock: Thank you for having me. It's good to be here.

Andy Earle: I'm pretty excited about this. I've been reading through your book and a lot of really interesting topics in here. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired the book? It's called, How the World is Making Our Children Mad, and What to do About It. What do you mean by that? How are our children mad?

Louis Weinstock: I've worked with children and young people for over 20 years. The last decade as a child and adolescent psychotherapist, and before that I was a social worker. And I for four years ran a therapeutic school in London for teenagers who had been kicked out of every other school and they all had complex trauma and this was the last chance saloon kind of thing.

So basically I've been working with children over this period of time and I've noticed in my clinical work, this increase in symptoms and diagnoses, so anxiety, depression, self harm, suicidal ideation, just the whole gamut of things. And as I was observing this increase and an increased concern about it, I wanted to think about, What are the deeper issues going on here?

Because sometimes having a label shortcuts thinking about what the root cause is. So you can say, I've got anxiety. And that can stop you from thinking about the root cause. And if we're seeing a general trend for the last decade in terms of increase in depression, Anxiety, increases in suicide, we're seeing that in the US, And in the UK, and in other countries around the world. Clearly there's something about the world that is affecting our children's minds, right? That doesn't get talked about anywhere near enough. So I wanted to write this book to put forward what I understand to be some of the key factors about what's going on in the world that's really influencing our children's minds and leading to this crisis that we see in mental health.

That's part of it. And then obviously what to do about it is What I think is the the best approach to take. So the first half of the book is very much for grown ups, whether you're a parent, teacher, anyone who cares about children. It's very much doing the work on yourself that I believe is needed to be able to guide your children through these difficult and uncertain times.

And then the second half of the book is focused on what you can actually do with the children who are in your care.

Andy Earle: It's broken up in a cool way too. You dive into these different archetypes, or 7 different categories, or root causes that are going on and what's at the heart of all these things, how they play out and what we can do about it.

One thing you talk about in the beginning of the book that I thought was really interesting is resilience, which is something we all feel like, wow, how can I get my kid more of that?

We want them to bust through barriers and not give up and persist and keep on going. You got to have grit, they got to have sticktoitiveness and they got to not let life get them down. What could possibly be wrong with resilience?

Louis Weinstock: We don't want life to get our children down.

And implicit in that is the idea that being down or feeling down is a problem. There is this idea that happiness is the only emotion children should be experiencing and anything else is problematic or an anomaly. Resilience is about making sure they're happy as often as they can be.

That's not how it's taught everywhere. But I used to teach mindfulness in schools quite a long time ago. And I was being brought in and sent the kids who were basically naughty, right? So they were being sent to the mindfulness group.

And the idea was, can you teach them a bit of mindfulness so these kids will go back into the classroom and adapt to the school and fit in? Whereas I was realizing the children who had been sent to me, their frustrations and emotions were a reaction to either a family situation or a school situation that wasn't meeting their needs.

So if I was just going to say, follow your breath and self regulate and use these techniques to calm down and go back into the system without giving them any of the sort of critical thinking skills about what is it that might be causing you to feel this way? And, what is something that you might be able to do to feel empowered in the environment that you're in rather than just adapting to the system?

So my approach over time was to help these children think critically about the environment and the impact it was having on their minds, whether it was the family or the school. This concept of resilience is it often is promoted as the idea that a child should have the skills to get through even the hardest times and have the grit to keep going. Whereas sometimes it's important that we stop. And we don't keep going.

As part of the cultural narrative, particularly in America, but largely around the world as well, this idea that you've got to keep going, keep driving forward, keep progressing. And then we have this epidemic of adults who are completely burned out, who I also see in my practice.

Something isn't right about those terms, grit and resilience, and the way they're framed. And that's why I question it in the book.

Andy Earle: It also strikes me, it's this disconnect we create with our feelings and our intuition about what's right for us, what's not right for us.

And the more we have this focus on resilience and powering through, and just getting it done, the less we're actually tuning in with ourself and allowing ourselves to follow our intuition and follow our gut and trust our innate self awareness about what's right for us and what's not right for us.

Louis Weinstock: Our bodies are highly intelligent. And I have a chapter in the book about that. These bodies that we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. There is an intelligence in them. And part of that intelligence that's evolved is our emotional systems.

Our emotions are there to give us signals that something in the environment might not be right, whether it's external or internal environment. And if what we're doing with our children is basically saying, you need to keep pushing forward, just keep driving on, they're losing contact with that innate intelligence that they have in their bodies.

And that's a big part of my work with children and parents and teachers is helping them tune into that. A lot of my work is about let's tune in to what's going on in your body. There's all sorts of playful ways you can dialogue with your body, with your feelings. Different parts of you can be a character. What's this feeling?

What's it expressing? What does it need? What wisdom is it carrying for you? And almost all the time when I have that approach with children or young people or those who care for them, they can instantly tune into that. It's natural for them to tune into that.

Andy Earle: On the other side of the spectrum of resilience and never giving up is always giving up. You talk about learned helplessness in the book and this apathy or I don't think there's any agency that I have, or that I can. There's there's really no chance in being able to achieve this.

So why bother? If we're not instilling resilience in our kids to push through everything, then how are we also not letting them fall into this reduced state of agency?

Louis Weinstock: It's not a binary. It's not either, or. I use the word emotional empowerment, which just means there is a way to tune into your emotions and what your body's telling you and what your symptoms might be revealing to you. That can be empowering. But before digging into that, it's important to say something about the learned helplessness piece.

I don't know if you've covered it on this channel much before, but what I was fascinated by when I dug into the research is it seems human beings are particularly prone to having this kind of switch in our brains and nervous systems triggered, which sends us into a state of learned helplessness.

Robert Sapolsky writes about how easy it seems for human beings in certain experimental conditions where they're given certain cues and they're asked to do a difficult challenge, but they're not given this particular option. Like sometimes it's a button that they can press to stop the noise.

And sometimes it's just like a little tool that they might or might not be given in the experiment that gives them the sense of agency that they have control. And as soon as they don't have that in the experimental conditions and then they give them another test afterwards, they really struggle with it and they feel helpless.

So the summary of the research is human beings get triggered into this state of learned helplessness, which is associated with depression. And it's basically this feeling of lack of agency, lack of power, like you can't really do anything. And I do see that a lot with teenage clients.

And I see that with parents quite a lot as well. One of the factors that can trigger learned helplessness is the overwhelm of information that's available. For me personally, that makes me feel helpless sometimes. And particularly in the parenting arena, there is so much information out there. And a lot of parents I work with are really struggling because they've read this book and they've spoken to that parenting consultant and they've listened to that podcast. And what I feel is important in the work I do is helping parents tune into their own intuition.

And that's empowering for a start. And I also believe it's empowering to have an experimental attitude to raising children. Because every child and every family is completely unique, and no strategy works consistently for an infinite amount of time. I'm still to meet a parent who says, yeah, that strategy I tried a year ago, and it's still working for my child now.

And it's obvious why it doesn't. Because children grow, and the parents grow. So we need to keep evolving and adapting. And so I recommend to the clients I work with this experimental attitude, which is: try something, see if it works. If it doesn't work, then you just try something else.

And unfortunately a lot of the information out there can be quite dogmatic in terms of do this, don't do that. That can be quite disempowering and can trigger some states of learned helplessness.

Andy Earle: What is the Drama Triangle?

Louis Weinstock: The Drama Triangle is a psychological model that describes what seem to be core functions of the human mind. So you have these three different roles that people find themselves acting out. And often you're acting these roles out unconsciously and you act them out in relation to other people.

So in the drama triangle, there's the victim, there's the rescuer, and there's the persecutor. And people can move between the different roles depending on the context, but very often we might find ourselves more aligned with one role over another. So some people find themselves stuck in a victim role or a victim mindset.

And often that's to do with the family system that they've grown up in, where perhaps that was the only option that they may have had to get attention or resources is to play out a particular version of themselves. And what keeps people locked in victim very often is the rescuer. So the rescuer and the victim, it's a triangle.

So all these roles work together, but the rescuer so I'll make a concrete example. Very often, parents, especially new parents, when they see their child in any kind of suffering, it elicits this very strong response to want to rescue them from their suffering.

I'm six years into our parenting journey, and our daughter's been going to forest school this week for an Easter holiday camp.

And the first day was absolutely chucking it down. And I dropped her off and she was the only one there. There was no one else there. And it was just chucking down with rain with these two people she's never met before. And she's six. And to be honest, she was actually happy.

She looked happy. But I drove off and I was really noticing this strong emotional energy coming up in me. Oh, gosh, what if she's not happy? And I would call that a version of the rescuer impulse.

The problem is, if you operate from the rescuer mindset too often, especially with children, rescuing them from any difficult situation they're in, then you're actually trapping them into being helpless victims.

They're not learning to figure things out for themselves. One of my friends, who's a parent, who's a former professional BMX rider, is a great counter example to this. Whenever we've been out with his children, if they fall over and it really doesn't matter how bad the fall is.

And this might sound harsh, but he just does not pick them up. And It sounds harsh, but I can honestly say I've observed this over the last several years, and it's not like he's ignoring them. He's there with them. But they will get up ultimately and figure it out for themselves.

So the other thing about the persecutor is the one who the victim needs to be rescued from. In a family situation, for example, you might have a dad who's shouting at a child and the child's upset and the dad can be the persecutor and then the mom might need to rescue the child.

That's a very classic example of the drama triangle. But what's really important is to notice that these are patterns we get stuck in. They're quite deep within us. I use the word archetypal, which comes from Jungian psychology.

The idea of an archetype is this is a deep pattern within our human code that plays out in similar ways across different cultures. And I think there is that deep element to it, but just being aware of it is a really good start. Especially with children and teenagers.

A good example is social media. Social media is the persecutor. And if parents approach the persecutor of social media in a particular way, then they aren't empowering their kids and they can trap them into a feeling of helplessness.

So if they just leave them to it, or if they completely ban it without any conversation and they're keeping them trapped, they're rescuing them from this persecutor. But what I've found really helps, and it's not easy, but young people can be so reflective about their use of social media. They're very aware of the harms.

And creating a space of reflection where you're asking them questions rather than trying to rescue them. You're just curious and saying, when you played that game last night, what happened and how did it make you feel? How did you feel afterwards? What did you notice?

Did it affect your sleep or not? Trying to remove the judgment from it. Being open and curious and seeing where they get to. And more often than not, young people are really able to reflect on these things. It's not necessarily easy for them to stop, that's a separate conversation about social media that maybe we'll get onto.

But the point is to snap out of the drama triangle, it's about getting into more of an empowering coaching kind of mindset.

Andy Earle: Something pretty interesting you talk about in the book is you point out there's actually a lot of power in the victim role. What does that look like? It seems like the least powerful role, you're the one who's has no power, you're getting persecuted, you need someone else to help rescue you.

So how is it that the victim role actually is empowering in a way?

Louis Weinstock: That was one of the biggest insights to me in this particular area of the drama triangle. And the insight came to me when I was on a meditation retreat, and the teacher of this meditation retreat had some different techniques they were bringing in, and one of them was this drama therapy type of thing. One evening, she said tonight we're going to play out the drama triangle.

And so she got three volunteers from the group to come up in front of everyone. And she said, one of you will be the victim, one of you will be the rescuer, and one of you will be the persecutor. There was no other instruction. Now it was literally just go and play and see what happens.

And what happened is, they started off awkwardly trying to get into these roles. And at some point it switched from awkwardly trying to play this thing to literally being in a trance. And the victim became the most powerful person in this scene.

Because she was... it's hard to explain, but she was giving off this energy that was attracting other people towards her.

Andy Earle: Everything's revolving around the victim in a way.

Louis Weinstock: I was watching this and I was going, oh my God, the victim. You wouldn't normally think that was like such a powerful.

Andy Earle: Also, she becomes the hero of the story. In our heroes journey type of story archetype. There's a victim, a villain, a perpetrator. And then there's maybe someone who's helping them. And so they take over the narrative, putting themselves at the center of the narrative.

Louis Weinstock: That was such a light bulb moment for me. The victim can have such power. And that made sense because it correlates with the research into learned helplessness as well. And it made sense in terms of family dynamics. People tend to orient towards a victim role in the drama triangle when they have no other options, no healthier options of getting power. And in the book, one of my key messages is that very often symptoms that we associate with mental health are an unconscious way of trying to get power in a situation where a child feels powerless.

And actually, if we can give them more of a healthy sense of empowerment through all the things that I've been talking about so far, very often we find that those symptoms go away.

Andy Earle: What would be an example of that? How could something we look at as being a mental health symptom actually be a subconscious strategy to get more power in a situation?

Louis Weinstock: Secondary gains is a related term from the field of psychology. The idea is that very often there's a secondary gain that's happening that we can't see, particularly in a family system.

Let's say if somebody is feeling anxious. And they're expressing that anxiety into the family system. That anxiety is eliciting a particular response from somebody in the system. Usually it'll be a parent, and it's bringing the parent closer to them. You can correlate these symptoms with unconscious attachment seeking strategies, right?

So sometimes you see in the family system that if somebody's expressing their anxiety, it brings the caregivers close. And maybe the parents have been going through a separation and the anxiety becomes a way to try and keep one of the parents close.

A deep fear that every child has is that their parents will leave them or abandon them and that they'll have to fend for themselves. That's deeply wired into our Code as human beings. And because human beings are born the most vulnerable creature on planet Earth, to keep our caregivers close is such a deep drive. And if your parents are going through a separation, for example, it's quite common that some symptoms might come up If the child doesn't have healthy forms of communication in the family system. A symptom might come up, try and keep that parent close.

And that's the way a symptom can be gaining a secondary advantage in a situation where it seems like a problem.

Andy Earle: Louie, thank you so much for coming on the show today. We are getting to the end of our time here and there's so much more to discuss.

We really only scratched the surface of all the great stuff in your book. And what I love is how you go into exercises. You don't just talk about how all these things are really hard, or that really sucks for families. You dig in and go through these step by step exercises that people can try out and implement or walk through with your kids.

And so I found that to be really powerful and helpful. And I will highly encourage people to check it out. Grab a copy. The book is called How the World is Making our Children Mad and What to do About It.

Louis Weinstock: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the chat.

Andy Earle: Where can we send people to find out more about you, more about your work, and maybe follow updates on what you're doing next?

Louis Weinstock: I'm not huge on social media and some people say that's to my detriment, but I've made a conscious decision not to spread myself across all these different platforms. But I am on LinkedIn and I have a website, which is my name, louisweinstock. com. And people can sign up to my newsletter where I sporadically send tips, insights. It's not just about children. Sometimes it's about children, sometimes just about how we can orient ourselves in this crazy, mad, uncertain world we live in.

How we can make sense of it. So people can sign up to my newsletter. And I probably want to mention as well that I also co founded and run a charity called A Part of Me, which is worth checking out because we help young people who experience loss and trauma and we developed the world's first therapeutic mobile game to help young people through grief and we have all sorts of new programs and initiatives happening.

If anyone's interested in that, they can go to apartofme.app.

Andy Earle: Wow that sounds amazing. That's really cool work you're doing. And I highly encourage people to go check that out, see what they can do to get involved. Thank you so much for coming on the show today for sharing all this with us.

I'm really grateful to have you here. And for taking the time to write this book. It's powerful and helpful.

Louis Weinstock: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Andy. Appreciate it.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Louis Weinstock talking about common communication patterns that parents and teens often fall into and how to break free. And we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Louis Weinstock: There can be in some families quite a lot of avoidance, and often it's to do with a fear of the feelings that might come up. We worry that if we talk about this difficult thing, then these feelings will come up.

And it was a study by Harvard. Where they interviewed thousands of families about the difference between what parents stated their values were and what their daily messages and interactions with their children were like.

And there was this huge disparity between parents who said, I really want my child to be caring, and kind, and generous. But in the way they were interacting, they were basically giving them the message that they needed to be the opposite of that.

Paul Gilbert is this amazing professor of psychology in the UK who's developed this whole body of research into compassion focused therapy.

And he has this model which young people and parents find super helpful. And it's these three color coded circles to describe the three basic motivational systems.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Louis Weinstock
Louis Weinstock
Psychotherapist for Children and Grown-Ups, Radical Alchemist, Author.
Ep 285: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Drama
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