HOW TO TALK TO YOUR TEEN. (Therapist Style )
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.
Brain Development, Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Validation.
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.
While this is seldom a productive talking point in youth counseling, it’s important for you to understand that what seems like common sense and reasonable to you may simply be a more difficult conclusion for your child to reach on their own.
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.
Here are some quick tips on how to take their perspective:
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?
If your struggling teen is acting out, closing up, growing distant, or making destructive decisions there are usually a handful of things we can do as parents that will help them grow, relax, and take time to think things through but from a parental role these tools can be hard to identify. We grew up in different times, with different challenges and different parents. So the next teen therapy tool on this list becomes very important.
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.
What empathy does sounds like:
“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.”
What empathy does NOT sound like:
“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.”
Behind most issues I typically help teens figure out that they are coping with a problem, seeking connection with you or others, or processing some kind of trauma. They generally know there is a problem but can’t really understand it, how it’s affecting their behavior, and much less how to talk about it.
No one likes feeling vulnerable, incapable, or helpless. Using empathy statements can often encourage more communication. But telling them “it’s fine”, “toughen up”, “just do x,y,z” or other such blanket platitudes can really invalidate their struggles and outline you as an unsafe and unhelpful guide. Let's talk about how validation can help!
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.
What validation does sounds like:
“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.”
What validation does NOT sound like:
“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.
Dr. Adam Assoian is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Bucks County, and is the Director of Ally Psychological Services, LLC, a private practice located in Fountainville. Dr. Adam also currently sits on the Board of Directors of CB Cares Educational Foundation which supports students, educators, and parents in the Central Bucks School District.
Dr. Adam has worked in a variety of settings, including a Community Mental Health Center for low income individuals, a College Counseling Center, a Psychiatric Hospital, two different private practices, a Residential Treatment Facility for adolescents, and an Outpatient facility that provided therapeutic services for adults and adolescents involved in the legal system for behavioral problems.
Most recently, Dr. Adam opened a private therapy practice, Ally Psych, to help fill a gap in his community; a younger male psychologist working with adolescents and counseling young adults. Within his therapy practice, Dr. Adam welcomes clients from all walks of life and treats every client with respect, dignity, and integrity regardless of their past.
If you could use some help reaching some breakthrough moments with your teenager, let’s have a conversation about how we can help them together.