For the Love of Zombie Teens and their Parents

For the Love of Zombie Teens and their Parents


David L. Henderson, MD


Raising teenagers can be scary, yet parents possess the power to affect positive change in their child’s life. When it comes to a struggling teenager—especially the undead, zombie-like adolescent living in the next bedroom—the fears that parents harbor lead them to enact many of the same defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions that you see in the teenagers you’re treating: denying the gravity of the situation, acting out impulsively to find relief from stress, projecting the negative feelings they have about themselves onto others, personalizing hurtful comments and actions of their kids, displacing their anger and frustration with their kids onto their spouse, their coworkers, or even you, the therapist.

If you are going to help a parent with a struggling teen, you must understand the fears that they bring to your office. There are four main ones. If you, as the therapist, can anticipate these fears before a parent even walks through your door, you will be that much more successful in aligning them with your treatment plan and empowering them to launch their son or daughter successfully from the home.

The first fear is the fear of deception. No one likes to think that they’ve had a fast one pulled on them. It is not unusual for a parent to freak out when a child is caught sneaking out after curfew, watching pornography, gaming in the middle of the night, smoking or drinking alcohol for the first time, or experimenting sexually. When a parent feels caught off guard, it is easy for them to kick into a fight-or-flight mode of reacting. Those who are in the fight-mode may shout accuse, threaten, and name-call. They might also passively make subtle comparisons to other siblings, give their kids the silent treatment, or deny or withdraw their feelings to punish or confuse their kids. Parents in the flight-mode of dealing with these deceptions might ignore the problem, rationalize it away, make excuses, or pass the buck. To avoid these reactions, therapists must be prepared to ease parents’ concerns, educate them on normal adolescent development, and help them to understand that many of these issues are a normal part of an emerging adult child’s need to assert independence. The goal of a therapist is to help parents rebuild trust in their teenager by staying calm, preparing ahead of time for future challenges, setting appropriate boundaries and consequences, and working to understand what contributed to their son’s or daughter’s decisions so that the deeper need can be met in a healthy way.

The second fear is the fear of association. Parents are never more aware of their flaws and shortcomings as when they are dealing with the failures of their kids. Most parents who are seeking help for their teens are wrestling with some level of guilt and shame. They feel, whether they will admit it or not, that they are the cause of their children’s shortcomings and mistakes. Therefore, it is critical for a therapist to help parents distinguish between healthy guilt that leads toward positive change and unhealthy shame that leads to stagnation and hopelessness. We need to educate parents that when they feel guilty, they can use that guilt to help them reflect on the partial cause and effect—their specific cause and their specific effect—in their present circumstances so that they can fix their part of the problem. Because their feelings of guilt may or may not reflect reality, they must not jump to false conclusions. They must be intentional in their exploration and not make assumptions. In short, they must be teachable. You, as a therapist, can act as a guide in this process by teaching them how to look at the situation in a healthy way.

Fear number three is the fear of exhaustion. When dealing with undead adolescents, parents often feel like stranded survivors, barely getting by. Their zombie teenager has turned on them and seems determined to tear them apart mentally, emotionally, and even physically! The key for therapists is to screen with parents for the early warning signs of this fatigue (irritability, failure to maintain boundaries, avoidance, poor sleep, appetite, or concentration) and how they may be impacting their ability to parent well. Then, a therapist can educate and challenge parents on ways to regain their strength and keep up the good work. There are several ways to do this, but one is to teach parents to celebrate small successes. Change is a gradual process and is almost imperceptible at times. If parents are not paying attention to the subtle changes that are taking place in their teen, they wake up one morning and realize that, like a growing garden, everything in his or her life is in full bloom and they’ve missed it happening. When we break life down into smaller chunks, challenges are more manageable, change is more noticeable, and failures are more easily fixed and set aside. As therapists, we can help parents take a baseline assessment of their teenager’s abilities and then work with them on establishing gradual and variable rewards as their son or daughter grows into them.

The final fear is the fear of humiliation. The isolation parents feel when battling an undead adolescent is, in part, their choice. They would prefer to keep the challenges of raising their children behind closed doors. They know too well what the prying eyes and wagging tongues of neighbors, church members, coworkers, family, and friends can do to their reputation and pride. When people open up to others about the problems they are having with their children, they run the risk of being judged negatively. If they open up, they are questioning whether or not people will be respectful, appreciative of their honesty, gentle with their pain, empowering in their weakness and as confidential as possible. We have a unique opportunity as therapists to be the first person in many situations to demonstrate this kind of love and understanding. Before we can jump in with advice and solutions, we must first take the time to understand parents’ humiliation over the experience and restore their dignity by listening empathically, normalizing their fears, and assuring them that you are there for them as a guide and not a judge.



David L. Henderson, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist and author of My Teenage Zombie:  Resurrecting the Undead Adolescent in Your Home which released in October from Thomas Nelson Publishing.  Dr. Henderson is a sought-after mental healthcare consultant and lecturer. The father of three, he owns a private practice in Dallas, Texas where he sees adolescent and adult clients with a wide range of psychiatric and substance abuse issues.   To order the book, go to