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.
The following is my response to Karen Ryan's Los Angeles Times piece (2/16/13) entitled, "How Brains are Wired to Handle Stress:"
The way anyone “responds” to anything is always about epigenetics, or the interaction of genes and environment. The study of the COMT gene has proceeded by studying a new strain of mice created in the laboratory that lacked the COMT gene (Gogos et al., 1998). These mice were created specifically to (eventually) better understand the role of the COMT gene in how humans respond to stress. Humans and mice are very similar (genetically) but tales told of mice and (wo)men have to be taken with more than a grain of salt. The work of people like Mannisto and Kaakkola on COMT mouse biochemistry is continuing today, as is Diana Armbruster’s work looking at how children’s cortisol levels responded under social stress, based on the children’s COMT genotype. It is far too early to say that we know exactly the function of cortisol in the human stress response or whether we can talk about a COMT typology that holds under all circumstances.
Michael Y. Simon, LMFT
Author, The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your Teenager
The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies that Work for Your Teenager
by Michael Simon (Fine Optics Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Kathleen Bisaccia, Parents' Coalition of Bay Area High Schools
My philosophy to parenting has changed over time and most of those changes have come in the run-up to teenager-hood, when I’ve realized that I can’t actually control everything my daughters do (surprise, surprise!). My current parenting approach is, basically — be smart, laugh, be honest, and try to SEE your teen. This is one of the reasons I admire and cherish the work of Michael Simon. Having seen him speak a few times I’m already a huge fan. His new book “The Approximate Parent” certainly confirms his deep knowledge of teens and what it takes to parent them. As always, Simon approaches the topic of parenting with good humor and self-awareness while also taking seriously the long-term effects of parenting on kids and vice-versa.
The ‘approximate’ parent is a practice-based approach to parenting teens. As Simon writes “it’s not about doing it right, it’s about stumbling towards understanding – approximating the approach best suited to yourself, your teen, your circumstances and your resources. One size does not fit all.” Thus is the beauty and difficulty of Simon’s approach. The beauty is that when one approaches parenting as a series of interactions, then each interaction is a new chance to do something right.
Simon reminds parents that it is normal that the pressures of raising children can be overwhelming and can make it way to stop enjoying your teenager – and experience they need to have with you. In addition, the key message presented by Simon is that teens need us to help them to learn how to be responsible and resilient, and to persevere when things don’t go well or the way they want them to.
The book is arranged so that you can read cover to cover for a deep understanding, or just focus on the chapters you need for some in-depth specific situations. Simon begins the book with some detailed discussion of adolescent brain development and function, peppered with real-life examples of the effects on teen reactions. Chapter 2 delves into what Simon characterizes as the “Big Problems” with teens, discussing in detail: (1) disrespectful, disorganized or antisocial behaviors, (2) arguing and oppositionality, (3) separation and behaviors regarding autonomy, (4) risk-taking behaviors (drugs, alcohol, fighting, sports, driving, criminality) and (5) mood related issues.
One of the most current chapters (and the one in which I was personally most engaged) is about digital media. Simon describes this media as “the water in which American teenagers swim.” American teen identities are shaped—and often made deeply anxious—by constant access to digital mass media. This book discusses this issue and how to respond to the challenge (in short, this is tough, given that we require our teens to use digital media in almost every aspect of their lives, from in-class work to homework to staying in contact with us to downloading digital photos and on). It isn’t as simple as just limiting their use – e.g. “you can use your phone as a calculator and texting about homework but not texting friends…you can use the iPad to read a book but not to check Facebook before homework is done…” this just doesn’t work. Simon also makes an interesting connection between our trying to pass on our ethics in parenting, and how to get these values across in a digital world competing for our teens’ attention. For good or for bad, the advent of the “24/7/365 always-connected, always-plugged-in-to-digital media teenager is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and that is changing everything.”
Another important chapter is the subject of “Identity Development, Relationships and Status”. Teens drive and emotions are to their identity is an immediate way. Simon believes that the most important skill for adolescent to develop is “figuring out ‘who you are’ – what you’re feeling, why you are feeling that and what to do about it. In other words, identifying, understanding, articulating and managing emotions.
Teens who can do this are less likely to manage negative feelings through the easiest possible way – by the ingestion of drugs and alcohol, by having sex, by taking risks or other self-injurious behavior. As Simon discusses, when teens can’t regulate their emotional loves, their risk of death increases.
Status is also extremely important to, and a source of anxiety for, many teens. As with many adults, teens care a lot about status for a simple reason, because most people tend to be nice to us according to the amount of status we have. Sadly, Simon has found that many high school students, especially those in the private school world, feel that they have the right to be rich, to have high-profile publicity, celebrity looks and a high-status job. Many are disappointed and depressed when they do not attain these things.
In the chapter “Does my teen have good mental health?” Simon discusses how to support your teen’s good mental health. The book also presents a chapter on drug and alcohol use among adolescents and ways to respond to your teenager about the challenges of drugs, alcohol and parties. In another chapter, Simon discusses how protect your teen’s wish and will to learn—and what gets in the way of the natural impulses of creativity, study and learning.
This book review just skims the surface of this book and its many relevant examples and useful guidance. Although it is a lengthy read with some uncomfortable truths (including the many hypocrisies of parenting and parents) I highly recommend this book to parents who are interested in fostering a positive, healthy relationship with their teen or young adult.
Kathleen Bisaccia is the editor of Parenteen, a quarterly publication of the Parents' Coalition of Bay Area High Schools. This article/review first appeared in their October, 2012 issue. More information on the PCBAHS is available online at http://parentscoalition.net/
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