Do You Have the "I Want-They Want" Balance in Relationships?

Communication in relationships is key 

The way you communicate in relationships impacts your interactions with others and how close you feel to the people who are important to you.

Being passive may feel safe... 

Passive people tend to give in to the needs of others because it feels safe.  They avoid conflict because arguing or disagreeing triggers a fear that others will leave them.  Passive communicators may be people pleasers and tend to give in rather than say anything that could be upsetting.

What happens, though, is that these behaviors often lead to your own needs being unmet or others never fully knowing WHO you are because you've always gone along with everyone else.  

Ultimately passivity leads to big blow outs or completely shutting down because you begin to resent other people for not understanding you or giving you what you need.

Aggressive communication may feel "right" or justified... 

Aggressive communication often comes from thinking that things "should" be a certain way.  This may spring from your values or upbringing, but dictating how others should or need to behave can destroy your relationships with them.

You may also feel a need to control how others around you behave or interact.  Your anger may drive you lash out at others which pushes them away.  You may feel justified in this interaction thinking that you needed to "teach them a lesson."

Being passive OR aggressive is destructive 

Both extremes in communication push people away and destroy relationships.  Both extremes come from a need to control others -- either by compromising your own needs to keep them around, or by insisting that they behave a certain way to meet your own expectations.

Assertiveness is the balance you need 

When you assert yourself, you find the "I want/you want" balance that you need.  Using DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills is the best way to find the middle ground.

How can you start finding balance?  It starts by getting crystal clear on what YOU want and learning how to communicate these needs in relationships in a calm and collaborative way.  (Here's where your DEAR MAN skill becomes so important!)

You'll also want to practice skillfully listening and negotiating conflicts.  This may include learning to say no when necessary and to stick to your values to preserve your self-respect in relationships too.

How to Help Your Teen Build Healthy and "Real" Relationships

Be Genuine 

Many teens believe they need to agree or "fit in" for others to like them. What happens, though, is that then their needs don't get met, or they feel misunderstood which leads to resentment in relationships.

** Healthy relationships are rooted in HONESTY. **

Be Honest and Sincere 

Encourage your teen to share their likes and dislikes. Give them credit when they allow their true personality to shine through. Encourage them to speak from their heart and connect with others in ways that show interest, like making eye contact, asking questions and having an easy manner. (Don't forget that YOU can model these behaviors for them by doing the same!)

Take Off the Mask 

You'll never truly feel connected if your guard is always up. Help your teen learn to feel vulnerable by engaging in real conversations with them. Open the door for nonjudgmental communication and allow them to show you who they really are. Just listen without trying to change or fix something.

Being Genuine is Scary! 

It may be scary for your teen to open up if they've been hurt in the past, but shutting down or isolating leads to loneliness and emotional distress. Set your teen up for success by encouraging that they surround themselves with a few people whom they can slowly begin to build trusting and healthy relationships with over time.

Healthy Relationships Start with the Self 

Having healthy and "real" relationships with others starts with loving yourself first. If your teen doesn't like themselves, is self-critical or does not believe that they are worthy of love, it will be difficult for them to truly open up with and connect with others. Build healthy self-esteem at home by pointing out and reinforcing positives and encouraging your teen to engage in at least one activity each day that builds mastery and makes them feel confident.

When loneliness strikes, here's how to help your teen reconnect

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Does your teen feel lonely or disconnected? 

Loneliness was a theme in many of the sessions and groups at our teen support center this week. Often times I'll hear that teens would rather be with others who treat them poorly than to be alone. This kind of thinking leads to hurt feelings and compromising self-respect.

Along with working on ways to improve self-esteem and get to the root of low self-worth, there are ways to EMPOWER your teen to take action and create connections when they are feeling lonely.

Here's a list to get your started in supporting your teen: 

Call or text someone you care about and ask them how they are doing. (When you take the focus off of YOU and take interest in someone else it helps you to feel more connected.)

Pick three friends and create something for them like a poem, picture or card.Contributing is a DBT skill that has been PROVEN in groups to improve overall mood and wellbeing.

+ Get off social media sites. Comparisonitis and seeing that other friends are together can only make feelings of loneliness worse. Take a break from the phone and throw yourself into another activity.

Volunteer. Find a way to help a friend, sibling or parent. Their appreciation and your sense of accomplishment are both ways to start to feel good when loneliness strikes.

Cry. It's ok to cry. Crying gets the sad out!

Exercise. Take a walk. Go to the gym. Do some stretching. Not only is it healthy, but you're surrounding yourself with other healthy people too!

Spend time with a pet. Furry friends are great listeners and snuggle close when you need to feel connected.

Join a club. When you have a specific interest, it helps to surround yourself with other people who have the same interests to give you more opportunities to connect. If you don't know what your interests are, try a few and see what you like and don't like. You'll never know until you get out there!

Watch a TV show or movie with characters that you know well. This can help you feel more connected in the moment.

Join a group! Creative Healing has groups for different ages, interests and activities.

When you can recognize the signs of loneliness and make a choice in how to respond, it helps you to feel more connected. 

Help your teen identify times when they feel the most lonely.  (For many teens this is late at night.)  When you can work with them to map out a plan for what to DO in those moments, it can make the feelings more tolerable, as well as promote healthy coping skills and interactions.

Manage teen cell phone use with this plan

Are you frustrated with your teen's cell phone use? 

The phone is always attached to their hand and their eyes are glued to the screen for ninety percent of the time you see them.  You've become accustomed to the classic SnapChat peace sign duck face that used to be your child!

Increasing technology and social media usage frustrations are not unique to parents.  And the impact of this screen time frequency CAN be something that creates distance and resentment in relationships.

When your main concern is connecting with your teen... 

  1. Invite your teen to connect with you by asking them to engage in a shared activity.  Instead of creating MORE limits and complaints that your teen will resent you for, create connection by asking them to participate in a positive or fun experience with you.
  2. Have screen-free zones like the dinner table or block out an hour before bedtime to all put down your phones.  Be mindful of what you're modeling too!  If you ask your teen to put down their phone, but field a work call in the middle of dinner, you're not modeling that the no phone rule is important and it will be hard for your teen to respect it too.

When your main concern is safety... 

Many teens report that social media use can create stress in their lives due to either comparing themselves to others or feeling left out when they see others having fun and they weren't invited.

There's also the added concern of teens who share too much or inappropriate information online or who have a hard time saying no and send nude or inappropriate photos over the internet.

Help your teen set boundaries!  Work together to create a plan that clearly outlines:

  • How much time your teen spends on the phone each day
  • What sites are helpful to look at vs. harmful or triggering
  • What friends are appropriate to connect with online and what to do when unknown people try to add or friend them
  • What information is appropriate to share on the internet

The phone is NOT the enemy! 

In DBT we always consider the pros and cons of any situation.  Your teen having a cell phone allows for you to stay in constant contact with them and ultimately keep them more safe.  It's also a great resource for information and education when used appropriately.

Parents can sometimes demonize cell phones when in reality they are a means of connection for our teens (and us.)  The more you can embrace that cell phone usage is the norm the better.  Past generations of parents may have disputed their teen talking on the landline for three hours after school everyday (I know mine did!)  When you continue to harp on the phone as problematic, you further the divide of the "parents just don't understand" stance and drive your teen to trust you less.

What's more, when you can stop viewing the phone as the problem, you can start to have a more realistic view of what the problem actually is.  This may be your teen's desire for attention or validation or a need for more impulse control.  What do you think is the NEED behind your teen's inappropriate cell phone usage?  When you can answer this question, it will give you the best course of action in how to proceed.

Act Effectively 

The DBT skill of Acting Effectively comes to mind in this situation.  When you know what you WANT to happen and how you want to feel, then you can make better choices about how act now to make that happen.

Putting the relationship with your teen first here allows you to build trust and create connection that will enable your teen to talk to you about difficulties rather than distance themselves from you and dive deeper into the online realm.

Here are a few ideas about how to get involved with your teen's social media usage while creating more connection in the relationship:

  • Offer to take a picture of your teen doing something so that they can post it to Instagram
  • Ask them to show you the SnapChat filters of the day
  • Enlist their help to create your own social media account on a platform that they use and ask them to show you the ropes (Your teen teaching you allows them to feel a sense of mastery and control which builds confidence too!)

Learn the Lingo! 

"Left me on red" is a SnapChat term that means someone didn't open their SnapChat

"Finsta" is a fake Instagram account that many teens have in addition to a main account.  This allows for them to share information with a smaller crowd and can be considered their personal group chat with friends

Have more questions about social media usage and teens? 

My team and I at the teen support center are putting together an online training to help you best support your teen in safety using social media.  If this sounds like something you'd be interested in, comment below and let us know your biggest challenge with your teen's social media usage.

Online Relationships + Fairytales

Why Teens Choose to Connect Online 

As a teen therapist, I often hear about teens who find both friends and romantic relationships in the online realm as opposed to IRL (in real life.)  And, on some level, this makes sense.  It allows teens to go deeper into a relationship more quickly.  It's easier to say something when you don't have to see the reaction on someone's face.  Plus, when you're not right in front of someone, you have the time to think and respond rather than react and embarrass yourself.  

From a teenage standpoint, this concept provides a shield of safety.  Tees especially fear judgment from peers and the internet and social media provide ways to create a persona that's everything they want the world to see (and think about them) without the vulnerability of baring anything they don't want others to know.

So What's the Problem? 

I like to equate online relationships to The Three Little Pigs Fairytale.  When you create connections online, you're building a house of straw or sticks.  You haven't taken the time to build a solid foundation, so when the big bad wolf of conflict or disagreement inevitably visits, the relationship crumbles to the ground.

As an added stressor, online friends can block you, cut you off and ignore you which can often lead to even more hurt feelings and impedes the kind of healthy closure that everyone needs when a relationship ends.

"But... I like things fast and intense!" 

I hear this often from the teens I work with!  The teenage brain wants fast, intense, instant gratification.  And, fast and intense is initially intoxicating.  Relationships like this meet the very real and valid need of a teen who desperately wants to feel loved, accepted and connected.

But, fast and intense is a sprint and most teens want the marathon (a real relationship, not just a few days of manufactured feelings that fizzle and fade.)

Follow Hansel and Gretel's lead... 

Help your teen slow down by encouraging the "breadcrumb method."  Help them take it one step at a time by setting the intention that each interaction has the goal only of leading to the next interaction (whether online or IRL.)  Encourage your teen to share only one piece of information at a time to allow the relationship to naturally unfold.

Use the diagram below as a guide to help your teen learn about layers of information to share.  (This may help them avoid "personal information vomit" in which they share everything at first meeting in an attempt to create a strong connection.)

Teen Rule of Thumb 1 

Share only as deeply as the person you are with is sharing.  If they are only talking about their pets, it's not the right time to talk about your depression or your family arguments.

Teen Rule of Thumb 2 

Research supports that it takes approximately six full months to *really* know someone.  This is generally about the length of time you need to see someone as they truly are and not blinded by your infatuation or your own needs to be loved.  


What's a parent to do? 

Remind yourself that your teen's actions come from a very real and human need to feel loved and connected.  Practice a non-judgmental stance by helping your teen navigate the logistics of what to share and when using the diagram above.

You can also help your teen slow down relationships by working together to come up with concrete markers of when to share certain information and when to engage in certain activities based on how well they know the other person.

Is Everyone Your Teen's BFF?

Your teen may struggle socially or desperately want to feel like a part of a group.  This at times can lead to “manufacturing” relationships by seeking out and creating intense emotional connections quickly (that also fizzle and lead to rejection or disappointment quickly.)

These teens are the ones who have eight “best friends” or call every new connection they meet on Instagram their friend.  They may have poor boundaries in terms of sharing too much personal information at first meeting, or give out their phone number to someone who shows them a small bit of attention on SnapChat.

Why does your teen tend to go to extremes in relationships?  From a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) perspective, the following three barriers may contribute to unhealthy relationships.  Read on to learn about each area, as well as gain some practical solutions to help your teen  move forward with interpersonal effectiveness.

Barrier #1:  Lack of Skill

Your teen may not know how to effectively find friends or join a group.  If this is the case, there are 4 steps to skill-building to find new friends.

  1. Look for friends who are already around you.  To find people who you may connect with, it’s important to make sure that you are frequently around others and visible to them.  Placing yourself in “containers” where the same people show up routinely allows you to become a part of the same routine as them and thereby creates many opportunities to engage with them. 

  2. Look for friends who are similar to you.   Like attracts like.  We often make friends with people who share our interests and hobbies.  People are attracted to other people with similar values, interests and attitudes.  Just be sure you’re being genuine and not faking interests to get others to like you.

  3. Work on your conversation skills.  Ask questions.  Show an interest in others.  Stay up-to-date on pop culture and current events so you have topics to talk about with others.  When you share information about yourself, be sure that it closely matches the intensity or privacy of what the other person is sharing.

  4. Compliment Others (Selectively).  When you meet someone new, smile, make eye contact, compliment them on something specific then ask them a question.  Example, “I like your scarf!  Where did you get it?”  This makes someone feel good then opens a conversation.

Barrier #2:  Emotion Mind is in Control

In DBT, there are three states of mind.  Emotion Mind is ruled by your feelings and occurs when your behavior is guided by your mood.  Reasonable Mind is a logical state that includes making lists, looking at evidence and being pragmatic.  Wise Mind is the synthesis of these two states.  When someone is in Wise Mind, this is when they can experience emotions and also make effective decisions in life.  

When your teen is ruled by Emotion Mind, they are guided by wanting to feel loved, connected and validated so deeply that they are not considering the rational implications of moving too quickly in relationships.  They are not considering consequences that could potentially be heartbreaking (or dangerous.)

The DBT Mindfulness Skills of Observe and Describe can be helpful here.  Encourage your teen to avoid labels like “best friend” for multiple people in their life and instead ask them to describe the nature of their relationship with this person.  This may mean saying, “I talk to them everyday.” or “I feel really happy when I’m around them.”  Helping your teen learn to Observe and Describe prepares them to discuss relationships in a way that is reality based and that is not a recipe for disappointment.  When someone uses the term “best friend” for an acquaintance that they met through social media, the impact of rejection when this relationship dissipates tends to be a lot worse.

Barrier #3:  Your Teen wants EVERYTHING Fast, Intense and Extreme

When your teen has a hard time seeing the gray in life and everything is in black and white, they can become hyperfocused on relationships that become too intense too quickly.  Helping your teen set clear boundaries that are based in both family and teen values can be effective.

Collaborate with your teen to decide how much time is actually effective to spend on friends, social media and relationships.  Listen to your teen to understand their short and long term goals and ask them how they can use their time wisely to reach these goals.  When you can listen to and validate your teen’s wants and needs, it will be easier to develop a routine together that sticks.  

It’s also important to help your teen learn to set boundaries with friends.  Rehearse with your teen what they can say and do when someone is asking for nude photos or someone who keeps texting when they are trying to do homework.  Reinforcing that saying no is appropriate and doesn’t make your teen “mean” is important in helping them set clear and healthy boundaries in relationships.

DBT helps teens act skillfully to get what they want and need from others in a way that is healthy and effective.  It’s important to help your teen clarify their priorities in the relationships in their lives.  Helping them learn to successfully assert themselves, act in a way that creates positive relationships and maintains self-respect are skills that build on the foundation of these priorities and values.

Preserve Your Self-Respect in Relationships

Sometimes...people disappoint us.  They treat us poorly or misinterpret our needs, leaving us feeling hurt, angry or let down.  The skill below can be used to help you preserve self-respect in your own relationships and to guide your children in maintaining healthy relationships too.

When your discomfort alarm rings and you find yourself feeling upset about an interpersonal interaction, think to yourself, "Is this fair to me?"  If someone is asking you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, or if someone's behavior ignores or dismisses your feelings and needs, this is NOT fair to you!

If you decide that the situation isn't fair to you, think about whether you REALLY need to apologize to anyone for what is happening.  You may have the urge to apologize, or you may wish the situation were different, but overapologizing puts you in a position of compromising your self-respect and taking responsibility for a situation you don't own.  For example, if you really don't want to go shopping or meet with a friend for lunch, you don't need to apologize for wanting time to yourself.  It's OKAY to say no!

Next, think about your values for yourself, and in a relationship.  With kids and teens in sessions, I work with them to complete a friendship or relationship bill of rights to write out in clear language all the ways that want, need and deserve to be treated in a relationship.  I also have them write a clause for "dealbreakers" or ways in which another might act or treat them which would be cause for terminating the relationship.  I would encourage you to think about your own bill of rights, or even a family bill of rights!

Finally, be truthful with yourself.  If you have a friend who behaves in every way you outlined on your dealbreakers list, it's time to GET REAL!  Think about whether there are any problems you can solve with assertiveness skills and in relationships that cannot be repaired or are too toxic, work towards distancing yourself and setting limits.  

Relationships can be tricky, especially when you feel lonely or want so desperately to be liked that you may end up keeping people around who aren't good for you.  Think about how to focus your life's energy on the people you love and who bring you joy by setting an intention to bring closer to you those who already meet your bill of rights.