Family and Peer Influence of Overcontrolled Teens
For the last several weeks, I have written about an evidence-based model called Radically Open Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (RO DBT) focused on helping people reduce problems related to overcontrol (Lynch, 2018). It has been amazing in my work with clients! This is the third and final blog in this series about RO DBT; you may view my first blog post here and my second here. As a quick review, RO DBT often talks about Radical Openness as a primary principle representing three capacities essential for emotional wellbeing: openness, flexibility, and social connectedness. To pursue these, participants in RO DBT must actively engage in areas of our lives that feel uncomfortable in order to learn (Lynch, 2018). RO DBT can help adults, young adults, and adolescents of different cultures to cope with chronic depression, autism, anorexia nervosa, treatment resistant anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. In this final blog post, I will discuss how family and peer influences can cause teens to use overcontrol as a way of coping.
All human societies value self-regulation, but different cultures have different views on what is optimal self-control. Differences in cultural expression are mostly influenced by the extent any culture values individualism over collectivism, status, and power differences (Matsumoto, 1991). Self-control is defined as the ability to control emotions and delay gratification in order to pursue long term goals. It is often equated with achievement and contentment. Whereas too much self-control, or overcontrol has been linked to loneliness and hyper perfectionism. Overcontrolled teens have a superior capacity for self-control that is both their blessing and curse. These individuals have an innate ability to delay gratification, work harder than most others, and hyperfocus. Nevertheless, that detail focus can negatively impact the formation of close relationships and a sense of well-being. These teens avoid uncertainty or unplanned risk and vigilantly search for potential disapproval in the environment. It is also a learned way of coping within a family where overcontrolled individuals perceive this tool as necessary to be “good enough” for their loved ones.
With teens, overcontrol can be particularly related to trauma as both cause and effect. For instance, adolescents with this struggle often feel like they are less than other peers or do not fit in. They might believe that their emotions are somehow unacceptable, and they must suppress them in order to be accepted. These things are exacerbated by bullying. Children with overcontrolled parents, a history of illness, and inhibited temperaments early in life have been shown to be more prone to bullying by their peers (Gladstone, Parker, & Malhi, 2006). Bullying can exacerbate overcontrolled behaviors associated with avoidance, risk aversion, and aloof interpersonal styles of interacting (Perren & Alsaker, 2006). Rejection experienced by teens who are bullied causes emotions such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment. Examples of this type of bullying are not being picked for the team, not being invited to a party, or no one wanting to sit next to them at lunch.
What RO DBT aims to help teens do is work through tremendous fear around social rejection. Adolescents with overcontrol problems may avoid social opportunities with peers as a way to manage potential disapproval. Overcontrolled teens have a deep fear of being socially humiliated. This may cause them to cope by masking hurt and anxiety they are experiencing internally in an effort to avoid feeling those emotions more intensely. For example, my teen clients sometimes state, “everything is fine” but other peers or family may sense they are in distress. As a result, distrust may occur. In order to be vulnerable, these adolescents must have an environment that feels safe and accepting when sharing emotions like sadness, anxiety, and anger. When humans express negative feelings in a contextually appropriate way, their peers have an increased empathy and capacity to respond (Lynch, 2018). An emotionally safe environment will give overcontrolled teens the space to learn to share in a healthy way with their peers and caregivers.
RO DBT can teach teens ways to manage fears by connecting with others through common goals. It can also aid adolescents in learning to calm themselves and remember to have fun with others. Open expression is interpreted as “you are in my tribe” and “we are alike.” This does not mean teens should share everything with others all the time. I teach my clients that being open is context-dependent. For example, if a client has a friend that has a history of trustworthiness, it can deepen the safety and closeness within the relationship based on mutual sharing of authentic emotions. On the other hand, sharing their feelings of isolation in front of a large group at school may not be appropriate or emotionally safe. Applying vulnerability takes practice over time, and it means not doing it perfectly all the time, as overcontrolled teens aim to do. Instead, RO DBT encourages the practice of authentic vulnerability in an emotionally safe environment. This is a daily challenge to be overcome by teens who have utilized overcontrol as a method of coping. Vulnerability can feel distressing, but it is a worthy endeavor to be part of the tribe. To be included requires that teens reveal authentic emotion (whether positive or negative) in the right environment. It may be imperfect and challenging, but it is worthwhile.
In conclusion, overcontrolled teens cope by masking hurt feelings, avoiding unplanned risks, and maintaining a cautious, distant style of relating to others. RO DBT can teach skills that will put joy back into their life and teach them how to change these patterns or habits. RO DBT can also teach how to increase closeness with others. If parents sense that they exhibit overcontrol themselves, RO DBT can help teach these caregivers to model appropriate self-control skills to their children. If your child has a history of experiencing bullying and he or she exhibits these signs as a style of coping, RO DBT can help them feel calm, confident, and courageous in facing social situations, while remaining grounded in their true identity. If you would like to learn more about RO DBT, you can visit the founder’s website at: https://www.radicallyopen.net/who-we-are/thomas-r-lynch/
Gladstone, G. L., Parker, G. B., & Malhi, G. S. (2006). Do bullied children become anxious and depressed adults?: A cross-sectional investigation of the correlates of bullying and anxious depression. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194(3), 201–208.
Lynch, T. R., & Lynch, T. R. (2018). The skills training manual for Radically open dialectical behavior therapy: A clinician’s guide for treating disorders of overcontrol.
Matsumoto, D. R., & Juang, L. P. (2008). Culture and psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson.
Perren, S., & Alsaker, F. D. (2006). Social behavior and peer relationships of victims, bully-victims, and bullies in kindergarten. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(1), 45–57.