Ep 3: Handling Self-Centered Teenagers

Episode Summary

Wendy Behary, author of “Disarming the Narcissist” talks about how to deal with a self absorbed teenager. What is the best way for parents to handle self centered teenage problems? One of the big topics covered in this episode is how to tell a self absorbed teenager that something he or she is doing is not OK.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Are you dealing with a self absorbed teenager? What is the best way for parents to handle self centered teenage problems?

I interviewed Wendy Behary, one of the leading experts on narcissism, and asked her about exactly this issue. What she came up with blew me away.

One of the big topics covered in this episode is how to tell a self absorbed teenager that something they are doing is not OK. How can you confront a teenager without making them feel like they are being attacked?

Teens have a tendency to turn these kinds of talks into arguments. But as a parent it is important to be able to communicate to teens that they absolutely need to stop behaving in a given way.

An Expert on Self Absorbed Teenager Psychology

Wendy Behary is the ideal individual to teach us how to handle self centered teenage problems. The author of Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed, Wendy is one of the world’s leading authorities on dealing with narcissism.

She taught me a few powerful techniques for telling a self absorbed teenager that his or her actions are not acceptable. My favorite is something she calls “empathic confrontation”.

More Self Centered Teenage Problems…

We also talk about triggering. Wendy says that what initially got her interested in studying narcissism is that she found herself in her therapy practice being triggered by a particularly narcissistic client.

Parents are triggered by their teens’ behavior all the time. It is easy to find yourself yelling at your teen and getting worked up. Wendy explained that these moments when you catch yourself getting triggered are actually important opportunities to help your teen grow.

But you have to know how to respond properly in the moment.

Wendy explains how to do it in this episode.

Parenting Scripts

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

1. When your teenager is starting to get hard to deal with during an argument

“We have many dimensions to our personalities. There are sometimes parts that are unruly or nasty. There are parts that can be angry. And I’m not talking about having a multiple personality. I’m talking about just being human. We have many dimensions. You know, I think you have something really important to tell me. And I’d love to hear it. But when that other part of you becomes the spokesperson it’s really hard to hear what the hell you’re trying to say. It just gets all messed up. So maybe you could ask that part of you to just step outside and get out of the way and we could just have a conversation about what it is that’s upsetting you.”

-Wendy Behary

2.  When your teenager starts to piss you off:

(Members Only)

3.  How to hold your teen responsible without blaming them:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Use Empathic Confrontation with Your Teenager:

Next time you want to confront your teenager about something, try using Empathic Confrontation. It’s a technique Wendy taught me from Schema Therapy for telling someone they need to change in a loving way. Step 1) Empathize with your teen. Say you get that things are really hard for them right now and you understand they are struggling. Below, write a few sentences in which you empathize with your teenager. Wendy recommends including the phrase “it’s not your fault” during this phase. Step 2) Next, confront your teen about their behavior. Write a few sentences that clearly but empathically tell your teenager they need to make a change. Something like, “But it’s not OK. This is why you’re having problems. It’s your responsibility to make a change.” Try to come up with a version that feels authentic to you. Wendy says the confrontation might be setting a limit, telling the teen their behavior is hurtful, or that they aren’t achieving their own goals. Show them why they need to change. But do it with understanding and love.

2.  Plan Responses for Things that Might “Trigger” You:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So your book, Disarming The Narcissist. I loved it. It got me thinking about narcissism in a different way. Maybe the place to start is, how did you get interested in narcissism as a focus and a topic? And where did that interest come from?

Wendy: Yeah, that’s a good place to start. It’s a way for me to sort of clear the air. I actually didn’t choose it as my area of expertise. Some people think would a masochist, why would you choose narcissism as your area of specialty? I think a lot of therapists, or I should say most therapists, I found myself, thinking myself to be a fairly sturdy, pretty reasonably well put together normal, neurotic, human being, like most people but sturdy in the treatment room as a therapist, until I met my first patient, who was probably narcissistic at the time, although I didn’t know what to call it then and found myself getting triggered.

Wendy: I think it was through the discovery of my own reactions. I wanted to explore it. And that meant kind of looking inside me, as well as understanding the makeup of this individual. And that’s how it started. We talk about, the activation of Schemas or these life themes or life traps, if you will, these buttons, sometimes we just call it our buttons getting pushed, but Schemas are really deeply core entrenched themes that everyone has. And there’s a certain number of emotional needs that go into healthy, well adjusted development of an individual. And when those needs aren’t adequately met, combined with the temperament of those child, Schemas can form.

Wendy: Narcissists typically grow up with the experience of feeling that there’s nothing about just being that’s really valuable. It’s what they do. It’s about performance, about competition. It’s about achievement. It’s about being beautiful, handsome, special, wonderful, the best, extraordinary. So there’s a lot of emphasis placed on performance. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on ease of life, low frustration tolerance, being spoiled in some cases, a kind of learned dependency.

Wendy: And so, they feel entitled to demand things, to feel superior to other people, to break the rules, to have privileges. So Schema therapy tries to identify what the triggers are. What are the conditions in your life now, that activate those old life themes that live in your memory because it’s natural and normal and part of being human? And also activate reactions that you might have had when you were very little, when there was little survival power, so you did the best you could, but you’re doing them still as an adult as if you don’t have any other choices.

Wendy: So a parent of a teen, who gets triggered when the teenager is acting unruly or is whining and doing all the things teenagers might do. The parent of the teen who gets triggered back to a time and place in their life without even realizing it, may react in ways that their parents did, that they did as a child. They may actually work too quick, too fast, to take the teen out of distress, so much so, that the child doesn’t learn how to tolerate frustration. And it’s one of the hallmark features in narcissism. They can’t tolerate not getting their own way.

Wendy: I’m constantly urging parents, although it may be hard to resist the temptation to swoop in and make it all better. Give your kids a chance to muscle through, let them be a little uncomfortable because that’s good preparation for how the world works. It’s preparation for life. But if you’re triggered, it’s tough to do that, if your Schemas get activated.

Andy: In terms of trying to recognize when you’re reacting in a certain way, I feel like this is something that I’ve seen from cognitive behavioral therapy to Buddhism, right? Being able to detach ourselves from those habitual reactions. Are you talking about doing that in the moment? Or are you talking about looking back at the end of a day or a week and trying to think about the times that that’s happened?

Wendy: Yeah. That’s a really good question. And either one is great. So if you miss it in the moment, you can reflect on it later and that might help spare you the next time you get triggered or prepares you to be a little bit more mindful of those signs and signals when it happens again. If you catch it in the moment, then you have the opportunity to be a very good model for the person in front of you. I will find myself with my narcissistic clients often, when I feel triggered a look at them and just say, “Wait, give me a minute. I think I’m getting triggered, hang on.” And then they wait, they look at me, they’re puzzled. What I’m doing is really just going inside and protecting myself, reminding myself that I can take care of this because I’m the adult and I’m trained and just sort of putting little Wendy in a safe place.

Wendy: And then I look at them and say, “Okay, I’m back.” I don’t have to tell them my life story at that point. I can just look at them and say, “I got a little triggered there and I was aware that this is probably what happens to a lot of people in your life. And what I was ready to do, was just go ahead and change the subject because it felt uncomfortable, but I’m not going to do that because that’s not what you need.” So now I’m back in and you can do that with a teenager. It’s really good modeling for self regulation. “Ooh, I was just ready to kind of get angry about this and I thought, I don’t want to fight with you. I don’t want to get angry with you. I don’t want to get into another big tangle tonight and turns into a messy night. You and I can talk about this. We can figure this out. I have confidence that we can.” Once you’re in that sturdy skin again, then the chances for a more effective dialogue can follow.

Andy: It’s the type of metacognitive ability that you’re passing on to them.

Wendy: Yeah. Exactly.

Andy: There is a disappointment that parents have to feel when their kid doesn’t perform the way that they were hoping they might.

Wendy: Yeah, there is. Especially, if the parent happens to have narcissistic qualities in their personality as well. If you have a parent who’s trying to live vicariously through that child, who needs that child to be something, to be the Ivy League performer, to be the achiever, to be the top gun, to become the lawyer, the doctor, the accountant, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But if it’s more of the parent’s need than the child’s need, wish, desire or longing to go in that direction, it’s often problematic. And the child doesn’t feel like they have a truly authentic identity.

Wendy: They may be passionless when it comes to their work, they may feel the pressure, the burden to perform even harder because they don’t know how to connect with their own intimate, vulnerable self. They don’t know how to connect with other people because their whole life has been based upon trying to be what was expected of them. It’s very, very hard work for them to do. Hard for them to really drop their guard, hard for them to become ordinary citizens when they’ve learned that they’re supposed to be extraordinary.

Wendy: And it’s a lot of just learning how, when they’re having trouble saying no to something. For example, what is it that’s getting triggered inside of you that’s making it so hard to say no? What are you afraid of? What are you feeling? What is it about you being able to step away? Let your child write their own essay. You don’t have to write it for them. Let them do that for themselves. This is really important. It’s really a victory for them of sorts. It’s a life lesson. But we explore what makes it so tough. What is it about you that, when your daughter just wants a little affection and the little embrace and little time to spend with you, that you don’t have to immediately come up with 5,000 amazing, wonderful, amusement park features and just sit on the couch and cuddle with her. What makes that so hard for you? We look at what makes it so difficult to connect at a level that’s intimate, to set limits, to keep a more balanced approach

Wendy: When people say, well, Wendy’s such a softy. I get accused of being too soft on narcissists. And the truth is, I’m not at all soft on the narcissistic heart of my client. The part of them that can be mean and critical and demeaning and little to show offish and in my face or questioning me or cynical, I’m not soft on that. I confront that. I confront that very boldly with empathy because empathy is not sympathy.

Wendy: Empathy, it means I get why you feel the need to that, but you can’t do that in here or with me. I set limits and I confront, but I am very, very soft on the part of him that suffers. If they’re willing to let me peek inside that world and see the part that is hurting, that’s vulnerable, then yeah, of course I am. I think anybody would be, if we could see the childlike sides of all of us. We could feel some sense of compassion for those parts of the individual. And that’s what Schema therapy is about. It’s about digging underneath to get to the deeper layers of experience and try to meet those needs.

Andy: I love what you just said. And you were talking about the way that you are not soft on narcissists. You can compartmentalize and be tough on one part of a person, but in an empathetic way. I think sometimes this thing happens in adolescents where teenagers start to rebel and they start to treat their parents with less respect. I wonder if you can do something similar to that, right? I love you. What you just said to me is not okay, right? How can we use a similar thing like that to come out with empathy when a teen is acting disrespectful to us?

Wendy: Yeah. Well, again, if you look at the personality of any human, including your own child, your own teenager as having many dimensions. None of us are just one monolithic, one dimensional personality. We have many dimensions to our personalities. And if you see that there are dimensions that are sometimes unruly and nasty, there are parts that can be angry and I’m not talking about a multiple personality. I’m talking about just being human.

Wendy: We have many dimensions, so I can take the narcissistic part of someone and look at square in the eye and say, “That part of you was just so annoying and frustrating. Why do you do that? It’s such a bad representation of what I think you’re trying to say.” And I’ve said this to teens, I’ll say, “I think you have something really important to tell me and I’d love to hear it. But when that other part of you becomes the spokesperson, it’s really hard to hear what the hell you’re trying to say. It just gets all messed up. So maybe you could ask that part of you to just step outside, get out of the way we could just have a conversation about what it is that’s upsetting you.”

Wendy: When you talk in parts, because different parts of our personality emerge for different reasons, because experience and memory drives the bus. And so, adolescents get triggered. First of all, they hear everything louder because of what’s happening in the brain. And things become more intensified and dramatic, the way they process information because of what’s happening in the brain. And so, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be held responsible for the behaviors because we have to teach them, but we also can be sympathetic to some degree, to the struggle that’s taking place with all that chaos inside.

Wendy: And if you can hold that in front of you, then it allows you to not A, feel like the bad guy, if you have to insert a consequence. And you don’t have to look at it as all bad or all good. So we can get away from these very dichotomous ways of looking at our kids. And instead see that there’s a struggle going on inside. But at the same time, make sure that we’re holding them accountable for words and actions and behaviors that are not acceptable. Just put it in the form of a part. That part of you, not all of you, but that part of you.

Andy: And that answers a question that I was, in my mind earlier. And we touched on it briefly, which is, how we can maintain that unconditional love for our teen, but still tell them, “Hey, that’s not okay.” Right? Or you need to step it up in this area or whatever. Right? So unconditional love doesn’t necessarily mean everything you do is completely okay with me.

Wendy: Oh God, no, no, no. Because then you’re going to create the other type of narcissist, which is the very spoiled, dependent kind of classic type, peer entitlement we call it. No, no, no. It’s really the messages, it’s not your fault. Right? But it is your responsibility. So it’s not your fault that you have this part of you, but it’s your responsibility to figure out how to manage it. And I’ll help you if you’ll let me, but it’s your job to be accountable for that part. So there’s no blame, there’s no shame, but there is responsibility. And that’s the same message I say to my adult, narcissistic clients. I say, “Look, I’m not blaming you. This isn’t your fault. You learned this. This is a part of your personality. It’s been constructed for a reason. Part of it might be biologic. Part of it is because of your reactions to early experiences and it’s become a habit, but it’s your job to figure out with my help, how to manage this.” Right? “How to reduce the intensity of this, how to reduce the frequency of this because it’s hurting your relationships.”

Andy: And I like that you’re removing the blame. This is so huge with teenagers, especially, I feel like we tend to take things personally in adolescence, right? And there has to be a way to be able to say, and I love you keep using this phrase, “It’s not your fault.” They still need to be able to take responsibility for it, as you say, but removing the blame or the fault I think is so powerful. It lets us maintain that unconditional love, but still tell them, “Hey, you need to step it up in this area, that wasn’t okay.”

Wendy: Yeah. It’s a very complicated irony because on the one hand, adolescents and narcissists, and they become almost interchangeable terms at times, because when I’m working with narcissistic adults, I see those parts of them that are narcissistic as a throwback to times in their lives when they were teens, where there was a lot of pressure and maybe it wasn’t handled as well as it could have been. And even earlier in their lives before the teen years. But being able to say, it’s not your fault. There’s no bad guy. The weird irony is narcissists, like teens, want to be off the hook. Just let me off the hook. I don’t want to be the bad guy. It’s not my fault. I didn’t do it, defensiveness, justification.

Wendy: And when we can help them to see that, look, I’m not blaming you, but I am saying that it’s your responsibility to manage that part of yourself. It’s a part of you, just like there’s other parts. There’s a part of you that’s very musical. There’s a part of you. This very playful. There’s a part of you that can be intellectual at times and, and thoughtful or poetic. And then there’s a part of you that is just sometimes looking for the fight, feeling like you have to defend at every corner. And that’s another part of you and it’s not wrong to stand up for yourself. It’s the way you do it when you’re in that mode, it’s untenable and it hurts people. I don’t think that’s your intention.

Wendy: So I’ll also say, I don’t think it was your intention, which is the benefit of the doubt when we’re doing empathic confrontation. I say, “I don’t think it was your intention to be hurtful, but the bottom line is still hurts. As my colleague always says, “Whether you get hit in the head with the bat, because somebody went to strike you or they did it by accident, it still hurts.”

Andy: Right. So you just used the phrase, empathic confrontation.

Wendy: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a strategy in Schema therapy. It means, I understand, but, right? I get that you were raised with the idea that you’re allowed to do whatever you want, whenever you want as long as you met certain demanding high standards and you did that. You were smart, you achieved and so, therefore you’re allowed to break the rules, make the rules and you don’t have to think about other people’s feelings. I get it. You were taught that, those were the messages you carry forward. So it’s not your fault, that things just come flying out of your mouth the way they do, but it’s not okay. This is why you’re having problems. This is why your relationships aren’t working. This is why you’re lonely.

Wendy: So it’s your job to figure out or let me help you figure out how to fix that, how to change that because it can be changed. That’s empathic confrontation. It’s, I get it. I can help you. We can make sense out of why you do this. And that’s empathy, making sense out of something, trying to feel it resonate in our bones. So it makes sense. But, and then we confront it and the confrontation may be a setting limit. The confrontation may be just pointing out that it’s hurtful or that maybe the goal that’s intended is completely not achieved.

Wendy: You get narcissists go into a room and they feel immediately like they have to turn the switch on to be the performers. They have to be funny. They have to tell stories. They have to enlighten, they have to entertain. And so, they go into this entertaining mode, which is kind of funny for a little while because they can be very clever. But then after 10 minutes where it’s all about them and they don’t even ask a single question about you, you can’t wait to get rid of them.

Wendy: So the self perpetuating issue there that we talk about in Schema therapy, is you went into that room so you could feel accepted and you actually perpetuated the very thing you were trying to avoid. You turned people off because you went into that mode again, where you’re performing instead of just being …

About Wendy Behary

Wendy Behary is the founder and director of The Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey and she is also the co-director (with Dr. Jeffrey Young) of The New Jersey-New York City Schema Therapy Institutes. She has been treating clients, training professionals and supervising psychotherapists for more than 20 years.

Wendy is a Founding Fellow and consulting supervisor for The Academy of Cognitive Therapy and she served as President of the Executive Board of the International Society of Schema Therapy (ISST) from 2010-2014, where she currently chairs the Brainstorming Sub-Committee.

Disarming the Narcissist, widely considered to be one of the foremost texts on narcissism, has been translated into 10 languages and has received significant praise from the academic community.

As an author and an expert on the subject of narcissism, Wendy lectures both nationally and internationally to professional and general audiences on schema therapy, narcissism, relationships, anger, and dealing with difficult people.

Her private practice is primarily devoted to narcissism, parenting issues, and relationship problems. She is also an expert at coaching individuals in interviewing, public speaking, and other interpersonal skills. Visit Wendy’s website here.