If you’re a parent, there will come a time when your child seems more like a stranger and behaves like one too. Modern society no longer sends teenagers into the woods to figure it all out. So, parents, it’s on you. Fortunately, psychotherapist Lisa Bravo has been helping families through the teenage years in her practice and now has put her wisdom and action plans into a book, The BRAVO Effect: Strategies for Parenting Extreme Teens.
On Author Hour today, Lisa discusses the importance of understanding how you are parenting, before trying to figure out how your child is behaving. She takes us through the five steps of her intervention framework, and she reminds us of the power of connection.
Jane Borden: Hi Author Hour listeners, I’m Jane Borden and I’m here today with Lisa Bravo, author of The BRAVO Effect: Strategies for Parenting Extreme Teens. Lisa, thank you for being with us today.
Lisa Bravo: Thank you for having me.
Jane Borden: First of all, for anyone out there who might be thinking all teenagers are extreme, help us understand who exactly your clients are and who this book is for. How do you define extreme in your work?
Lisa Bravo: Well, I think extreme behavior is really what’s out of the norm of what’s going on for teenagers from a developmental standpoint. Any risk-taking behaviors, any behaviors beyond what is a developmental milestone would be considered extreme. I think it’s relevant to the parent in terms of their own subjective distress and how they’re managing things.
I do see a lot of adolescents in my practice that have substance use issues–concerns with risk-taking behaviors, sneaking out, delinquent behavior, things like that. But I also think that extreme behavior can also be construed as behavior that’s outside of what’s normal for that family system.
I think it’s very specific to families at times, but I also think there’s sort of a broad brush with that word extreme. It’s not necessarily always pathology-based with depression, anxiety, those kinds of things that we sometimes see with teenagers, but it’s more specific. It’s the behavior itself, if it’s outside of what that family feels like they can deal with, I think that’s the best definition of extreme.
Jane Borden: Okay. Jumping ahead a little bit but since you’ve brought it up, there’s a section in the book titled, “Developmental Stages, Not Pathology.” I think that’s so important for us to know. I mean, my daughter’s only five, but when I learned about her own developmental stages, I think, “Oh okay, then everything makes more sense.” Can you talk a little bit about the role of biological cognitive and social and emotional development in the struggles that parents face?
Lisa Bravo: Yeah, that’s a great question because I think especially with adolescents, we tend to see them as sort of these young, raw adults but we forget that they’re in a very important developmental stage in their human development. What I think is important to look at is what is going on for them from a developmental standpoint first–there are some behaviors that teenagers can exhibit that are very common for teenagers such as insomnia or changes in their sleep habits, changes in eating habits, mood dysregulation, and all of those things can very easily be checked off on a mental health checklist.
It’s very important to understand that there are also developmental factors in play as they develop and their brains are growing and they have all these neurobiological changes happening. We have to make sure that we’re looking through the lens of development before we try to label it with a mental health condition.
Behavior as Communication
Jane Borden: The first half of the book is dedicated to the “Why?” you say, and then the second half is the “How?” You talk about the importance of parents needing to know why their teens are behaving the way they do before they can take any action.
First of all, why is it so important that parents understand the “Why?” before they dive in? Why don’t we start there?
Lisa Bravo: Well, I think it’s important, I talk a lot in the book about looking at behavior as communication. I believe that all behavior is a form of communication and teenagers especially have a hard time verbally articulating what’s going on for them, but they often will communicate through behavior.
If we look at that behavior and try to understand what’s going on for them from a social and emotional standpoint, we’ll have a much better way of responding and understanding what they’re needing in that moment. What I found in my practice is, there are a lot of people that tend to look at behavior and hold it at face value and not really look beyond.
One of the things that I spend a lot of time in the first half of the book writing about is, what is normal. What should we expect? I’ve seen a lot of parents over the last probably 10 or 15 years that are very concerned, very loving parents, very educated about parenting because of the Internet, but they don’t really rely on their instincts very much anymore, to understand or to connect or to decipher what’s going on.
A lot of what I try to do in my practice when I work with parents is helping them realign that system and understand, you can look on the Internet and find 5,000 answers for your one question but that doesn’t necessarily give you the right answer for your child.
Part of it is learning how to really hone in on the information that’s important in that moment and not get distracted by everyone else’s opinion about what’s going on.
Jane Borden: Before parents can understand why their teens are behaving the way they are, they also have to understand how they’re parenting. Can you tell us a little bit about how you help parents figure that out?
Lisa Bravo: Yeah, I think part of it, lots of times, we all as parents have a tendency to parent the way that we were parented. If I come from a dysfunctional home and the parenting was, say, more punitive or my home environment was more chaotic and now I’m parenting my child, when I’m in the throes of a crisis, I am going to be more likely to defer to that form of parenting that was modeled for me. Unless I have had some ways of overwriting that through educating myself about what’s going on and what parenting approaches I can learn as a skill. We always default to how we were parented as children.
Jane Borden: Which may not be the best way forward for their current situation. I’m wondering if that is connected to it, you write a lot about the role of fear in all of this. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Lisa Bravo: Yeah, one thing that I’ve noticed, when things feel out of control, we go into a space of fear and when we’re making decisions for ourselves and our children, we have a tendency to need to control the situation and manage it in a certain way that’s really control-based.
It’s important for parents to be able to kind of step aside and be able to define for themselves what’s going on, because based on how they’re feeling on the inside and if they’re in a fear, if they’re in a fear space, they’re not going to make the same decision as if they’re really thinking in a pragmatic way.
Jane Borden: It is such a challenge to even know that you’re coming from a place of fear in a moment.
Lisa Bravo: Right, and most parents aren’t aware of it. That’s why I talk about it pretty extensively throughout the book. The book is for parents who are trying to parent these teenagers. It is directed as what do you do when? But before you can act, you have to know where you are from a social, emotional standpoint.
Often, our children will mirror what’s going on for us, so if I’m afraid and I’m reacting with anger because I’m afraid, my teenager’s going to react in the same way. Part of it is knowing that we want them to learn to self-regulate but often, what I find is that parents are dysregulated.
You know, it’s sort of like that scenario of a parent who is yelling at their child and telling them to calm down and stop crying. It’s a very confusing process for children and for adolescents to see their parent out of control and demanding control at the same time.
What we’re trying to go for is a version of co-regulation where both the parent and the teen are calm at the same time so that they can make the most logical decision.
Jane Borden: You have chapters and sections on a lot of specific issues that parents might face–mental health issues, addiction, suicide, helping them be prepared and know what to look out for. Then, the book goes into what you call your interventional framework, The BRAVO Effect.
Tell me, why do you call it an interventional framework, and what does that mean?
Lisa Bravo: I call it an interventional framework because it’s not just theory, it’s more of an active experiential process that I guide parents through in order to create a strong, healthy connection with their teenager. At the core, that’s the most important component–creating that connection.
There are five components that I talk about in the book that are important to the process.
The first one, which we’ve already touched on, is behavior. Understanding the teenager’s behavior from their perspective, which is often different than the teenage behavior from the parent’s perspective. Understanding my behavior as the parent and then understanding how we’re interacting and behaving together. It’s sort of like a yours-mine-ours kind of approach.
The next piece is relationship, understanding, and that is looking at the relationship between the child and the parent and understanding how that is interacting and informing the behaviors and the dynamic between the two of them.
Then we have attitude and that is really about understanding how I’m showing up in that moment with my child. The attitude that I’m taking as I am watching them flounder through a situation or support them through a situation, and then as well, having that teenager, be in the same space of, “What is the attitude they’re taking?” You know, initially, we could say, “Oh they’re being sassy,” or they’re being disrespectful. Sometimes, if we dig deeper, we understand that they’re standing up for something that’s important or they’re really passionate about their viewpoint. Understanding it from a wider perspective is often really helpful to understand the attitude they’re taking in the moment.
The next component is value and that’s really about understanding what our child is valuing in that moment, and what we’re valuing in that moment. If we say we value respect but we’re being disrespectful by humiliating or shaming our child, that’s a very confusing dynamic for teenagers and often will lead to resentment and rebellion. It’s really important that we look at ourselves and what we’re valuing in that moment, how we’re going to value, what values we’re upholding as a family, what values our child is upholding.
I have a story in the book about my son. We were in this toe to toe. He was a teenager and I had asked him to put his laundry away, and he didn’t want to. In the moment, it was one of those moments where I just realized he’s all of a sudden taller than me. I got into a power struggle with him about it and I said, “Do it now. I said do it now,” and he looked at me and said, “No.” I realized in that moment, I’m not going to make this 160-pound man who is six foot two, do anything at this moment.
That was my reality and I realized that he was standing up to me because he was holding his position, but he wasn’t being disrespectful. He was just holding his position and I tore him from what he was doing and expected him to do it because I said so. and that was a disrespectful way of working with him and treating him. When I could take a step back and understand what I was perpetuating in that moment, it was a lot easier for me to process the moment and to understand that he was upholding his own values.
Another example I think that’s important with teenagers because we want them to be mature and make these great decisions all the time, I have oftentimes teenagers who are in trouble for vaping in the bathroom with their friends, or they get in trouble for breaking some other rule at school and they won’t give up their friends to the principal, they won’t give out names, it’s really interesting to me how angry parents will get about that.
“That is so disrespectful, you need to give these names. You’re going to have a bigger punishment if you don’t give up these names.” But if we take a step back and look at it, the value that that child is upholding at that moment is loyalty, and from the parent’s viewpoint, it could look like they’re breaking a rule. But if you look at it from the perspective of that child, they’re trying to make a mature, wise decision in a much different way. We just have to understand where they’re coming from when they are making those decisions.
The last component of the Bravo Effect is opportunity. I think in every obstacle, there is an opportunity. In every crisis–crisis is really the fertilizer for change. When there is any barrier or opportunity that seems to come your way with teenagers, if you can look for the opportunity at that moment you can always shift the way that it unfolds.
Jane Borden: Can you give us an example?
Lisa Bravo: I think getting back to that story with my son at the top of the steps with the laundry, at that moment I thought, “Wow, he could really, if he wanted to, he could just throw me right over the balcony with one hand.” He was a strong kid and I realized at that moment that the opportunity was for me to shift the energy. I started it and we were in this power struggle together but what I ended up doing is I just sort of started laughing to myself and thinking, “I’m so glad that I have always tried to have a mutual respect between us because at this moment he is not being aggressive towards me.”
At that moment I could thank him for showing self-control. I could thank him and appreciate him for not throwing me over the balcony. I know that sounds so silly but it’s the truth at the moment, for having self-control, for not swearing at me, for not being more aggressive than he needed to be because he certainly could have been in that moment.
It changed the way it unfolded. I think there are lots of times when our kids are floundering or falling apart but they’re not like a child who comes to you because they got in trouble at school, for example. When you talk to them and you find out what happened behind the scenes, lots of times, teenagers have a very clear explanation for why they behaved the way that they did. I’m not saying that your child is always right, that there should never be discipline but what I am saying is you can always find the opportunity. It doesn’t always have to be a punitive situation. It doesn’t always have to be this moment where everyone departs.
If you have an angry, frustrated child sitting in front of you because they got home late, they missed their curfew and now they’re in trouble and you’re angry with them, you can always look at the other side of the coin. That they did get home and they actually came home and they’re actually sober and they got their friends home safely. That doesn’t negate the fact that there is still a consequence for coming home late, but you can spend your time talking about the things that did go well instead of only focusing on what they did wrong.
Jane Borden: You said a few minutes ago that the purpose is to connect, is to find connection, why?
Lisa Bravo: Because I think, especially now, I see so many teenagers who are so disengaged and disconnected, it’s really magnified with the pandemic and all of the social isolation that’s occurred. But I think teenagers, developmentally, part of their job is autonomy and independence and cultivating that as they grow through this developmental stage, but with technology and with all of the distractions that teenagers have now, it’s very difficult to engage with them and compete with all of the electronic devices.
At the end of the day, what I found is that teenagers who feel lonely and not connected end up either acting out or acting in. When they act out, we often see that in terms of behavior, substance use, flunking out at school, things like that, but that gets us involved as the parent. When they act in, those are kids who you see shutting down, developing clinical depression, anxiety, but really the antidote for that loneliness that they can’t shake is connecting with them.
Their peers are one, group that’s really important for them to have engagement in but they also really need that continued connection from the parent. They just don’t ask for it in the same ways as younger children might.
Jane Borden: Last question, will my child hate me? I’m only half kidding. I am going to dog-ear lots of pages of this book and save it for 10 years from now when I will need it mightily.
Lisa, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and congratulations on the book and on all the good work you’re doing to help families. Again, listeners, the book is The Bravo Effect: Strategies for Parenting Extreme Teens. Lisa, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Lisa Bravo: They can visit my website, which is thebravoeffect.com and there’s a lot of important information there about how to connect with your teen and build those relationships.
Jane Borden: Great, thanks so much.
Lisa Bravo: Thank you. Thanks for having me.