Today’s teens are stressed. It doesn’t matter if they come from privileged environments or harsh deprivation – an adolescent’s world is confusing, and often filled with mixed messages about what is “proper” behavior and what is out of bounds. And then there are young people who are struggling with mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and/or some type of bipolar condition. Reports indicate that there has been a significant increase in depression and anxiety over the last year since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
This emotional overwhelm is increased when teenagers can’t talk to their parents, or think that they can’t turn to their parents for counsel and care. Parents, too, can be immersed in anxiety about how to discuss deep issues with their kids, and often don’t know where to begin. You might have a highly-demanding job, have to shuffle your children between two-parent households – the worries might seem to never end.
But there are some sound approaches to broaching sensitive subjects with teens. These are methods that open doors, at least partway, so you can begin the process of understanding, and even healing. Before we go into these techniques, let’s better understand the situation.
I work with hundreds of teens in adolescent counseling who tell me they have given up trying to talk with their parents. This alienation leaves many feeling alone and some heading toward depression, potential substance abuse or self-harm. Here are just a few common adolescent struggles I see in my work as a teen therapist:
- Increasing expectations from teachers, parents and peers
- More homework and other educational/achievement pressures
- The challenges of cultivating friends, socially and romantically
- Coping with rejection, judgment, and impossible clique standards
- The overload of social media information, including online bullying
- The emotional consequences of isolating
Parents, Don’t Miss Your Communication Opportunities
A significant percentage of teens feel overwhelmed and confused. Research indicates adolescent depression has increased about 35 percent since 2005 – a staggering figure. Statistics also suggest (and most parents will affirm) that the majority of teens are on social media daily and some continually throughout the day. The benefits of connectivity have been a boon for communication, but there are many dark areas, and teenagers can be subject to chilling ridicule and bullying there. More than ever, our young people need to experience meaningful communication with their parents, but both sides often don’t have the tools to move forward.
Of course, if you are concerned your teen may have symptoms of a substantive mental health challenge, don’t hesitate to take him or her to a doctor who knows your concerns. Take that action if your worries are serious – that’s best for your child and you. Adolescent therapy can save a lot of pain and suffering at a time when a teen is still developing. But let’s look at situations that are a bit less dire.
Let’s consider a hypothetical (but substantively realistic) example:
Gracie longed to have a good talk with her mother. She loved social media but felt she might be wasting valuable time that could be used for other things. Gracie no sooner brought up the subject of her ambivalence when her mother June said, “Social media is a waste of time – plus, it is affecting your grades. When I was a teenager, I did fine without social media. You need to break that habit.”
Her mother missed a precious opportunity to understand Gracie, help her clarify her thoughts, stand up for her position, deepen their connection and cultivate the ability to be resilient. That kind of blunt rebuff, even if offered in kindness, creates a hard barrier in Gracie’s mind: she senses that her mother doesn’t have the time or inclination to discuss something important to her. Gracie then turned back to a place where she thought she could communicate: she went back online.
This might seem a trivial experience, and one easily remedied, but these kinds of communication patterns – or lack of communication patterns – are often typical of the busy homes of today. Significantly, parents can go a long ways in helping their teen become a strong, confident adult by learning the essential skills to help their teen (and children) feel understood. Often the best therapy happens at home.
Don’t Commit Relationship Misdemeanors
Millions of parents unintentionally commit relationship misdemeanors by shutting down conversations, failing to attentively engage in exploring the subtleties of their children’s feelings, and shoveling out abrupt advice when their teen is hungry for meaningful connections. Here are some common patterns I see in my office with parents (and between parents) in conference with their teens:
- Getting defensive when their teen is presenting a complaint
- Talking about what they did as a teen
- Giving advice instead of listening
- Blaming the teen
These patterns lead to “go nowhere” conversations – they don’t offer your kids the important (and elevating) experience of feeling understood. Without that feeling, kids can start believing they are not good enough, or that who they are isn’t valuable. Below are five methods to open communication’s door. Start small, and you will start to see differences in the quality of your interactions.
Let’s start with a pivotal one: striving to accept your teen.
1: Accept Your Teen
Accept where your teen is, at whatever place in their development. Many parents are upset their teen is not doing better in school, is hanging out with the “wrong” friends, is spending too much time in shallow relationships, getting involved in drugs or wasting valuable time on the phone, the internet, and other social media.
However, it is crucial to accept teens where they are. Your teen cannot get to point B unless they feel accepted at point A. Let’s call one of my clients April. She was spending too much time with her boyfriend, but this was partly because he was the only one who seemed to understand her. When her parents cultivated strong communication skills, April let go of the boyfriend, began turning to her parents and got involved with soccer and other healthy pursuits. Simply beginning efforts at stronger communication can bring results.
2: At Talk Time, It’s All About Your Teen
When your teen needs to talk, remind yourself it is “All About Your Teen.” It is crucial to provide structure, guidance and limits – but it is equally important to create time to simply understand your teen. You don’t have to hover over them and be hypersensitive to every gesture or expression. But if you notice your teen is unhappy, inquire: let them know you are available. Encourage your teen to initiate when they want to talk – few teens want to be on any kind of fixed schedule to discuss life with their parents, but just leave a flexible opening: “Whenever you want to talk, I’m there.”
It can make a world of difference if you set aside at least 15 to 20 minutes to focus on understanding what your teen is expressing – that’s not a sacrifice, that’s an opportunity. If you’re pressed for time (unless you see that your teen is in crisis, which means you need to talk NOW), suggest a time that works for you, and then give your undivided attention when you are in conversation. Maybe you can only do this twice per week, but that is a great start. And remember: texting is not talking.
3: Listen Closely and Reflect
Listen closely to what your teen is sharing and reflect back what you hear. “So I hear you feel no one will ever like you,” or “You believe you are not smart enough to get good grades.” Be sure to ask your teen, “Is that how you see it?” or something along those lines. That opens up the conversation for more elaboration – there might be subtle or additional information that will help you best understand what’s going on.
You want to give your teen the opportunity to clarify his or her position, look at the layers of their feeling, and give them an opportunity to stand up for themselves. When teens say something like “Exactly!” or “Yeah, that’s it,” give yourself a gold medal for good listening. And then listen some more.
4: You Won’t Fully Know Unless You Ask
Be direct: ask what’s important to your teen. Become a good “inquirer” by asking relevant and context-specific questions so you can understand your teen and the nuances of their thinking. Use my when, what, and why approach.
For example, Gracie’s mother might have inquired:
- When did you start thinking you were spending too much time on social media?
- What are other ways you think would be smarter use of your time?
- Why do you think you are wasting valuable time?
These questions can help Gracie clarify her thoughts, learn problem-solving skills and promote her going from point A to point B in her emotional development. This inquiry doesn’t need to take a lot of time, but make it quality time. Remember: when he or she comes to you needing to talk, “It is all about your teen.”
5: Don’t Interrupt – Hear Them
Hold back from expressing your feelings, telling your story, or interrupting your teen by telling yourself that you can provide your input later. Consider this mantra: “I can tolerate some discomfort by focusing on learning to understand my teen.” Know that teens who feel they are being heard will return for more input. Periodically, they may push you away, but realize you are making a huge difference in their healthy growth and development. If you catch yourself interrupting or getting defensive, take some deep breaths, calm yourself down and get back to focusing on your understanding skills.
Teens are leading more complicated lives than ever, and the cascade of feelings in the teen years can lead to emotional estrangement, lurking fears and behavioral trouble. You might think that your moody, rebellious child has no interest in what you have to say. That’s not true. With steady work, barriers can be broken – your teen needs your love and support, and will be so much the better for it. And you too.
Making time for your teen can end up saving you time and turmoil. Good, clear communication can help your teen in multiple – and heartening – ways. You can stop having those toxic days being caught up in go-nowhere arguments that leave each of you feeling stressed and discouraged, feeling helpless and hopeless.
Learning to understand your teen may well require you to go out of your comfort zone – but this is how you can really grow. And your teen will grow with you. If you are still having concerns about your teen after trying these tools consider investing in teen counseling or relationship therapy.
Remember there is hope, there is help and it’s just a phone call away. Call 408-358-9679 for a complimentary phone consultation.