“My teenager is self-harming and won’t talk to us”… “My teenager has lost a lot of weight and we don’t know what is going on”… “My teenager got caught with substances and won’t answer any of our questions”… “My teenager is having anxiety attacks and needs to see someone.”
These are examples of emails or phone calls I get regularly from parents seeking therapy — and that was pre-pandemic. Now that parents are spending even more time with their teens, they are noticing even more concerning behaviors.
As a therapist, I work with a lot of teens. This has been one of my niche areas since beginning private practice, and it is difficult for me to refuse a teen who wants to talk to someone. While I am long past my teen years and even having teens at home, it is not difficult for me to remember what it was like to be a teenager.
I remember writing in my journals and keeping my thoughts between myself and those hidden notebooks. I did not have the courage to talk to someone about my innermost feelings, and when a teen comes into my office, I work really hard to ensure a safe space for those conversations to happen.
I start out my first session with the usual confidentiality and safety notice, but I also tell them that I won’t judge them, nor will I be mad at them. That they need to trust me in order to talk to me, and I take that trust seriously. I explain the Code of Ethics that I follow as a social worker, and I make promises about what I can and can’t share with others. After that, we are typically on our way to a long-term therapeutic relationship where we both get to know the authenticity of who they are as they grow and reflect and learn.
Oftentimes, though, the strife at home does not end. If the teen is evolving, that does not mean the parents are changing along with them. I have even heard therapists say comments along the lines of “I am done working with selfish (or unstable or unsupportive) parents.” Are parents more selfish? Or are they the same as they (we) have always been, but our kids are more compassionate and empathetic?
I think of 10-15 years ago when teens would tell me their mom was nagging them about putting on deodorant, or not extending a curfew. I have not spent time in sessions talking about these typical battles the past few years. Now the battles are over how much time is spent in bedrooms alone. That battle might sound familiar to you, along the line of “parents just don’t understand,” but that is not what I am referring to.
Teens are spending time alone in their room wishing their parents would miss their company, that they would put down their cocktail and listen to them talk about their day, their friends, their problems. They want to feel considered and important and the “seen and not heard” is quite the opposite of their desires.
Our teens want better from us. They want to process their choices and watch our faces for reactions, and then be trusted to make their own decisions, and their own mistakes. They cringe when we ask too many questions about school because they really don’t want us to helicopter any emails to teachers. And they are teaching us to be kinder to people, more tolerant, and more forgiving.
In fact, when I talk about values with teens I learned pretty quickly that “open” was a common word teens used when talking about qualities they value about themselves and others. As a therapist, I initially assumed they meant vulnerable and expressive. Nope. They mean open to others: Gender, race, class, intelligence, basically anything at all; be you, and they accept you for that.
So parents, what can we do?
I would suggest we start by listening more and assuming less. We were not trusted when we were teens, and many times for good reasons, but also oftentimes because we were not communicating. While far from perfect, our kids are honest. They don’t like the burden of secrets and lies and manipulations. They want our trust, and they want to feel trusted, so they can in turn trust themselves.
If you are not sure how to even begin, start with this: I noticed you have been (quieter) lately. Whatcha been thinking about? Or… I know this year is not what you wanted, and I just wanted to tell you I am so sorry about that. What can I do to make things easier?
In reality, the words are not as important as the safety you create in the conversation. Relax your posture, focus on your child, make eye contact. Pay attention, be patient when they speak, remind yourself that there are no right answers to their thoughts and you are not responsible for fixing any problems they did not ask you to fix. Most importantly, validate them. If you never agree with any words they say, that is OK! Acknowledge their points, let them know they were heard, and just like us, that is enough.
When all else fails, remember to avoid the words “at least.” When our kids tell us what is wrong, the last thing they want to hear from us why they should not feel so poorly because “at least…”(By the way, it usually doesn’t help adults either.)
Our kids are not depending on us to define them. How many of you chose a college major based on what your parents thought you would be good at? Our kids are “woke.” They take our suggestions and then decide whether to accept or discard them. The bigger question is: Will they come talk to you about what they want?