Parents hold the key to turning their children around, MST helps unlock the door
Imagine this. You hear that two teenagers in your neighborhood are caught shoplifting. They are accused of stealing more than $1,000 worth of merchandise from a nearby department store. This isn’t their first offense, either. You heard they were caught breaking and entering cars and a neighbor’s home. You think they are even involved with drugs. Given this new arrest, they are facing the threat of being locked up for their crimes. Your first thought is “their parents are to blame. They should have taught their kids better.”
Now imagine you are the parents of those same teenagers. You walk into the courtroom where you have been several times before. You know the drill, and it isn’t pretty. You have to face the people from whom your child has stolen things. You have to hear what troublemakers your kids are in school and in the community. You worry the judge has lost her patience—having clearly said the last time, “If you appear in my courtroom again . . .” You think, “I must be to blame. I must have done something wrong.”
Parents of adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system or who have teens with anti-social behaviors at home, in school, or in the community often get a clear message that they are to blame and feel overwhelmed by guilt and shame for what their child does. They frequently feel hopeless, as if there is no way out of this vicious cycle, that nothing will ever change.
And for many families, nothing does change. For them, the juvenile justice system operates as a bicycle stuck in one gear, and that gear is incarceration. The prevailing wisdom is “take the kid away from home, and you’ll do away with the problem. Besides, if the parents were effective, their kids wouldn’t turn out this way.”
At Multisystemic Therapy (MST), our belief in, and the evidence says, that parents hold the key to turning their children around. It stands to reason you can’t turn them around if they are taken out of the home. The best way to effect change is to bring it about in the natural environment where the problem occurs. (At home, in school, and in the community.)
We start with this premise:
MST seeks to help parents and communities understand that parents are not to blame, they are not the problem—they are, in fact, the solution. Working as full collaborators, the family, with the support of community partners, can effectively address the adolescent’s anti-social behaviors.
A key underlying assumption of this model is “families are doing the very best they can with what they have.” The aim is to understand why their very best isn’t yielding the hoped-for results. Given this underlying assumption, therapists help families and the other participants identify the strengths of the youth, the family, the teen’s peers, the school system, and community. By pinpointing and mobilizing the systemic strengths (Principle 2), the MST treatment team gives parents and community partner’s the ability to build skills needed to manage the teen’s current and future behavioral problems. If parents feel they are a part of the problem, they should take heart, because they are in fact the solution.
MST wants to reframe this message for parents in order to offer them the hope they need to address the multiple risk factors that contribute to their teen’s delinquency. Families need to hear and know that they are central and essential collaborators in offering the right answers for their young person. Without them, the teen can quickly return to acting out and causing problems.
Another basic premise of the model is that children’s behaviors are strongly influenced by their families, friends, and communities (and vice versa). This systemic/ecological approach not only helps by understanding each system has a role in maintaining the problem but equally and even greater, each system has a role to play in correcting the problem. By working together to understand this bi-directional influence, parents and their community partners (such as the schoolteacher, police officer, neighbor, youth worker, pastor) can do pragmatic things to address the teen’s transgressions.
Specifically, MST empowers parents by teaching them to change the one thing they have the most power over—themselves. By increasing their parental authority, they can then powerfully influence the circumstances of their teen. As one parent in the U.K. put it, “My MST therapist taught me to look at what I could change, what I had influence over, to start there . . . I have used this not only in raising my son but in all areas of my life.” As caregivers become stronger in understanding their role in creating and maintaining change, they become increasingly able to address problems across multiple systems (Principle 9). With the support of others and their newfound resources and skills, parents have the confidence they need to raise their teens in a way that makes them proud.
So the next time you think “look at that kid, where are his parents?” Or “Oh, everyone is looking at me, judging me. I must be a bad parent.” stop and challenge yourself to think “with the right tools in their toolbox and the right support,” parents are the solution, not the problem.