Teens and college students are hurting. In addition to traditional stressors that have plagued teens for generations (dating, grades, substance abuse), today’s young people have the added anxieties about getting into (and paying for) college, finding a job, and adjusting to coming out of two years of isolation due to COVID-19. To top it off, they’re struggling with the increased costs of living that may be affecting their families or requiring them to live at home when they’d hoped to be living independently.
I recently spoke with one of my young patients, whom I’ll call Jack. Jack, a college student, was worried about his dad. After four years of sobriety, he was struggling to find work, and Jack was afraid he’d start drinking again. “I just don’t know if I can handle seeing him drunk again,” Jack said. “I’m thinking of trying to move in with a friend.”
Rose had recently broken up with her boyfriend. Her mother brought her to me in a family session. “She won’t stop moping around the house,” her mom said. “It’s bringing the whole family down.” Rose wished her mom would just listen to her. “She tries to talk to me but then makes everything about her feelings,” she complained.
Ben was also recovering from a breakup. His ex-boyfriend, Tyler, wasn’t ready to come out, and the sneaking around had become too painful, so Ben ended the relationship. But whenever Ben tried to talk to his parents about it, they brushed him off. “Dad thinks that being gay is just a phase I’ll get over,” Ben said. “They think if they ignore it, it will just go away.”
Now, more than ever, teens need to be able to talk to their parents, and parents need to learn how to effectively communicate with their kids. When many teens today do talk with their parents, it is often through texts and social media, and less and less through face-to-face interaction.
In the midst of all this, research shows that depression and suicide among teenagers is at an all-time high. Since the beginning of the pandemic, a growing number of Americans of all ages have turned to prescription antidepressants, and over the last ten years, there has been a significant increase in depression among adolescents. Teens generally find it difficult to get the help they need, a difficulty that may be made worse in communities where mental health care is scarce, or when parents are unable to recognize they need help in the first place.
What concerns me the most is the large number of teens and young adults who have mental health conditions that are not being identified. Parents can play a key role in recognizing these mental health issues. That, along with training in communication skills, could help with a critical national problem.
Being a parent to a teen can be tough. Typically, the teen years are when kids turn to their peers and pull away from their parents as they experiment with more independence. It’s normal teen behavior for kids to push their parents away, and I always urge parents not to take the distance personally. As a clinical psychologist with more than 25 years in practice, I know that parents are still vitally important to young people. Sometimes, parents simply need to adjust the way they approach their kids. The more parents can move away from giving advice and towards asking questions (and listening to the answers!), the healthier the relationship is likely to be.
I teach my clients a style of parenting called “authoritative parenting,” in which parents are responsive to a child’s emotional needs while consistently setting limits and boundaries. This parenting style has been associated with lower rates of substance abuse, violence, and risky sexual behavior, and higher rates of physical activity and healthy eating. Authoritative parenting provides warmth and support along with clear boundaries and consequences. Skillful communication is a crucial component of this parenting style. But parents often have to tread a fine line here. Young people don’t want their parents’ advice. They long to be heard and understood. Remember, your teen needs and wants your connection but will push you away when they feel you lecturing, hovering, and giving advice.
Over my many years in practice, I have seen teens with mood challenges who were not talking to their parents about mental health symptoms. I have noticed a pattern, repeated over and over, of teens who feel they cannot turn to their parents. Some blame their families for their anxiety or depression. Others don’t want to worry their parents. Still, others feel ashamed or cannot find the words to express what they don’t fully understand themselves.
When kids can’t talk to their parents or turn to them for help, the problem becomes worse. It’s tough. You may be dealing with your own mental health issues, or you may not know how to discuss deep issues with your kids. Yours may be one of two households that your child shuffles between. You may not know where to begin. 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 to understand your teen and help them heal.
I have worked with hundreds of teens who have told me they’ve given up trying to speak with their parents. This alienation leaves many feeling alone or heading towards depression, substance abuse, or self-harm. As a parent, you have a unique opportunity to create opportunities to communicate. More than ever, teens need to be able to turn to their parents and know that they will be heard and understood. If you have concerns about your teens, please trust your instincts and get them the appropriate professional help they need.
Let’s consider a hypothetical example:
Gracie was overwhelmed. She loved school and her friends, but she was struggling to manage homework, college applications, and her numerous extracurricular activities. She enjoyed social media but worried she might be addicted. Each time she tried to cut back her use, she found herself pulled back in.
Gracie broached the subject with her mother. Her mother, June, had a curt reply: “Social media is such a waste of time! Just look at your grades this quarter! You don’t know how good you’ve got it. When I was a teenager, I got good grades, held down a job, and did chores around the house. That reminds me: Your room is a disaster area. When was the last time you cleaned it?”
In this conversation, Gracie’s mother missed a precious opportunity to understand her daughter, deepen their connection, and even cultivate Gracie’s 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 knew she could communicate. She pulled out her phone and got on social media.
This might seem like a trivial interaction, and one easily remedied, but these kinds of communication—or lack of communication—patterns are typical in busy homes today. Parents can go a long way in helping their teen become a strong, confident adult by learning the essential skills to help their teen feel understood. Often the best therapy happens at home.
How can you have conversations in which your teen feels heard, understood, and cherished? Here are the best ways:
1: Accept Your Teen Where They Are
Many parents are upset that their teen is not doing better in school, is hanging out with the “wrong” friends, is spending too much time in shallow relationships, or is 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 me tell you about one of my teenage clients, whom I’ll call April. April was spending too much time with her boyfriend Jacob, who wasn’t a great influence but who appealed to her because he seemed to be the only one who understood her.
Her parents, Jack and Tanisha, didn’t approve of Jacob, but that didn’t seem to dissuade her. Yet when Jack and Tanisha cultivated stronger communication skills of their own, they were able to listen to April in a way that made her feel heard and understood. Her mom made an effort to accept that April wanted to keep dating Jacob, but she also continued to improve her own listening skills. After a couple of months, April dropped Jacob and increasingly turned to her mother when she was in pain.
Sometimes, just taking that first step towards accepting your child—and learning to communicate—can bring results.
2: At Talk Time, It’s All About Your Teen
When your teen needs to talk, remind yourself that it’s not about you. It’s about them. 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, ask them what’s going on and let them know you are available to listen.
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. So it’s important that you leave a flexible opening by saying something like, “Whenever you want to talk, I’m here.” And then, you have to follow through!
If your teen comes to you, set aside the time to focus on what they are trying to say. Even 15 to 20 minutes can make a world of difference. That’s not a sacrifice; it’s an opportunity. If you’re truly unable to talk then, suggest a time that works for you, and then give your undivided attention. And remember, texting is not talking. (None of this applies if your teen is in crisis, which means you need to talk now.)
3: Listen Closely and Reflect
Listen closely to what your teen is sharing and reflect back on what you hear. When your teen tells you about a struggle with friends, for example, you might say: “So I hear you feel that no one will ever like you.” Or when they’re talking about academic struggles, you might reflect back their feelings by saying, “It sounds like 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 similar to make sure you truly understand their perspective. That opens up the conversation so that they can elaborate more. When they do elaborate, they may offer subtle or additional information that will help you 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 feelings, 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 a better use of your time?
- Why do you think you are wasting valuable time?
These questions could have helped Gracie clarify her thoughts, learn problem-solving skills, and get 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 #2: when he or she comes to you needing to talk, “It’s all about your teen.”
5: Don’t Interrupt—Hear Them
Hold back from expressing your feelings, telling your story, or interrupting your teen. When your teen talks, they need you to listen. You can provide input later, if they ask.
Consider this mantra: “I can tolerate some discomfort and focus solely on learning more about my teen.”
If your teen feels like they are being heard, they will reach out to you again. Yes, they may still push you away periodically; that’s normal. But when you listen, you can make 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 lead more complicated lives than ever, and the cascade of feelings that they experience 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 better for it. And so will you.
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, 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!