An Angry and Aggressive Teen is No Match for MST

Posted by Sophie Karpf

Oct 27, 2016 12:31:14 PM

To wrap up Youth Justice Awareness Month, we are sharing a family story from Maine. Our hope is that all young people will be given a chance to succeed like Mitch was.

Imagine you’re a parent of four young kids. When the oldest is 11, he starts acting out in ways you aren’t able to manage. Mitch has massive anger outbursts that he takes out on the furniture, walls and cabinets. He discounts all authority. He is angry and aggressive. If asked to do chores, he vehemently refuses and leaves the house for hours. When he sets his eyes on a new toy or electronic, even if it is one you can’t afford, he starts cussing, hitting things and scaring his siblings, so much so that you feel you have to give in. You start to give in so often that you are running through your savings. 

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By the time he’s 15, he isn’t attending school. When he does, there is no communication between the school and you. He isn’t getting the support he needs, and you feel unheard by the school. You sought help before, but nothing worked. Eventually, someone recommends Multisystemic Therapy (MST) to you. You’re sick of trying programs that do not yield results, and you’re wary of new systems and people.

This is the situation in which Joyce and her family found themselves. They were hesitant when they first heard about MST, but ultimately decided they had nothing left to lose. 

Enter Jeffrey

Jeffrey was new to Multisystemic Therapy when he met Joyce and her family. He became a clinician after spending time in the Marine Corps, where he first learned the motto of "Whatever It Takes." This made him uniquely prepared for his role as an MST therapist. 

The treatment began with a total redefining of what it meant to communicate. In some instances, Joyce and her husband’s well-meaning attempts to communicate with their son would result in Mitch backlashing and acting out. And by then, things would be too heated and escalated to be productive. 

Jeffrey was able to teach each member of the family new ways to talk to each other, ways that were not aggressive or angry. He taught them that it was okay and even encouraged them to walk away from a conversation that was unproductive due to anger or emotion. These newfound skills improved parent-child relationships, but also improved Joyce and her husband’s relationship. "We didn’t communicate before about anything, but we learned to communicate with each other instead of at each other, and we are [now] able to communicate without getting offensive or making the [other] feel unwanted."

Improved home-school link reaps benefits

As one of Mitch’s referral behaviors was truancy, finding a successful way to engage him and his family with school was high on Jeffrey’s list of priorities. He had to work individually with the school before bringing Joyce and her husband into the conversation, but by the end of their meetings, they had developed a plan that would keep Mitch and his parents involved in a way that met all parties’ needs. They even ended up enjoying their interactions with the teachers and staff. The recently acquired skills that Jeffrey taught Joyce and her husband helped them connect more with their other children’s schools, too.

Not easy, but worth it

No one understands the value of delayed gratification better than Joyce, who said that "toward the middle of [treatment], I noticed that moments [of anger] weren’t as frequent and weren’t as long in the past. And that’s where it got even harder. The first half was learning what we needed to do and the steps to take to accomplish [it]. The middle is when the hard work really starts, and you bear it all." Quite a few times, they wanted to throw in the towel and be done. They were tired. The work was hard. But they never gave up on Mitch, and Jeffrey never gave up on them.

As often happens, Mitch was not interested in the treatment program at first. He said things like, "I’m only doing it because they’re making me." But he showed subtle signs that he was actually paying attention, and Joyce accredits this to the way Jeffrey spoke with him. "The way he chose his words and the way he talked to him just started clicking. It was like he had his own dictionary for [Mitch]. He was like a translator for us, so when we were lost, he would tell us [where to go]."

By the time Jeffrey was exiting their lives, things couldn’t have been more different than when he arrived. "He made sure we had the skills, and now we have the confidence to use the skills. When we have a situation that we are not quite sure about, the first thing we say is 'What would Jeff do?' It helps, and we have breezed through the last few bumps in the road. It’s not going to be easy, but we can handle it."

As for Mitch? He said he feels he has a much better relationship with his mom and dad, feels better about himself and acknowledges that MST was extremely beneficial.

To learn more about how MST can impact an entire family, download this 25-year follow-up study.

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