These days, working with teens often means working with them during their return home. There are a lot of reasons for this: they could be coming back from college or camp, they could be getting back in touch with an estranged parent once custody has been reestablished, or they could be returning home from a sober living house or outdoor program. Teens being who they are, they often return with a whole new set of values and goals than they had when they left. Humans being what they are, these values and goals often fade into the background, seemingly mysteriously and against the desires of the teen and their family. This is called regression, and though it happens to the best of us, it remains a confusing and painful experience for all involved.
Think back to the first time, or the first few times, you went away from home for a long while. This is a big deal in anyone’s development - suddenly the supports you’re so used to you take for granted are gone or difficult to access, and other kinds of support that you don’t really know how to use are thrust in your face with the expectation that you’ll use them. It’s...disorienting, to say the least. I remember the first time I went to sleep-away camp, at age 9, and being shocked and dismayed to learn that I would be sleeping in a tent. Now, realistically, this was not a problem - by the end of the Summer I had developed a love for sleeping in a tent that has lasted all my life - but to my young mind on that first day it was cause for intense anxiety and anger.
Let’s look a little more closely at this experience. Initially I found my experience to be surprising and uncomfortable, and I grit my teeth and dug in my toes in response. Discomfort and surprise are not something our scientific society does a great job training us for these days. Rather, we look at them as problems to solve. Which is great; I’m thinking of eloping with my dish washer. But it’s also a little unrealistic. Discomfort and surprise are not only unavoidable, they’re good for you. Think about the happy accidents in your life - the too-close bus rider who turned into a friend, the bad travel plans that taught you resilience and how to think on your feet - and how drastically they’ve changed your worldview for the better. The fact is, you can’t plan your whole life and you’d be a lot less happy if you could.
So what’s the deal with regression in teens and young adults? Well, try and remember those early happy accidents in your life, and your efforts to incorporate them into your home life. For my part, I can tell you that my folks were not thrilled at the idea behind me abandoning the room they had worked so hard to provide for me so that I could sleep in the back yard. A happy accident teaches us new ways to live, and when we’re living under someone else’s roof these new ways aren’t always welcome. Or at least, they’re not welcomed intuitively. It’s no great secret that teens aren’t great natural communicators, and families love secrets.
When teens grow on their own they come home different, and this is a natural setup to butt heads. Families find themselves in a classic power struggle: the kid is proud of what they’ve learned about the world and about themselves and, surprise, their parents are proud of the same things in their lives. Even under the most benign intentions to share the benefits of knowledge and experience, if communication isn’t handled well you’re just going to fight. And while teens are starting to individuate from the sovereignty of their family system, that’s a long process. So what is likely to happen is that the teen ends up torn between pursuing their conscious desire to live by their own strength, and the systemic lesson to remain subservient to the family method of living.
In working with this, what’s most important is to meet the teen where they are. Understand that they are split in ways that they’re probably not even aware of. This means making compromises; allow them to have their domain, to do their thing, while also continuing to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of the family’s method of living. Look for places to integrate what they have learned as well as opportunities to expect them to demonstrate its value, while also stepping in and demonstrating your own. They’ll hate it, but they’ll thank you for it later.