Lynn Ponton on the Challenges and Joys of Working with Teens

Lynn Ponton on the Challenges and Joys of Working with Teens

by Rachel Zoffness

Teen expert Lynn Ponton, MD, shares wisdom from over three decades of working with children and adolescents, and describes how technology has changed the life of teenagers and those who work with them.
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A Delicate Balance

Rachel Zoffness: Lynn Ponton, you are a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has been working with teens for over thirty years, and are author of the books, The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do and The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls. Let’s start with some of the salient issues that come up when you’re working with children and teenagers. I find that confidentiality when working with kids and teens is often a tricky subject because teenagers have rights as clients and they want to maintain their privacy, which is critical to the alliance. But at the same time parents want to know what’s going on with their children. How do you maintain this delicate balance?
Lynn Ponton: I think it begins with the first session, and even before, when you talk with the parents on the phone—you have to alert them about how you run your therapy practice and your work with kids. I almost always say that I try to encourage privacy with the teens so that they feel open to talk with me, and I will tell their child during the first session that I’m going to try to keep things confidential, but that there will be some exceptions, and I let parents know that right away on the phone. In general, I meet the teen with the parents before I even start and I alert everybody to the parameters and the boundaries around confidentiality. ... Continue Reading Interview >>
RZ: So that both the teenager and the parent are on the same page and know exactly where you stand.
LP: Exactly. The kinds of things I would need to share with parents, which I’m clear about right from that first session, would be drug use that was risky or risky behavior that would result in serious self-harm. And sometimes other things—abuse when it’s disclosed has to be shared with the parents for a variety of reasons, and because I’m a mandated reporter.

It’s often hard for a teenager to tell their parents these things directly, so I’ll offer to meet with them and their parents and we’ll work together to help them disclose this material. Collaboration with the young person assures them that even if they do tell me something, it’s not going to be reported over the telephone to their parents. They’re not going to find out about it by surprise. Instead, we’re going to collaborate together as a team to make sure that parents know this.

Of course there are times when this doesn’t always work perfectly. Having worked with kids for more than 35 years, there have been exceptions where I’ve found out quickly that a teenager is suicidal and I have to let the parents know. Maybe we have to work toward a hospitalization period or something like that, but I try as much as I can to have the teenager be part of this process and be involved with it.
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Cutting

RZ: You mentioned a very hot button and interesting topic, cutting, which to me seems to have become almost a contagious and trendy behavior among teenagers. What’s your thought about that?
LP: Well, self-mutilation in all of its forms is something that therapists have to learn to feel comfortable with working with teenagers. It’s a big part of our work to connect with them, to know about it, to seem comfortable with it and not put off by it when we hear about it in a session. I first saw it about 30 years ago and wrote a paper on it in the ‘80s, which talked about self-mutilation as a communication. As you point out, it’s a contagious risk-taking behavior. In a group of teenagers, one will do it and the others will copy. They’ll think, “I’ll try it and see what I can learn from it.” That’s how that process really starts. In the ‘80s there were big concerns about self-mutilation because of sharing of implements and a lack of understanding around HIV risk, so we had to be very careful about that until we better understood it.

I think it’s often scariest for parents. So how do you work with teens around the cutting for parents? How do you help a teenager who is cutting really find other ways to cope with some of their feelings and to develop identity in a healthier way? In general I try to educate teens about cutting. I often employ them to get involved in it, to look online, look up articles about cutting. We’ll have conversations about it so that it’s really an educational process with them.

Some teens don’t want to engage in that process.
They may tell you they’re cutting, but they don’t want to learn about it, they want to do it.
They may tell you they’re cutting, but they don’t want to learn about it, they want to do it. This is something private that they’re going to do to help themselves feel better, so I’ll respect that, but I’ll still engage in conversations with them about it. I want to make sure that if they are cutting that it is safe in other ways. There’s significant risk of scarring, of infection—there’s a whole lot of risks that are associated with it.

Many teens cut because they say they feel better afterwards. A number of papers point to the beta endorphin release with cutting—the focus then becomes the physical cut and not the emotional pain that they’re feeling. So it accomplishes a lot for teenagers, but it is an unhealthy coping strategy and risk-taking behavior that you have to work with teens to limit. There are many different ways to do that.
RZ: The way you talk about cutting, it sounds like it might serve an important function for the teenagers who are doing it. What would you say to people who say that it’s just an attention-seeking strategy?
LP: Your question is well placed because I think a lot of times therapists who work with teenagers are faced either by teachers or parents or even other therapists who say, “I don’t want to work with those teens. They’re engaged in a lot of attention-seeking behaviors. How do you handle that?”

I think many behaviors in life are attention-seeking, and often we’re seeking greater attention from ourselves, that we pay attention to our own pain. Teens usually cut because they’re in pain and they don’t necessarily understand their own emotional pain but when they cut, it allows them to at least understand that it’s a painful thing that they’re dealing with. So, yes, it is attention-seeking, and adults will often be drawn in to it. Teachers at school are shocked when they find out about it and they’re worried other kids will cut.

But I think there are a lot of other factors that play in to cutting besides seeking attention. I’m also interested in questions about molestation with cutting. Were they ever hurt? Did they ever suffer abuse? Are they using that in the context of cutting? Has it become very ingrained, so it’s a behavior that they use as a coping strategy that they may have done thousands of times and they find themselves unable to stop? How does it fit in with their family?

Does their family know much about it?
There are many, many reasons why young people cut, and attention-seeking is only one of them.
One of the cases that I worked on for a long time, a girl cut because her father was a surgeon. He talked about cutting all the time, a different kind of cutting, but she imitated him in a kind of identification with her father. It took a long time to unravel, as it wasn’t obvious at the beginning of her treatment. There are many, many reasons why young people cut, and attention-seeking is only one of them. And it’s not often the major one. You have to address the complexity of the behavior and also the feelings that go with them.
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Five Perspectives

RZ: I think some professionals are concerned that giving too much time and attention to cutting might be positively reinforcing. So it seems to me that as a clinician addressing it you want to find a balance between over-reacting and under-reacting.
LP: I think that’s more of a strict cognitive behavioral model way of looking at it, and it gets to the question of models and how they affect our work. Cutting is a behavior, but it’s attached to many other perspectives that we look at when we’re engaged in therapy. I try to look at things from at least five perspectives.

One is the more dynamic-relational, where you engage and are looking at aspects of the relationship—how it affects you, the parents, the cutting behavior, all of that. How disclosure plays a role in that. Attachment. Therapeutic alliance. Then there’s the behavioral model. A lot of therapists don’t use that model, but I think it helps to focus on the behavior. I often have kids keep a timesheet or a workbook on their cutting behavior and have them draw their feelings at the time that they’re cutting in addition to recording the number of times they cut. It’s a kind of cutting journal that we look at from a behavioral perspective. We also look at their thoughts that are occurring at the time that they’re cutting, so we can target really negative thoughts.

Then there is the family system. Cutting is usually very much connected with parents in some way or another—they’re worried about the parent’s reactions; they’re worried about feelings they have that they feel the parents can’t help them with. A lot of our kids have trouble with self-soothing, so they’ll cut to self-soothe. The parents might like to learn how to help soothe their teen, or help their teen gain self-soothing mechanisms, but they don’t even know the cutting is going on so they can’t focus on that area with them. Or they, themselves, may be unable to self-soothe and not know that it’s an important skill that you need for raising teenagers.

Carl Whitaker always said, "You lose the parents, you lose the family, you lose the case."
And then there’s the aspect of meaning for the teenager. What does cutting mean to them? Do they think about suicide? Some cutting is related to suicide. Self-harm that is related to suicide is very important to pay attention to, not just for our board tests but in our office with our kids.

Lastly there’s the biological perspective. With some kids that I work with, they carry biological conditions which may lead to increased cutting behavior. Prader-Willi Syndrome is one of those that has some increased cutting and self-harm. You want to be thinking about underlying conditions that might contribute to this behavior.

All of those things are going through my mind, so I’m not thinking, “if I pay attention to this behavior I will reinforce it.” Instead I’m working on all of these levels if I can. I didn’t start with this in the first year or two of being a therapist working with kids, but the longer I’ve worked with kids, the more I’ve been able to see the complexity of so-called simple behaviors.
RZ: I really appreciate that more systemic approach to working with families because when you work with children and teenagers you’re never just working with a child. You’re always working with the family and the larger system.
LP: One of my greatest teachers was Carl Whittaker, a well-known family therapist I worked with as a young medical student therapist in Wisconsin. He always said, “you lose the parents, you lose the family, you lose the case, Lynn.” I kept that in mind and it’s really helped me with all of these cases.
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Manualized Treatments

RZ: Apropos of what you just said, I was trained in manualized treatments and I do see a use for them. But a lot of therapists think they’re mumbo jumbo and that they don’t address and can’t respond to the spontaneity of what happens in treatment face to face with clients. How would you make a case for manualized treatments, if at all, or what would you say to people who don’t believe in them?
LP: Well, there are now manualized treatments in dynamic relational work. There are over 400 manualized treatments that I know of in working with children and adolescents from a behavioral modality. Family therapy, too, has manualized treatments. I don’t think there are any in the more existential perspective, because it kind of runs counter to manualization. In biological therapies they have always had manualized treatments for how you evaluate symptoms and work with things.

When I work with young therapists—and I supervise a lot of residents, fellows, psychologists, psychiatrists who are at all stages of training—I really encourage them to pick one or two manualized treatments and really learn them—go away for a day or a weekend, learn the strategy, practice it, and try to become familiar with it. Even if you’re going to be a strict psychoanalyst or family therapist, I think they’re valuable because they teach you how to focus on specific things, how to evaluate. Often manualized treatments have an evaluative component built in, so you have to look at your actions and evaluate how they’re working at the end. That’s a very important part of all therapy.
RZ: Measuring one’s progress?
LP: Exactly. That’s the key, I think, in mastering some of our work. Now, which ones would I recommend? I think one of the best ones to know about is the basic cognitive behavioral therapy approach as developed by Aaron Beck at Pennsylvania. He was my supervisor when I trained there as a resident, and it’s a very successful modality to use. It helps us understand the impact of negative thinking. Another supervisor of mine was Joe Weiss, who worked on Control Mastery theory—which is about negative thoughts and ideas and the power of unconscious beliefs. I admire Marsha Linehan a great deal and the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy model. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with her about her work with adolescents and I think she really grasps what it’s like to work with high-risk adolescents. I would encourage almost anyone to look at her book on working with high-risk adolescents. It’s a wonderful model and it adds much to the work we do with young people. A third area that I think people should look into is trauma. We work so much with trauma as child and adolescent therapists. There is a trauma focused interview that we can do with kids that I use all the time. It’s very useful in diagnosis and at looking at symptom category.

I think learning a little bit about any one of these models helps any child and adolescent therapist function in a more complete way.
RZ: So it sounds like what you would advocate for is an understanding and knowledge of these manualized treatments because it gives you, as a clinician, more tools in your tool belt to pull out for individual clients as they come to you with their individual differences.
LP: It’s one of the reasons the tool belt concept is helpful. But it also makes you feel more comfortable as a therapist, knowing that you have some grasp of these different ideas. Knowing that you’re not following one dogma, but are open to new ideas, because I think ultimately as therapists we end up constructing our own way of working. The theories that we use to support our work, the collection of tasks and techniques that we define and use—these form the basis of our work . It’s very valuable to look at other people’s constructions, integrate them into our own work and say, “hey, this is useful for me. It works with these patients. I can really take this and run with it.” I mentioned five perspectives that I’ve accrued over maybe 35, 40 years of work, but I anticipate over the next 40 years there are going to be others that will greatly benefit our work as child and adolescent therapists.
RZ: There are therapists and other mental health practitioners who would say that defining yourself as eclectic dilutes your work. Do you believe that that’s true? How do you define your theoretical orientation when asked?
LP: I remember that same question from 35 years ago in residency. I think having multiple perspectives strengthens our work, and there are multiple perspectives within each of these theories, so it’s not like people who belong to one model are necessarily doing some ossified therapy that was created by some individual or group of individuals. In my work, I want to stay open and patients open me up.

One reason I like adolescent work, even though I feel like I’m getting older, is that it keeps me young. It keeps me open to new ideas. My patients actually taught me how to text on my cell phone; my patients are coded in by their first name so that they can call me and have a relationship with me.
My patients actually taught me how to text on my cell phone.
I remember one of my other supervisors, Hilda Brook, who worked a lot with eating disorders, was working with teens into her 70s and early 80s in a wheelchair, and she had greater facility with them than even I have today in my 60s. We can continue to grow in our work with teens if we stay young in other ways.
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Texting

RZ: You bring up a very important and hot button issue when working with teenagers, which is texting. And I think doing therapy with teenagers and kids today is a whole new world because teenagers and kids are used to communicating through their technology. What are the upsides and downsides of deciding to be a clinician who texts with your clients as you are?
LP: I think it’s important to be aware of some of the legal parameters around texting. Many of us work with large organizations, and it’s important to be aware of HIPAA regulations and such. HIPAA doesn’t regulate all therapists, only certain therapists who are involved with electronic billing, which you might be if you work in a large institution and you bill electronically. In that case you are HIPAA regulated and with regard to texting, HIPAA states that you cannot be sending clinical decisions through a texting modality or an unsupervised modality. You have to have some regulations around it.

When I worked at UCSF for 35 years, I was in a large system that was HIPAA regulated. My texts, which I did with teenagers for 10 years during that period, dealt with scheduling, and if they texted me about an issue that I was clinically concerned about, I’d have them come in so that we could then talk about it and then work on it in person.

But the texting connection I think is very, very important with teens and therapists. Not all therapists can do it for a variety of reasons. Not everyone feels comfortable with it and not all teens have phones. I’ve done a lot of work with homeless teens, who usually don’t have phones, so you have to figure out other ways to communicate with them.

But the bulk of teens out there today do have access to texting and they will communicate that way, often just to check in with you. They may just want to know you’re there and I think that sets up a relationship with them. I don’t always respond to those texts, but they know that I’m receiving and reading them.

But let’s say you’re not HIPAA regulated, so you can put anything on text. I would still say if you’ve got a big clinical concern with a teen—let’s say they text you, “I’m cutting, I think it’s out of control, I’m feeling really anxious”—I’m going to call them immediately rather than text, and most likely try to get them in to see me if I can. So it’s not that I’m sending long texts back and forth about that type of behavior. I’m really using it as a way to communicate to stay in touch.

Other ways that teens will keep me informed, they’ll often text me, “Saw an article you should be reading, doc,” or “thought you’d like this.” Those things are important because it is a reciprocal relationship. I’m largely involved in educating young people, but they help me a lot, too, and I get a lot from them.
RZ: For therapists in private or group practice who don’t work for large organizations, is there a downside to texting? For example, what if you lose your phone?
LP: I think that gets back to just have their first name, maybe an initial afterwards, but no way that they could really be identified. And if they’re very sensitive texts you can also erase them, although we all know that things are out in the cloud forever. So be aware that that information is out there.

This is also one of the things that you should discuss in the first session. I often discuss with my patients my availability, how they can get a hold of me, so they know that I will have their first name on the cell phone, and their phone number, and that I’m fairly easily accessible. I believe one of the reasons I’ve been so successful with teenagers and their parents is because I have very good accessibility. I take my cell phone all over the world when I travel. I do have somebody on call to cover, but I’m available in that way. But let’s say that cell phone is lost, and I’ve never lost my cell phone, though I fear it all the time, Rachel. I’m looking around for it and I worry about memory loss and loss of cell phone. But if it’s lost I think you have to alert the patients, especially those that you’re texting with, that there is a risk and the cell phone was lost. Most of them are not that concerned about it because their whole name is not out there. There’s not a lot of information out there. But I think it’s important to do that. But I also know from forensic cases that you can actually remove data from a distance off of a cell phone, which might actually be required if you work for a university or large organization.
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Sexting

RZ: Technology and internet use seems to be a primary source of conflict between parents and kids. Do you see this a lot in your practice? And how do you go about addressing it both with the parents and with the children?
LP: Very young kids, 9, 10, 11, 12 are using the internet or videogames or other media for large periods of time, and parents are often seeing symptoms—kids are struggling with school, their concentration is impaired, and they’re not engaged in other activities or relationships.
Some boys are being prosecuted for texting sexual photos and parents of boys are very concerned about this.
I think that that’s a very important area to be aware of. Parents need education around the signs to be looking out for when kids are struggling. We need to think about their media profiles, how much time are they on TV, how much time they are playing videogames, how much time are they on internet, and what different modalities they’re involved with.

When families come in, I’ll have both the kid and the parents keep a journal and write their feelings down about what’s happening when there’s a confrontation at home regarding this behavior. And all of that comes back into the session. I often will use the family modality to meet at that point and we’ll talk about what’s going on in that type of interaction.

The other area that comes up frequently with teenagers is sexting—texting sexual material. During the past five years I would estimate I’ve had 50 teenagers referred to me who have been involved in sexting activities.

In general, the girls are involved in sexting pictures, nude photos of themselves that have caused some great difficulty. These are often selfies where the girls will hold the camera out in front of themselves, often in their bedroom or bathroom, sometimes partially clothed, sometimes not, and then they’ll text the photo to a friend or friends, and then it gets texted everywhere. That type of interaction is very important to pay attention to and I’ll generally work with the teenage girl alone and talk with her about what happened. The feelings around sexual development are very private and tender, and it’s deeply shocking that this is suddenly exposed to a large group of people. I work with the family around this behavior, too, and sometimes will meet with parents alone to help them understand why this behavior might have taken place.

I would say a smaller number of the sexting cases, roughly 20%, are boys texting nude photos of themselves, but they’re mostly texting nude photos of girls. There are also laws involved with this and I’ve been involved with the FBI and other law enforcement officials around how to handle these cases. There’s awareness in high schools now that they have to report these cases when they discover that boys are texting sexual photos of girls. Some boys are being prosecuted for texting sexual photos and parents of boys are very concerned about this.
RZ: How do you handle those cases when they come in?
LP: First be aware of the legal ramifications. Second, encourage them to get legal advice, because we as therapists can’t provide all of that. Third, I often will meet with the boy individually and try to get a sense of what happened and work with them around that. Many boys are shocked that this has happened. They may have thought they were doing what the other guys at school were doing, that it was cool, they were getting more status. But I’ve also seen boys who’ve had long-standing problems and the texting of the sexual photos is connected to other sexual difficulties that they’ve been struggling with. They may have been molested. They may have molested another person. So to be aware of that, to be open to hearing about that is very important.

Parents of boys are often very angry about this process. They feel that the boy is at a disadvantage because though he sexted the photos, it was the girl who originally sent the photos out so it should be her responsibility. Helping the parents see that we have to take a deeper look at what’s going on with their son under these circumstances is really, really important and not easy to do. You have to stay open to their feelings about their boys being scapegoated, but at the same time point out this is something we have to pay attention to.

The intersection of online work and sexuality is really a key area to focus on, to get as much help as you can as a therapist. Sometimes if I have a question, even today I’ll go to another therapist that I think has more expertise in this area and get supervision.
RZ: Are there particular resources for therapists who want to learn more about how they can be better clinicians when addressing something like sexting?
LP: Yes. I’m not going to toot my own horn about this, but I’ve written an article that’s online about sexting and working with clinicians that I think is very helpful. It has a literature review of a couple of cases and ten guidelines for parents and therapists around this area. There are not recent and current books because it’s a fairly new topic, but I think it’s something we’re going to see more of in textbooks and articles. A lot of young psychologists’ dissertations have been done on sexting, and those are valuable if you can get a copy and read them.
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Learn to Like Kids

RZ: What advice do you have for beginning clinicians treating kids and teens?
LP: The most important thing about doing this work is that you have to be knowledgeable about your own childhood and adolescence. You have to have thought about it, its impact on your own development, the issues that you might bring to the work, questions and preconceptions about it, etc. I encourage almost all therapists to have their own experience in therapy and to explore some of these issues.

Second, what helps the most in this work is really loving children and adolescents. Having a strong love for that age group or working toward it. Let’s say you don’t love it, you’re kind of afraid of it, maybe you’re going to work toward a passion in that area. You’re going to learn why you’re afraid of that age group and you’re going to try it out and get supervision with somebody who is really very good at it. It is a group that is fun to work with, is very challenging, and can really be a growth opportunity for you as a therapist. But I’d say try to develop a passion for it. Learn to like kids. Learn a lot about child and adolescent development. I think either being a parent or playing a role with your nieces and your nephews and other kids is really important.

Third, you’ve got to be able to work with parents. When I was younger and starting out one of my mistakes was that I thought I knew what it was like to be a parent long before I was a parent, and I was often angry with how parents treated kids. By now I’ve gone through decades, I’ve had my own kids and I see it differently. I see myself as a valuable resource to parents and I have great empathy for them.

Sometimes I have to do very difficult things with parents.
Once I had to climb through a glass window when a young mother was holding her new baby and was psychotic and trying to do something to the baby.
Once I had to climb through a glass window when a young mother was holding her new baby and was psychotic and trying to do something to the baby. The police were there and there was obviously a lot involved with this, but we had to save the baby and rip the baby out of the mother’s arms. So there are things that you often have to do in this work that are not very easy with parents and I think I’ve learned how to do those with concern and empathy as I’ve grown older and become an older therapist. But at the beginning I would say stay open to the work with parents. Keep your eyes open. Realize you don’t know everything.

Fourth, Don’t just accept a dogma. Try to integrate and construct your own idea of how to do the work. I talked earlier about the five perspectives I use but think about those that work best for you, yourself, as a therapist, and with the patients you’re working with.

Lastly I’d focus on the first session and developing a good alliance with kids relatively quickly. That first session is really important—how you connect to your passion, staying open, not being judgmental. Watching tapes of other therapists do first sessions can be really helpful, or being in a study group where you share information about your sessions with kids. Or even observing preschool teachers, who are often very good with kids, welcome kids into the classroom, integrate them, and get them playing and involved in activities. All of that adds to our abilities in that area.
RZ: What do you think has helped you become a better clinician?
LP: Years of experience have helped a lot. Reading widely has helped a lot. Having my own children has helped a lot. I have four—two step sons and two daughters—and I’ve learned from all of them. It’s not been easy.

Supervising younger therapists has also been really helpful, because I’ve listened to their problems and I really try to figure out what they’re going through, which keeps me more in touch with what it’s like to start this work. This is not easy work. There’s a lot to learn. We make a lot of mistakes in it, but we do a lot of good.

Maybe the last thing I’d say about it is I’ve been so impressed over all the years of working with adolescents how many return. They bring their own kids back for treatment. That keeps me in it more than anything—having the kids come back with their own children, and seeing that they’ve shared things I said to them. This is not everybody, of course, because I’ve had over the course of my career two adolescents who killed themselves. I’ve gone through a lot of difficult experiences, as have my patients, but I am impressed with this type of work and how much we can help kids if we stick with it.

It’s wonderful work that makes you feel very good about your life’s work at the end of it. I don’t see myself at the end of it, but I have talked with others, like James Anthony, a role model of mine who was a wonderful child therapist who worked with Anna Freud. When I was a very young student I had the opportunity of working with him in London. He loved the work and he still continues to teach me things—and he’s in his late ‘90s. He talks about having patients come back and treating the grandchildren of the children he saw. That is an amazing thing. It’s a chance to be very connected with others in life really.
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Suicide

RZ: It sounds incredibly powerful to have had such a positive impact on someone as a teenager that they want to bring their own teenagers to you once they have had children. It also sounds incredibly powerful to have lost an adolescent client to suicide and I’m wondering if you feel comfortable talking about that a little bit.
LP: It’s a reason that a lot of therapists seek out supervision.
RZ: It’s admittedly my worst fear.
LP: I think it is for all of us. It’s not just the legal aspects of it. We all carry liability insurance and we’re worried about that part of it—but it’s also just the connection. I will say that I really remember these patients and their treatment very, very well because of going through this and thinking about it a lot. The first was a young man who killed himself when I was the director of the adolescent unit at UCSF.
RZ: How old was he?
LP: He was 19 and he had very severe bipolar disorder. He stopped his medicines when I went on vacation and then went into the woods and shot himself. I had arranged for somebody to cover me during this period of time. It was a short vacation, but still enough for this to happen. I’ve thought about it a great deal, of course. It’s changed the way I take vacations. I still take them, but I’m very alert, thinking about coverage and concern about these teenagers and children when I leave.

I spent several months working with his family. They had anticipated it more than I had and that surprised me. I went to the service and worked with them in a collaborative mode, which I did not charge them for, and they were very grateful. I’ve stayed in touch with them in some ways, though that happened I’d say roughly about 30 years ago now.

The other suicide was about 20 years ago and was a patient I’d worked with for years. She had a chronic psychotic condition. She was a very bright young woman and I had spent a lot of time with her. She had promised me that she would not harm herself until she was 30 years old, and then she killed herself not long after her 30th birthday. So she stayed alive working with me for years I think to try to get better, and we tried everything. Family therapy, medications—and it was clear that she was going to be living with a chronic psychotic illness that was incredibly painful for her.

I still think about her all the time. I think she helped me in many ways to understand that sometimes we work with individuals who are suffering so much that from their perspective, their life is really not worth living.
Sometimes we work with individuals who are suffering so much that from their perspective, their life is really not worth living.
We can discuss that with them, we can work to help them, many different things can be done, but there are limits to the work that we do. She left me a number of drawings she drew and painted. I think a lot about her family. I worked in much the same way that I described with the earlier boy. I met with her family and had contact with them for a long period of time. I still think about her all the time.
RZ: I bet. I think this is particularly important to talk about for young therapists who are, as you mentioned before, maybe put off entirely by cutting because they’re so scared of it, or don’t want to work with suicidal clients because they’re so afraid of losing a patient. It’s really valuable for me as a young therapist to hear you talk about having gone through this worst fear with a couple of your clients and not only did you get through it, but it made you a stronger clinician ultimately.
LP: I think ultimately it did. Of course, a big part of this was questioning what I had done with them and if I had made the right decisions.
RZ: Of course.
LP: Had I done something wrong?
RZ: That’s natural.
LP: I think any therapist who has had a patient suicide question their work. Families question their interactions with their children after suicide. We all think about it. I work with many teenagers, especially here in the Bay Area, who have had friends suicide, and the young teens question what they could have done to help their friend. It’s not only us as a group of therapists who question ourselves, but it’s really the world that comes forward to question itself around suicides.
RZ: It seems like that’s the first question people ask friends, family, and therapists alike: What could I have done? Could I have done something different or better? And I think that is a real challenge.
LP: It’s natural and appropriate to ask those questions and explore them, but it’s also important to really understand that there are limits in life to what we can do. It’s important in this line of work to talk about this aspect of it.
RZ: That’s a very realistic and compassionate perspective. Thank you for your time and for your wisdom.
LP: And thank you for your good questions, Rachel.

© 2014, Psychotherapy.net, LLC
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Lynn PontonLynn Ponton, MD, is a professor of psychiatry at UCSF, a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and the author of The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do and The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls. She works primarily with adolescents, focusing on risk behaviors such as sexual experimentation and eating disorders. She enjoys writing and has been published widely in scholarly journals, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, editorials, online and has been interviewed by numerous television and radio shows, magazines, and newspapers.

Ponton is the mother of two young adult daughters and lives in San Francisco. She is very interested in the future of young people throughout the world and believes that parenting children, adolescents, and young adults is the world’s greatest challenge. Through her work and writing, she hopes to contribute knowledge and practical information to this vital area.
Rachel Zoffness, PhD,  is a child and adolescent psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Brown University in Psychology & Neuroscience. She discovered the need for quality mental health services for children while teaching in a 5th grade classroom, when she realized that some children were not getting the support they needed to thrive academically or socially. Inspired by her work with children and teenagers in educational & research settings—such as St. Luke's Roosevelt Child & Family Institute and the NYU Child Study Center - she obtained an M.A. in Psychology at Columbia University. She went on to earn an M.S. in Clinical Psychology from San Diego State University, and a Ph.D. from the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology. She received additional post-doc training at the East Bay Mindful Center in Oakland.

Zoffness has worked with children, teenagers and adults in hospital, community mental health & private practice settings for over 10 years. She taught undergraduate Psychology courses at San Diego State University, and supervised therapists-in-training at the Wright Institute’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Clinic in Berkeley. She previously taught science to children & teenagers at the Wildlife Conservation Society in NYC, and has written articles for the American Museum of Natural History magazine. She feels very lucky to serve as a source of support for children, teenagers & families in the Bay Area. information about Dr. Zoffness can be found on her website: www.zoffness.com
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