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.
by Lynn Lott, co-author of Positive Discipline for Teenagers
The Approximate Parent must have been a real labor of love for the author to write. It’s clear he has a desire to share with parents his vast knowledge about adolescents. Michael’s depth of knowledge and experience comes through on every page.
But this book is not an easy read and is not without its flaws. Parents are busy and want information without having to work hard at the end of long day to get that information. The Approximate Parent isn’t going to help them in that regard. It’s a long and often challenging work that is better off taken chapter by chapter, as parents need specific information. I would recommend that parents reading this book read the “Practical Help Tips” first and then go back into each chapter if they are wanting a deeper understanding of any of the tips. However, serious students of teens will come away with a thorough understanding of adolescent behavior and the challenges that adults have relating to them and helping them grow.
I love Michael’s chatty and authentic voice throughout the book. While I found it encouraging to the reader that we stop arguing about whether parents matter in the lives of their teens or whether parents are the reason those teens get so messed up, I took issue with the notion that who we are is a matter of nature and nurture. We could be using different language to explain the same thing, but in my experience and studies, I would say that though nature and nurture are important, who we are is more about the interpretations and decisions we made about what was happening to us or what we brought into the world. Those beliefs became our very own self-created operating system – more complex than anything Microsoft could ever come up with. And it runs us.
The Approximate Parent makes points that I’ll share with parents in my practice that I think will be very encouraging and helpful to them as they wend their way through their child’s adolescence. I would also share them with the teens I work with. Here are some of the book’s key points:
Lynn Lott is the co-author of the best-selling and highly regarded Positive Discipline series of books with Jane Nelsen.
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