Your requests are simple, they shouldn’t take much time, and all you want is a little bit of help around the house from your teen. Or maybe you’re looking for them to open up to you. You’ve tried to get them to talk to you about what’s going on in their world and all you’re ever met with are one- or two-word answers.
You’re frustrated, don’t know why you can’t get through to them, and you just want a stronger relationship with them.
One of the most common frustrations parents of my teen therapy clients experience is that they can’t get through to their teenager. It’s no surprise that adolescence is a time of pretty significant change. Your 15 year old thinks they can handle any and all responsibility and are mature beyond their years. Meanwhile, you’re doing your best to give them space to grow while also protecting them.
You’re doing your best to find that magic combination of words that will help you talk to them without them slamming their bedroom door, yelling at you, or shutting down completely. Below, I am going to go provide an overview of a few areas that will help you (and your teen) understand how to help the situation. I want to tell you about a few things inside a teen therapist’s toolbox.
- Your teen’s brain isn’t fully developed until their mid-twenties.
- The rational decision-making part of the brain is the last part to fully develop.
- Adolescents typically rely on a part of the brain that responds in less rational and more emotional ways because it develops before the decision-making area.
Focusing on taking your teen’s perspective has several benefits including increasing empathy, sympathy, and creativity. It also decreases the odds of an argument because they may feel better understood.
- Think of why they might have acted or behaved that way.
- Think of a time you have been in a similar situation and how you reacted/behaved.
- What would you have done in their situation? Why do you think they didn’t do the same?
- Do they already feel badly or regret their decision? Will it help them if you get angry?
- What do they need from you in this moment? What would you need?How would you want someone to talk to you if you were in their position?
Empathy is different than sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone; empathy is when you attempt to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference/perspective. Notice how the right examples show that you are attempting to understand and are hearing what they’re saying. The wrong examples try to convince your teen to get over their experience or feelings.
- “It sounds like you’re hurting right now.”
- “Would you tell me more about that?”
- “It sounds like that really affected you.”
- “I imagine it is really difficult to go through this.”
- “It could always be worse.”
- “You’ll laugh about all of this one day.”
- “Don’t worry, you’ll meet other people!”
- “This shouldn’t bother you this much.”
No one likes feeling vulnerable, incapable, or helpless. Using empathy can often encourage more communication. But telling them “it’s fine”, “toughen up”, “just do x,y,z” or other insensitive statements can really invalidate their struggles and make you seem like an unsafe and unhelpful person.
Validation is when you recognize, accept, and/or affirm that your teen’s feelings, sensations, opinions, and behaviors are authentic and worthwhile. The goal should always be to validate your struggling teen’s experiences, even when you disagree or disapprove of what they are telling you. If you do not validate your teen’s feelings, they will feel judged and may be afraid that you won’t understand.
- “It’s okay to feel this way.”
- “What you’re feeling is important to me.”
- “That sounds like it was really hard.”
- “I am hearing you’re feeling really frustrated.”
- “It isn’t that big of a deal.”
- “You need to stop overreacting.”
- “There’s no reason to feel that way.”
- “Just be happy.”
Whether you want your teen to be more receptive to what you’re telling them or if you want them to be more open with you, it all starts with working on perspective-taking, empathy, and validation.