Natalie, a 16-year-old teen, sits at a 45-degree angle from me. Her mom is in the room, directly in front of me. Her long sleeves hide the fresh cut wounds on her arm. “Natalie, do you want to tell me why you’re here today?” I ask.
“My mom told me to go to therapy. It wasn’t my idea.” She seems cautious and protective. This is all normal behavior for a teen.
Her mom then speaks for her, “She has been cutting herself. We told her how dangerous it was, but Natalie won’t listen. I’m worried. We need this to stop.”
I asked Natalie, “What does your dad think about this?”
“Well, he’s never around. He’s usually at work, I really don’t know.”
Her mother quickly cuts in with a response of her own. “He works to support us. Also, you know your father. He thinks you are looking for attention. You need to grow up, Natalie. You’re almost an adult now, and should be taking care of yourself better.”
You can now hear a pin drop with the tension in the room. I resist making a judgement for another moment. Natalie rolls her eyes.
“Natalie, I noticed you do not agree with your mom. What are you thinking?”
There is hesitation, and then she says, “Well, if you and dad did not fight so much, then maybe there would be peace at home, and –“
“And what would happen?” I ask curiously. Natalie seems a little scared now. She’s not sure where to go with this.
Mom says, “Natalie, what are you talking about? Your dad and I have problems, but it’s not abnormal for adults.”
I asked Natalie and mom to face each other to continue this conversation.
Hesitantly, Natalie said, “I don’t have to worry about you and dad so much. Every time you both fight, I just want to scream. I just want to run and close my door, and turn on the loud music. Is it because of me you guys are fighting so much?”
“Oh Natalie, I never realized you felt that way. That is not your fault; it has nothing to do with you.”
“I know what’s going to happen, right? You’re going to get divorced and I’ll have to spend weekends with you or dad, and you’ll probably ship me off to private school,” says Natalie, crying.
Depending on the temperament of a child and the level of anxiety sometimes children feel personally responsible for their parent’s relationship. Natalie has been doing this for years.
Her mother now takes Natalie in her arms as she silently sobs. At that moment, there’s a release. Natalie let go of the burden and the pressure she feels. Her mother has given her love and permission to let go.
There’s much work to do, but both of them know that things are already changing. Natalie let out a small sigh of relief and I knew that her cutting would stop over time. There was no need to feel the pain, and there’s relief from the pain. This was not her fault.
“Should I schedule a session for you and your husband?” I asked.
Mom replied, “I’m not sure, but I know what we need to do. Our marriage challenges need to be addressed first before Natalie can gain more confidence and feel free to be a teenager.”
At that moment I knew that Natalie might only feel some short-term relief in this family. Her father is not yet on board and has a very specific view on how the family should fix problems. Once the parents address their own challenges and are open to multiple ways to fix their interpersonal problems the tension within the family system will drop. When this happens, Natalie has a chance to be a teen again.