What Teens Are Trying To Tell Us

July 09, 2019

One of the aspects I enjoy most about working with adolescents is their candor. Uncensored, unfiltered, yet vulnerable honesty. It’s amazing what you will discover once you give teens the space to express themselves without repercussions. In my work, I’ve witnessed first-hand how providing a safe, nonjudgmental space can be the turning point in a teen’s life that results in them discovering their voice. Ultimately, that is what many adolescents are seeking; the opportunity to be heard and acknowledged. Adolescence is a period of self-discovery and a quest for autonomy. It is a delicate time when teens attempt to reconcile ingrained family and cultural values with those of peers and the world around them. This can lead to either “validation of self” or instead, propel them into a whirlwind of confusion and conflicting ideas of who and what they want to be (or expected to be). This is typically when others around them begin to notice things such as behavioral changes, social-emotional challenges, interpersonal conflicts and academic issues.

As adults, we are innately propelled to want to quickly solve these perceived “problems” and return our teens to their “normal” baseline. We can go to great lengths to shelter them from pain, disappointment, and basically any negative feeling, thought, or behavior. While we do harness a responsibility to ensure their overall physical and emotional well-being, we can mistake the experience of discomfort or expected developmental patterns for something that must be altered and changed immediately. Yet, the more we ask (or demand) our teens to stop a behavior or thought, we are in fact exacerbating the presenting issue. By stifling a teen’s expression, however that may manifest for them, they will seek alternate outlets for that release.

Rather than interpreting a teen’s emotional or behavioral outburst as something that should be immediately extinguished, (unless of course there is a matter of an immediate safety concern and/or harm to self or others), it can be seen as an opportunity to express curiosity about their behavior. Offer an adolescent a moment to talk about themselves, others, or a situation, honestly with no judgement, and they will give you a gift of genuine and vulnerable emotions. This can open the door to a deeper conversation and you, as the “trusted, calm adult” in this situation, may be seen as an ally. It can be challenging to not go into immediate problem-solving or lecturing mode, but this is exactly what can cause a teen to shut-down. Rather, elicit their opinions and maintain a sense of curiosity about their experiences and refrain from criticism, judgement, or comparison to others.

One of the first questions I ask my teen clients is, “When the adults in your life know the best ways to help you during a difficult time, what does that look like?” Below are some of those paraphrased responses:

  • Not tell me how I feel (or don’t feel) about something
  • Give me space when I’ve had a bad day; I need space too sometimes
  • She would stop drilling me, following me, and see that I’m only getting more angry
  • Just say I love you no matter what
  • Just sit there and listen. They don’t always have to have the right answer
  • Not belittle me or my friends
  • Stop comparing me to their friends’ kids; I’m me, not them
  • Stop acting like they’ve never made a mistake
  • Share a story of when they faced a similar issue, only to connect with me, not lecture
  • Answer my questions about drugs and sex honestly
  • Talk about suicide rather than being scared of it. I’m scared and I need to talk about it

These are just a handful of responses of over hundreds of conversations I’ve had with teens, of all cultural backgrounds, all socioeconomic classes, all genders, and sexual orientations. These are powerful, clear statements, yet if you read in between the lines, you can detect the vulnerability, the need to be heard, and the need to say something much more deeper.

To state it simply, maintain curiosity, talk less, and listen more.

Michelle Ramos, LMFT

Michelle Ramos, LMFTThank you for taking time to explore my website. Whatever led you this far, I hope you'll maintain a sense of curiosity and consider if I can be of any support to you or your loved ones. Whether you're familiar with the therapy process or still deciding how and if it could help, I encourage you to consider for a moment, what in your life could be attended to right now? Is there something that weighs on your mind daily?

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