Advice for parents and adults on communication with teens from a NYC therapist
Parents, teachers and other adults often wonder how to talk to teens. As a therapist who’s worked with teens in New York City for over ten years, it’s impossible for me to resist starting my tips for communicating with teens with something of a rant–it’s an incredibly important issue to me. In my NYC therapy practice, I take teenagers seriously.
Teenagers are prickly for remarkably good reasons. The language used to describe teenagers–the hackneyed caricatures of the whiny, temperamental adolescent–give adults broad permission to dismiss this reality. This dismissal comes in place of curiosity and a willingness to honor and get closer to them. I find in my teen therapy in NYC that their prickliness–as frustrating as it may be–is an entirely sensible response to the conditions in which they live.
Not all teenagers live with the same amount of grief. Like adults, teenagers experience different circumstances based on race, class and poverty; the quality of their schools; the composition of their families; and the degree of presence of consistent, reliable, and caring adults.
Most environments in which teenagers spend most of their time are rather horrendous. By and large, I’m referring to high schools, which are either unsafe or uninspiring and not organized to be pleasant places to spend the day. Even in schools that offer good programming and facilities, the social environment of high school is often wrought. There are wonderful exceptions, of course, but I suspect the degree of prickliness of a given teenager exists in fairly direct proportion to the quality of their school.
Empathize With Teen’s Experiences
As a NYC therapist who works with teens, I think–whether a parent, teacher, therapist or other adult in a teen’s life–we can all relate, on some level, to their experiences and challenges. We were all once a teen. Our own trying experiences are a great source of empathy, which is a huge part of communication with anyone. I think empathy can be misunderstood–and used too generally–as synonymous with being nice. For me, the critical part of empathy is relating to another human being in a manner that is driven by the desire to understand them–particularly in a manner that relates to our own experiences.
In the case of parents and adults (including therapists) finding empathy for teens, there’s an awful lot of cultural pressure that undermines this. There is the notion that teenagers of the current generation are somehow alien life forms as compared to “our generation.” It’s an odd sort of generational xenophobia. Times change, issues change and culture pressures change. Yes, that creates different adolescent experiences but what’s needed of us, as adults, is to find ways of connecting to those experiences. We forget our parents said the same thing about our generation and it was also quite dismissive. It’s the shared experience of being misunderstood–sexting and social media aside–that needs to be connected with.
How do parents and other adults connect with teens on these shared experiences? How do you talk to teens? I put together some ideas that I’ve discovered through my work with teens in my NYC therapy practice. There’s an idea out there that teenagers don’t talk in therapy or don’t really want to be in therapy. That has never been the case for me or in our practice. If teenagers are reluctant to talk, it’s likely because they don’t feel you’re really interested in talking on terms that work for them.
Don’t get sucked into the hyperbole.
Teenagers often exaggerate their feelings or positions. “My whole life is over,” is a way of conveying a sense of frustration and disappointment. Don’t overreact by taking it too literally, but at the same time, rolling your eyes and declaring it dramatic is dismissive.
Don’t take things so literally.
Similar to hyperbole, there needs to be an appreciation that teenagers–like any of us when we’re upset–say things they don’t mean. Playing a game of “gotcha” and holding your kid accountable for everything he or she says is going to shut the dialogue down.
Play the long game.
A relationship in which your kid wants to talk to you is a long-term process. Things will go poorly. Trying to salvage a conversation that’s going south may backfire. If things aren’t going well, or if your kid just doesn’t want to talk, let it go and try again later.
Own your stuff.
Apologize easily and unconditionally, even if you’re not getting one in return. You’re the grown-up. It costs you nothing to admit when you’re wrong. And it’s ok to say, “Hey, I was really out of line last night. That’s not something I’m awesome at. I’m working on it.” Humility will garner much more respect that posturing that you have it all together.
Set clear, predictable limits.
Make certain it’s known that there will be no compromises or exceptions to the things that really matter. I remember in college a professor who was incredibly flexible on due dates for papers. It turned out to be terrible and I ended up writing all my papers right before the end of the semester. If something is a non-negotiable, let that be known.
Be interested in what your kid is into.
I’ve said it so many times but maybe not enough: If your kid is obsessed with Pokemon Go or hardcore rap, download the app or some songs and learn more about what it’s about. Play the video game with him or her. Read the book your kid is obsessed with. It’s hard for someone to feel respected if he or she doesn’t feel like you respect what they’re into.