Ep 153: Initiate Change In Your Teen (Using DBT)

Episode Summary

Matis Miller, author of The Uncontrollable Child, dishes on how to handle defiant, unruly teens. His practical tips based in DBT all start with one simple step, that’s sometimes harder than it sounds: acceptance!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Falling into a destructive cycle with your teen is far too easy–and incredibly frustrating. You yell at them to stop coming home late every night, or beg them to stop neglecting their homework for their Netflix….but they just don’t listen. Even offering rewards or doling out punishments never seems to work. It can feel like you’re living the same day over and over again, with no end in sight!

On top of feeling like your words are falling on deaf ears, all the fussing and fighting can start to put a strain on you and your teen’s relationship. It’s hard when you feel like you and your kid are enemies, or like the two of you are always bickering instead of connecting with one another. How can we get kids to listen, while also keeping our relationships harmonious?

If we really want to end the cycle and connect to our teens again, we’ll have to change the fundamentals of our approach. Our guest this week is Matis Miller, author of The Uncontrollable Child: Understand and Manage Your Child’s Disruptive Moods with Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills. Matis has been working as a clinical psychologist for over fifteen years, and has some groundbreaking ideas about how you can transform your parenting philosophy to bring peace to your home again.

Are you familiar with dialectic behavioral therapy? In this week’s episode, Matis and I are breaking down this fascinating method of clinical therapy, and sharing how you can apply it to tackle your toughest parenting battles. We’re also talking about how judgement and invalidation might be harshing your parenting approach, and discussing how you can dish out more effective rewards and punishments.

The Power of Perspective

Sometimes, fixing even the most challenging parenting problems starts with a small change of perspective. In our interview, Matis tells us all about dialectical behavioral therapy: a clinical approach to changing behavior which starts with a shift in mindset. This method calls upon the parents to stop begging teens to change, and start looking at the causes of teen’s upsetting habits instead. Matis explains that dialectical therapy encourages parents to accept teen’s behavior while also striving for change–even if those two things appear contradictory. 

But what does that really mean? First, Matis explains, we need to ditch anger for acceptance. When our teenagers are driving us up the wall, hurling harsh words their way is not going to make things better, he says. Although you want to see change, you first have to accept things for how they are. Matis and I discuss how many parents are in a sort of denial, refusing to acknowledge their teen’s behavior, wanting them to be “perfect” or fit into expectations. The first step, Matis says, is to accept the reality of the situation.

In doing so, Matis explains, we’re able to see the truth in our teen’s perspective, even when it contradicts our own. It doesn’t mean we condone their questionable behavior, but it can help us shift our focus towards the behavior’s causes! 

Instead of reprimanding our kid over and over again vaping to no avail, a dialectical approach can guide us to see why they keep reaching for that vape, says Matis. Maybe the stress of school is overwhelming, and they need an escape. Perhaps they’re feeling symptoms of depression or anxiety! Once we isolate the cause, we can help them find an alternative, or make an appointment with an expert to learn more. With more concrete, productive steps, we can go beyond the endless nagging and see some real change.

In the episode, Matis and I dive deeper into the value of this dialectic approach. Building on that, we also discuss the ineffectiveness of certain parenting tendencies that have negativity at the center–such as judgement and invalidation.

How Words Can Hurt     

When we’re refusing to see our kids’ perspective and making endless “should” statements–such as “my teen should be getting better grades” or “she should stop dating so much”–we find ourselves judging teens. We might label them as lazy or as a “bad kid”, as a way of dealing with our disappointment or anger. But when we pass judgement, we fail to see the whole picture. We’re not thinking about the causes or nuances of their behavior, or trying to see their perspective. Instead, we’re shutting them, without giving them a chance at redemption.

Matis suggests trying to analyze and reclaim those judgemental thoughts. Is declaring that your teen is “lazy” going to help him become more productive? Is this judgement going to create a loving, nurturing connection between the two of you? It’s unlikely, says Matis. In the episode, He and I discuss how parents can ditch judgement and instead impart more positivity to really see a change.

In the episode, Matis explains how along with passing judgement, parents often invalidate teen’s feelings or thoughts without really noticing. For some parents, invalidation might even seem like encouragement! 

For example, say your teen is struggling with calculus and is telling you about it on the drive home from school one day. You might deliver an offhand quip, saying how it was much harder years ago when you took it, and it’s only going to get harder in college. You might tell them this is the easiest it will get. While you think this is encouraging, it may only make your kid feel worse.

In a situation like this, teens are simply trying to communicate how they feel, and even though you may not realize, you might be shutting them down. In the episode, Matis and I discuss how validating teens’ feelings can actually lead them to become better at regulating their own emotions and help them make a smoother transition into adulthood.

So you’ve worked on changing your perspective and watching what you say to teens…but what about things like rewards and punishments? What role can they play in parenting? In our interview, Matis explains how you can use these tools to help teens be their best selves.

Making the Most of Rewards and Punishments  

When your kids knock it out of the park, getting an A on a paper or receiving that long awaited college acceptance, you likely want to give them something to show them how proud you are. But it seems these days the go-to reward is some new video game or gadget….and your kid gets enough screen time as it is! 

In our interview, Matis and I get into gifts you can give that are outside of the digital realm. He encourages parents to think about just how many privileges they award to their kids on a regular basis already–and to brainstorm small ways to make them more impactful. Even just giving your kid a ride somewhere or getting them a special treat from the grocery store can be super meaningful, says Matis.

But what about punishments? There are a lot of people who think punitive measures are a totally ineffective way to get teens to listen, but Matis isn’t opposed to them. What Matis is concerned about is parents doling out punishments based on emotions! When you’re angry and ground your kid for two weeks on a whim, your kid isn’t going to learn their lesson…or be very happy with you.

Matis instead stresses the value of setting practical, positive, productive limits. It might bother you that a teen spends hours on their phone before starting their homework…so maybe it’s time to take it away for an afternoon, he says! Although this won’t exactly cause teens to jump for joy, finding a way to put a positive spin can help. If you remind them that they’ll get their phone back as soon as they finish their paper, they’ll be even happier to get their hands on it in a few hours once they’ve finished their work.

In the Episode…

It was eye-opening to talk to Matis this week about how changing our mindsets can help us become better parents and people. On top the ideas discussed above, we talk about:

  • How we can bring positivity to our everyday lives
  • Why we shouldn’t let teens define their own limits
  • How our actions affect teens more than our words
  • Why parents should always be practicing awareness

There’s so much we can learn from Matis’s years as a clinician, working with “uncontrollable” teens and their parents. Happy listening and we’ll see you next week!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Approach your teen using nonjudgmental language:

“Hey listen, I know you’ve got a lot of work, I know you’re not the motivated type, yeah yeah your sister there she’s motivated. She wants to get into Ivies, she’s pushing those books, she’s taking APs. That’s just not you. I get it. I get it. This is your tendency, this is your makeup–maybe you’re like grandpa. But I think you’ve got a lot of strengths. At the same time, you have these responsibilities that aren’t getting done.”

Matis Miller

1. Approach your teen using nonjudgmental language:

(Members Only)

2. Use positive framing to set rules: 

(Members Only)

3. Roll back privileges so your teen recognizes they are privileges: 

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I just read this book of yours, The Uncontrollable Child: Understand and Manage Your Child’s Disruptive Moods with Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills. And it seems like, if you’re choosing the type of children to work with, they would want to be nice, well-behaved children. So, why uncontrollable children? Why are you writing a book about this, spending time working on this? Why do you think it’s just so important?

Matis: I’ve found, Andy, when I was working with a lot of people in my work as a psychotherapist and consulting parents, I found two things. Firstly, I found even those children that you might not see us uncontrollable or some people don’t perceive them as uncontrollable, the parents view them as uncontrollable. So the uncontrollable child might be uncontrollable to one and not uncontrollable to the other. And that’s really speaking to the book. I couldn’t, as I say to people, I couldn’t make the title of the book, The Uncontrollable Parent, because I don’t think it would sell, but I think in a way it’s very much how the parent is perceiving the child.

Matis: The other thing is, and real honestly, I was focusing on that emotionally sensitive, reactive, perhaps delinquent child, because I felt that was an area that there was lacking. There are wonderful parenting books, podcasts, articles, and techniques and skills and strategies that work with many. But when it comes to that more challenging, difficult child, that’s where often parents are help and they can have three children or larger families or less, and the other children, they seem to be doing just fine. It’s just that child that seems different or a poor fit or more sensitive. It could be socially or academically where the parents are coming in and saying help, and I really felt there was a need for some of the concepts in DBT and behaviors to be able to impart that to these parents to fill that gap.

Andy: So you talk about DBT and the basis of DBT is a dialectical, and what does that mean?

Matis: Yeah. Dialectical sounds really scientific and actually, at first it’s very overwhelming, but I think as it sinks in, it can actually become part of you. The whole concept of dialectics, and it’s really rich. It comes from, similarly to the word dialogue, the root dialogue is dialectics and dialectics is the theory and the idea is that we can have two opposing opposites, two concepts that are contradictory or appear contradictory. And they can actually both stand at the same time. They can both be true at the same time. And the classic dialectic that we refer to in DBT is the concepts of acceptance and change, which you would think to yourself, if I’m accepting a situation, it is what it is. I got to deal with it. This is life. This is the situation. I can’t change it. If I’m focusing on change, then I’m actively problem solving, I’m looking for solutions, I’m trying to figure it out.

Matis: So if I’m changing, changing, if I’m accepting, accepting, dialectics allows us to have these two ideas and we use the tension of both through dialogue to move towards truth and change over time. So I would say dialectics, and with teenagers and parenting is so often we’re interacting with our children and our teens and we don’t get them and they don’t make sense, and we can’t see their perspective, and dialectics helps us open our mind, broaden our perspective, shift our focus, and seeing that there can be one idea and another idea and they can both stand at the same time.

Andy: So at the heart of these approaches in this book is this idea of acceptance and you write that there are roadblocks to acceptance. And something that I found really interesting was, you talk about thinking errors that parents can have, especially for example, thinking about lots of should kinds of statements, because should suggest overlooking or ignoring the cause of behavior and getting stuck on what you wish were true, rather than what actually is true. So what are some of those ways that we get stuck in ways of thinking that prevent us from acceptance? And then also, I’m still interested in how that acceptance and the change co-exist with each other at the same time there.

Matis: Yeah, sure. Some great questions. As a cognitive therapist, as a trained cognitive therapist, we understand scientifically that our thoughts affect our emotions and affect our behaviors, as well as our emotions and behaviors affect our thinking patterns. So, very often when we have roadblocks in being able to implement certain ideas, concepts, strategies is because we have certain beliefs or thoughts that are in our mind that are very often not true, or as true as we think. And even if they are true, they’re not helpful thinking patterns.

Matis: So when I talk about some of the roadblocks and being able to accept your child or yourself or your situation, I specifically focus on one comment, “He shouldn’t be acting like this. She shouldn’t be doing this. This is not how it’s supposed to be.” And that should belief is where we’re taking our expectations, our perspective, our reality, and putting it on the current. And in truth, if your teenager’s trashing his room, he should be trashing his room. Now I know when I say that to people, they open their mouths wide open, they’re like, “What do you mean? He shouldn’t be trashing his room.” Of course he shouldn’t be-

Andy: “What? No. We don’t want him doing that.”

Matis: We don’t want him doing that. And the answer is, of course, but that acceptance doesn’t mean that we approve of the situation. Acceptance is getting in touch with the reality of what is, and what is is what should be in that moment, is he should, that’s what is, but looking at causes, what is the meaning to him trashing his room? What is meaning to those problem behaviors? So when we first accept what is and let go of those shoulds of what we want, and yes, that can come with sadness and disappointment and hurt and pain. As someone had recently shared with me, he said, “I don’t know. When I was reading your book about acceptance, I don’t know exactly what you were trying to get at, but I noticed myself feeling so much less angry, anger towards my children. As I let go of those shoulds and I accepted the reality and that this is what should be, or this as is, even though it’s upsetting, I noticed I was more accepting and less frustrated and less angry.”

Matis: And that gets to your second point, Andy, is when I accept that reality of who my team is or where they’re at and their behaviors, that can actually help me move towards change. Very often, acceptance is the key to change, because now I can understand that there is something here that’s wrong. There’s something here that needs to change, perhaps within myself or perhaps within my child’s environment, but there are causes, and if I can look at those causes, I can move towards change.

Matis: But one of the balances of acceptance and change is understanding I need to accept what is in order to make change. Now that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes there are certain things about, perhaps my team, I can’t change right now, perhaps a decision they’re making, or something, the way they’re behaving, or perhaps the struggle, an emotional struggle that they have. And in such a case, I have to move towards acceptance and accept fully, radically wholly who my child is.

Matis: Now, where does that come in with change? Because if I would just accept, I’d say, “This is what it is.” Can you imagine for a second someone would have a trial of chemotherapy, let’s talk about medical for a minute, and it’s not being effective. And so the person realizes that there is no other treatment right now. They need to accept and embrace what is and their medical illness. Does that mean if a week later a new trial comes out that’s very promising that they say, “Oh no, no, I’m on the acceptance train right now. I’m not taking no change for me. I’m doing acceptance?”

Andy: Yeah. Right.

Matis: So acceptance and change, just because we’re accepting the moment, that doesn’t mean at the same time we’re open for the next moment to be changed. That perhaps we’ll identify something else. It’s a constant balance. It’s like being a skillful dancer in a dance school. Is constantly going back and forth between that balance of acceptance and change, sometimes we’re more on the acceptance area, sometimes we’re more on the change.

Andy: So, how do we find that balance? Or how do we know when we’re veering off of balance?

Matis: Excellent. And that’s where mindfulness comes in. That’s where awareness comes in. And mindfulness is the ability for us to take that step back. So often we get so sucked up in our emotion and we keep continuing the same behavior again and again. I like to think of it, I give this example sometimes. It’s like the teacher in the classroom, kids are acting up, a certain child’s acting up, a teenager’s acting up, they throw them out of the class. Why do they throw them out of class? Well, if you’d ask them, very often they would say, “Well, he needs to learn. You have to behave in the class in a certain way. And if they’re not going to behave in the class, step out of the class.”

Matis: It’s three months later, he’s still getting kicked out of class and hasn’t learned and they’re staying stuck in that pattern again and again and again. Mindfulness is, one of the key mindfulness skills is the ability to take a step back and saying, “Is this defective? What’s driving me? What’s driving the behavior? What’s going on?” And in order to be able to hold that balance of acceptance and change, we need to be very aware as parents of our own thoughts, as we talked about, our emotions, our urges, our expectations. And we need to be aware of our child, our adolescent, our teenager. How are they responding? Is this working for them? Is this a factor? It’s getting into that state of mind where we’re grounded, we’re present, we’re open so we can take a step back.

Matis: And that’s why one of my favorite words is, is this effective? Not about wrong, not about right. Is this working? And if it’s not, maybe it’s time to shift the balance. Maybe I’m trying to change my teenager, it’s so much change, change, “Clean up your room, clean up room. Wear these clothing. That’s not okay. No one walks out like that.” And that’s creating so much tension in the relationship. It’s causing so much tension in the relationship, and therefore they need to take that step back and say, “Maybe I have to move away from the change right now. This isn’t working. This is causing stress in our relationship. This is leading to a lot of anger. Now it’s time to move towards acceptance a little bit. I have to nurture that relationship.”

Andy: You talk about the five to one ratio of positive and negative interactions. And it strikes me that you have to shift to maintain that. If things are not going so well, then you shift more towards acceptance and positivity and bringing up your ratio a little bit. And then yeah, once you establish a firm base over there, then you can start to shift more towards change again.

Matis: Beautiful. Exactly.

Andy: I’ve got a thing in here that I really liked on page 41 that’s called half smile and willing hands. And it’s just a little exercise where you put your face into a partially smile and then put your hands up, I guess, like this. And you think this is really a helpful thing for people to master. Why is that?

Matis: Because what we know from science and research is that our body actually communicates to our mind. And there’s been studies done here. A specific study that comes to mind is where a well-known study of taking a pencil and putting it in your mouth so that your lips are going up a little bit, and they had one group had that and another group, just the regular passive sort of face. And they both were read some sort of joke or something like that, and the group that actually was making that little bit of a smile actually felt more positivity, even a stronger emotion because of the way their facial expressions communicate to their body.

Matis: And why I love this skill, the idea of half smile, willing hands is because as a parent, when your emotions are high, it’s very difficult to get in touch and mindful with your emotion and your thought process. This is something that you can physically do. And often, physically doing things is easier than changing thought process or addressing emotion. And you can be sitting there and you’re driving your car and you’re taking a trip and your teenager in the back is just egging on his sister, trying to annoy her, irritate her, or just wants a reaction. And you’re sitting there and you’re about, well, it’s an hour and a half.

Matis: And just imagine for a second, I mean perhaps you’re driving or not driving, but putting that little bit of half smile on your face, not a grin that doesn’t feel real, but just turning up your lips a little bit, opening up your hands slightly, and telling yourself as you’re doing that, “This is what it is. This is who he is. This is what happens when we go on these trips and I’m not going to change this right now.” Even just the behavior, just making that little smile, opening your hands a bit. Try it. You’ll see, it actually can help you move towards acceptance of the moment.

Andy: Can you talk to me a little bit about judgment? Why is judgment bad? Why isn’t that a good thing? How do you even really define that?

Matis: I think if we ask each one of us, what does it feel like when you’re judged by others? I think we all have been judged in our lives and I think we can all be aware of how harmful and painful it is to be judged. That’s firstly. Although it’s true, positive judgment does not have the same negative consequences as a negative judgment, and we certainly want to judge people positively, but if we are struggling, which we all struggle with, of being judgmental, start to practice by letting go of all judgment. It can be very, very perceptive and judgment in parenting, and then that really gets back to something we talked about earlier, regarding our shoulds, because we are labeling things as good or bad.

Matis: And when we label things as good or bad, we don’t actually get to see the entire picture. He’s just a bad kid. The kid’s just a mess. He’s out of control, right? Even though it’s called The Uncontrollable Child, when we label the child and we define the child, we’re not opening our mind to see what is, the judgment is covering over the full picture. As opposed to saying is, “When my child doesn’t clean up his room and leaves it a mess, the whole house smells. I can’t even walk in there. It’s suffocating and I wish he would do something about it to clean it up.” That allows me to be more in touch with my reality, what is, my emotions, and my feeling and feel less anger.

Matis: The other problems with judgment is judgment does lead to negative emotion and people experience, and our children experience, even if we don’t say it, even if we’re thinking it, our body languages, our gestures. And often, I mean, teenagers have shared with me, it’s not about what their parents say, it’s about how they act or react or their facial expressions. It’s so clear that they’re seeing me as crazy, not normal, and that makes them feel distant from their parent. And that makes them feel isolated. And it really, really damages the relationship. Let’s just go through this. First of all, it’s your own emotional experience because if you have judgment, that’s going to lead to more frustration and anger, which is going to hurt your child, it’s how your child actually feels about you and the relationship that’s the judgment. And we also talked about the fact that you’re missing the entire picture when you’re quick to label things as good or bad, instead of describing what is. Judgment, again, is putting your interpretation of what should be rather than what is.

Andy: So then the opposite is being non-judgmental. And that’s just as simple as just not judging, or is there more to it, being non-judgmental?

Matis: So I know often people say, “What do you mean being non-judgmental? I mean, my kid’s coming back 3:00 in the morning, not listening to a thing I’m saying, not doing his homework. What, I’m supposed to be, kumbaya, this is all good, let everything be, love, love, love, right?

Andy: No judgment. Yeah. Yeah.

Matis: And I think that’s also not being in touch with reality. I think that’s also not acknowledging what is. So I think what I mean by non-judgmental is I’m describing what it is and looking at the consequences and the causes instead of labeling. So it could be, you can say, “Well, my kid comes home at 3:00 o’clock in the morning, walks in. I’m really frustrated. I’m thinking in my mind, I’ve told him so many times, I’ve told her so many times, why doesn’t she get it? When I see that he’s failing and he’s not doing his homework and he’s not preparing for his exams, I worry about the future. I worry about the consequences of that.” So, it’s looking at what is, and the causes and the consequences, rather than getting stuck in judgment and blaming. And accepting of—

Andy: “My kid’s so lazy” or…

Matis: Exactly. Exactly. Because lazy is a judgment. And you can say, “I have a judgment thought in my mind, I just have a thought, my kid is lazy. I’m thinking my kid is lazy because when I…” The thoughts are real. That’s factual. Whether the child is lazy or not, that’s what I’m interpreting, because if you asked Bobby over there, you say, “Are you lazy?” “I am not lazy. You should see the kids in my class. You want to know what lazy is?” Everyone has a different interpretation, and getting stuck into that-

Andy: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. It’s so easy to get stuck in those things. And we just accept the judgment and start spiraling off like, “How did this kid get so lazy? I don’t know. It doesn’t even make sense. What? And we model such good hardworking, and I don’t know where we went wrong. And-“

Matis: Yeah. I was going to say even more so, I love what you’re saying, that whole train of thought. And then you say, “When I was a kid, my parents would never let me get away with that. We worked so hard. We were never lazy. That was never okay.” So it continues to spiral with judgment on top of judgment and the negativity and any of us acknowledging, “He is who he is for whenever causes,” and there is cause. Was it me? I don’t know. Was it him? Was it society? Is it culture? Is it influential? Is it friend? Who knows? But the bottom line is, this is his behavior. Does that mean we approve of it? No. Does that mean we want to continue? Not necessarily. We don’t to continue. But if we can let go of the judgment, take a non-judgmental stance, it’s more effective to move towards change. Parents don’t realize that. If we let go of judgment, there’s more likely that the child will change those behaviors.

About Matis Miller

Matis Miller is the author of The Uncontrollable Child.  He is a licensed clinical social worker and certified cognitive behavioral therapist and the founder, director, and supervisor of The Center for Cognitive & Behavioral Therapy of New Jersey. 

Matis specializes in severe emotional and personality disorders, insomnia, and anxiety in teens and adults. He is a seasoned lecturer on CBT- and DBT-related topics, addressing parents, clients, and professionals, and is presently focused primarily on supervision, education, and consultations.

Want More Uncontrollable Child?

Find Matis on his website and LinkedIn.