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Family Therapy Activities For Teenagers: My Best One!

Dec 03, 2023
family therapy activities for teenagers

Family Therapy Activities For Teenagers & Parent Dynamics - My Best One.

One of my favorite family therapy activities for teen clients I've developed was inspired by a TED talk from several years ago. Peter Skillman introduced a design challenge called the marshmallow challenge. The challenge involves teams of four building the tallest free-standing structure using 

  • 20 sticks of spaghetti, 
  • one yard of tape, 
  • one yard of string, 
  • and a marshmallow. 

The marshmallow must be placed on top of the structure. While the challenge seems simple, it actually proves to be quite difficult as it requires quick collaboration among team members. The activity was turned into part of a workshop, and they found it to be a huge success. They have conducted approximately 70 design workshops worldwide with various participants, including students, designers, architects, kids, and even CTOs of Fortune 50 companies.  Typically, teams begin by orienting themselves to the task, organizing, sketching, and then assembling the spaghetti sticks into structures. Finally, just as time is running out, they place the marshmallow on top and admire their work. 

  • Get the worksheet to accompany this here:
  • Circular Questioning is my other favorite family therapy intervention
  • I also love this as a family therapy technique

The Benefits Of This Family Therapy Activity

The exercise has revealed deep lessons about collaboration, teamwork, goals, etc. More importantly, aside from being one of my favorite fun activities, there's an incredible metaphor about the structure and teamwork that goes on in the activity, which is a metaphor about family relationships and family issues.

When I ran this in residential treatment, it was for a multi-family group, which was an important component of our family therapy program. The group members consisted of the teenage clients staying with us and their various family members. As it was a 75-minute group, I wanted to make sure there was enough time for processing the activity, so I made this a 20-minute activity and deliberately didn't allow them to plan or sketch anything. I'd find that usually about half of the teens had already done this activity, so I made a rule that for the first half of the activity, no one could talk to make it fair for other teams. I also had an anterior motive for this because I wanted to increase the stress and perceived pressure, along with the time limit and promise of a mythical prize (usually a feelings wheel or the extra marshmallows). The added pressure brings out more of the family dynamics we're hoping to elicit in this therapeutic activity, but more on that later.  I'd set a timer for 18 minutes and keep a countdown going every five minutes; I'd also stir the pot by making comments on how amazing one team was doing, playfully accuse one of my colleagues of cheating, and make comments on how amazing the mystery prize was. Frustration, hilarity, and a lot of hard work and thinking go on for the next 18 minutes. The winner is the family who was able to elevate the marshmallow the highest, and after the winner was declared, the loser commiserated, we would then move into the process section of the group activity.

Spoiler Alert - A lot of excitement happens in the last few seconds of the game when most teams start to place the marshmallows on their towers. Without fail, most teams don't consider the relative weight of the marshmallow, which can make or break a spaghetti tower. The exercise is an incredible metaphor for family life. Once the winner is declared, we discuss symbolism as a group before moving into the process section of the multi-family therapy group.

How To Start This Family Activity  Ice-Breaking 

Normally an icebreaker is one of the group therapy activities you do at the start of the group, but in this context, I needed to create a safe space, and had to ease the entire group from a mode of fun activity into a more serious discussion about family bonds and family interactions. I found that everyone was quite interested in me sharing share some of the facts the workshops had revealed, and it was a great icebreaker that would shift the entire family units into the conversation by discussing some of these findings:

  • Recent business school graduates tend to have more "uh-oh" moments, producing weak structures due to their focus on finding the single right plan and executing it. 
  • On the other hand, recent kindergarten graduates tend to have more successful structures. They start with the marshmallow and build prototypes, always keeping the marshmallow on top. (This is an iterative process allows them to receive instant feedback and make improvements along the way. )
  • On average, most people achieve a height of around 20 inches, while business school students achieve about half of that. 
  • Kindergarteners outperform most adults, producing the tallest and most interesting structures.
  • Architects and engineers achieve the tallest structures thanks to their understanding of triangles and self-reinforcing geometrical patterns.

Teaching with Metaphor in Family Therapy Sessions

Many things occur during the game and it's part of our job as mental health professionals, or at least family systems therapists, to observe and gather data. Unlike individual therapy, we assign different exercises in family sessions to deliberately collect more information on communication, roles, hierarchy etc, as well as the data collected from asking the family questions. This might seem like another one of those fun family therapy activities, but it's a powerful way to assess dynamics and generate a wealth of talking points:

Organization

In the context of family therapy, "Organization" refers to the way a family arranges itself to accomplish tasks and meet its members' needs. It encompasses the methods, structures, and processes a family uses to operate on a day-to-day basis. During the marshmallow challenge, we can observe how the whole family organizes itself to tackle the task. 

The way they initiate the task can provide insights into their organizational style. A family that jumps right in might have a more spontaneous, disorganized family system, while a family that plans first might be more methodical and structured and rigid. Observe who takes the lead in the challenge: Is it a parent, a teen, or is there a shared leadership? In structural family systems, mental health issues and particularly behavioral issues are considered to be a result of specific issues in the hierarchy or structure of the family. 

What I Talk About: The Structure Of The Tower

In order to get the family thinking about their own structure, I'll get them talking about the structure of their tower first. 

  • Was the structure we built supportive? 
  • Was it flexible or sturdy?
  • Did it withstand time / pressure? 

If this engages them you can slip in a question to them about the structure of their family, and is a great way to refocus them inward to start being curious about if members of the family could operate differently to create stronger relationships. 

  • Does our family provide a structure that is supportive, sturdy and strong? 
  • Get the worksheet to accompany this here:

Participation:

In family therapy, understanding "Participation" involves looking at how family members perform in their roles as family members and in this collective task. . Participation is not just about being present; it's about knowing, accepting, and effectively performing one's role within the family unit. When observing a family engaged in this challenge, consider how each member contributes. 

  • Does everyone have a clear role, and are they willing to take on these roles? For instance, one member might naturally assume the role of a planner, while another becomes the builder. We might see that parents back off and encourage their teens to engage more, which is fine, but I would be curious if they did this in other areas. 
  • We might see other parents be scared or timid to take control of the directions and if you observe that, you can comment on it after in the process section.
  • Are all family members engaged, or do some seem disinterested or disengaged? This level of engagement can mirror their usual involvement in family life, is it any surprise if the moody teenager refuses to participate in this activity when that is how they operate in their family? 
  • Is the rest of the family resigned to this or do they try and motivate and encourage the teen? And how does that go for them?

As the family engages in this task, their emotional responses to different emotions under stress become a point of observation. For instance, noting who in the family exhibits frustration, who tends to give up, or who appears disengaged can reveal much about how each member typically handles emotions and stress. These reactions might well be just because of the game, or someone being in a bad mood, but if you consider this to be an enactment, a powerful tool a systemic family therapist will use, then we can extrapolate that this is a dynamic that occurs elsewhere. 

We can also consider the family's collective response to these emotional expressions as being important information about how the family reacts to stressful situations. 

  • Does the family acknowledge and support a member who is struggling? Does one family member pander to the teen who is angry or sulking? 
  • Or is there a tendency to ignore or exacerbate these feelings? This can indicate the level of emotional support and understanding within the family, highlighting how they collectively manage stress and emotions.

What I Talk About- Family Roles

When a family is under a lot of pressure, we get 'typecast' into roles, and no one wants to be stuck in a role for too long. My analogy is Liam Hemsworth, obviously because he exudes family therapy?! But let's say he had an undying passion for performing Shakespeare but kept on being cast as the superhero. Playing Thor might be fun for a few movies, but ultimately he's not going to be happy if he only gets to play Norse God Superheros for the rest of his life. We want flexibility in the roles we play, and dysfunction in a family occurs whenever someone is stuck in the same role (or typecast). 

  • During the exercise, what did you notice about your family and teammates?
  • Who was in charge?
  • Who gave up? 
  • Who got bored?
  • What are the different ways people participated?
  • Who underperformed? 
  • Who overperformed?
  • Is this what it's like in your family in other areas? 
  • What would you change?

The Unknown 

The marshmallow challenge, particularly the unexpected weight of the marshmallow, serves as a profound metaphor for how families deal with the unknown and unforeseen changes in life. This activity highlights a crucial aspect of family dynamics: the need for flexibility and the ability to adapt to change and life transitions.

In the challenge, most teams focus on building the tallest structure, often overlooking the marshmallow's weight until the very end. This oversight leads to many structures collapsing under the weight of the marshmallow, a scenario that can be likened to how families sometimes handle unexpected stressors or changes. Just as the teams in the challenge often fail to account for the marshmallow's weight, families too can be caught off-guard by life's unpredictable events, such as the sudden loss of a loved one, substance use, a major move, or any significant life transition.

The key questions posed to families during this activity:

  • Are we prepared for the unknown? Or
  • Could our family handle something unexpected happening
  • Do we talk about things like this?
  • When did we know our tower would topple? 
  • What's the thing that's going to topple our family? 
  • What do we not talk about?
  • Get the worksheet to accompany this here:

These questions encourage families to consider how they discuss and prepare for potential difficulties and the 'unknowns' in their lives so in effect it's a form of those communication activities that generate discussions. It highlights the need for families to cultivate flexibility in their structures and communication. 

The marshmallow challenge is not just about building a structure; it's a lesson in family dynamics. It teaches the value of being prepared for the unexpected, the importance of open communication about potential challenges, and the need for flexibility and adaptability in the face of life's changes. This activity can be a powerful tool in helping families understand and improve their approach to handling the 'unknowns' in their journey together and can be a great exercise to add to your therapy practice. 

 

family therapy activities for teenagers 

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