The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager by Michael Y. Simon, LMFT, is an excellent reference for therapists (and parents) because of its wealth of knowledge about the real life experiences of teens. Mr. Simon shares his 25 years of experience as a parent, family therapist, high school counselor, college educator, matched with a passion for “scientific research as a source for thinking about and understanding my world” (Simon, 2012, p. 11). This background makes him an expert in the field of adolescent development. He paints a world intimately colored by the emotional relationship with his father, a scientific researcher, and his own humbling experiences and mistakes as a father himself. The entire book is informed by the most important advances in brain/body research over the last 20 years. The book excels at laying out where research and practice meet in real life—explaining how parents can learn to improve their own parenting choices. It is apparent that Mr. Simon wants and needs to be of service in helping parents assess just what kind of a teenager they have and how to help them strategize case specific interventions that increase closeness in the family. He does this by helping readers reflect on their particular teen’s biology, temperament, and developmental challenges. I have shared sections of the book with clients, colleagues, and teens who all found it moving, engaging, relevant, and helpful.
Mr. Simon believes that the most important task parents can help their sons and daughters accomplish is “...to experience, articulate, and manage his/her emotions… Affect regulation is so crucial because the leading causes of adolescent morbidity and mortality are all related to difficulties with affect management” (Simon, 2012, p. 175). Chapter 8 in particular is oriented towards helping ease the difficulties that inevitably arise during the transition into and throughout adolescence.
In chapter 8, Family: How Parents Teach When They Aren’t Teaching, Simon explains why teens do some of the most challenging things they do. His application of Control-Mastery Theory—a relatively unknown cognitive-relational model based upon empirical studies over the last 50 years by Joe Weiss, Hal Sampson and members of the San Francisco Psychotherapy Research Group—is complex, but ultimately practical. Control-Mastery Theory offers clinicians a way of seeing that psychopathology stems from “pathogenic beliefs” or grim thoughts, behaviors and attitudes arising from children’s attempts at adaptation to their interpersonal worlds. These internalized, persistent “pathogenic beliefs” warn a child against pursuing normal development goals. While these beliefs and related affects, e.g., “If I ask anyone for help, I’ll be a burden to them,” may have been adaptive during childhood, they can prove restrictive as adolescence and young adulthood progresses. The list of common pathogenic beliefs of teenagers (p. 331) is invaluable, and in part explains so well why interventions that increase shame can be deeply detrimental to the adolescent’s developing autonomy. Mr. Simon applies the theory well to reinterpret difficult or inexplicable behaviors as types of “testing” that teenagers must, in fact, engage in to disprove the beliefs that might otherwise keep them from healthy development. The main payoff in this chapter is in supporting parents (and clinicians) to strategize around puzzling or disturbing behavior and to distinguish between normal, expectable behaviors and those more problematic ones.
The “Practical Help Tips” and extensive bibliography at the end of this (and every) chapter are invaluable resources for parents who want to understand more about the world of their teen. In Chapter 4, “Parenting in the Digital Age,” Mr. Simon gives a brilliant analysis of the power of the internet and digital media making the argument that the entire socialization process for adolescents cannot be understood without relation to the mutually-influencing processes of digital media use. The internet is not just a “tool” that teens use; they are shaped by digital media use as they in turn shape digital media. For that reason, Mr. Simon is passionate about promoting digital media literacy for youth and everyone who works with adolescents and pre-adolescents daily. His discussion of how adolescents think (and don’t think) about privacy, examining the impact of their digital media practices is especially pertinent.
The book beautifully covers basic adolescent development, sex and relationships, identity development, school, drug and alcohol use, the “big problems” of the teen years, and offers an ethical view of parenting. It has been well reviewed by bestselling authors Deborah Roffman, PhD, and Lynn Ponton, MD. Informed by the axiom that “one size doesn’t fit all,” The Approximate Parent offers anyone who wants to understand how to support the particular adolescents in their lives the tools for a successful approach.