Parenting is tough. It can get tougher when your child enters the teenage years. Understandably, you might feel overwhelmed when your child starts acting differently and stops wanting to spend time with you, preferring to hang with their friends. You might feel overwhelmed with their mood swings. You might feel anxious about navigating this next phase. You might be unsure.
What do you do? What actually helps? We talked to two experts, and an important theme emerged: empathizing with your teen and making sure they feel heard. Here’s how.
Have an open communication policy.
If you create an atmosphere where your teen feels like they can talk to you — without feeling judged — they’re much more likely to keep you in the loop about their life, said Liz Morrison, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in teen counseling.
Your teen will be much more likely to come to you when they’re struggling — instead of trying to handle a problem on their own. Because if a teen feels like they can’t share their true thoughts or feelings, they might isolate themselves or turn to negative coping habits, such as drugs or alcohol, she said.
For instance, Morrison worked with a teen who was stealing clothes from other students, which prompted her mom to seek therapy. It turns out that the teen felt like she had no friends. She felt like others made fun of her. She felt left out. She stole clothes because she yearned to fit in. And she didn’t feel like she could talk about any of that with her parents.
As Morrison said, “After understanding the situation better, it became more clear that the daughter felt she was living in a space where there was no open communication.” Her parents constantly fought. Her mom was angry and blamed her daughter’s problems on mental health issues such as obsessive compulsive disorder.
In addition to helping the teen cultivate a stronger self-worth and healthy coping skills, Morrison worked with her parents on understanding their daughter’s perspective and behavior. She worked with them on becoming more open-minded and receptive to their daughter’s feelings.
Morrison also suggested setting up rules and limits by including your teen’s input, which is another way they can feel heard and supported.
Practice reflective listening.
Again, the power of non-judgmental listening can’t be over-stated. Manhattan-based clinical psychologist Laura Athey-Lloyd, Psy.D, works with families on a technique called “reflective listening,” which is adapted from couples therapy.
Basically, each family member takes turns being the “speaker” (also known as the “sender”) or the “receiver.” The receiver mirrors back what the speaker is saying — instead of “jumping in with a reply or rebuttal. This helps family members really listen deeply to one another, rather than just preparing what they want to say next.” (Which is something all of us do, which only stops us from truly understanding what’s going on for the other person.)
Here’s how you can try it with your family, according to Athey-Lloyd: Let one person be the sender, while the other person is the receiver. The sender says a sentence or two. Next, the receiver repeats back what the sender said, almost verbatim (“trying not to paraphrase or make assumptions or additions.”) Then the receiver asks, “Is there more?” The sender can add or elaborate, and the receiver, again, reflects what was said. When the sender is done, the family members switch places.
When Athey-Lloyd asks her clients about their experience with this practice, they inevitably say that they felt much more heard and understood—as opposed to in a typical conversation. This technique decelerates the dialogue, diminishes emotional reactivity and cuts down on defensiveness, she said. Which is essential, because rushed conversations, emotional reactivity and defensiveness only impede real listening and support.
Understand what it’s like to be a teen.
Morrison stressed the importance of remembering that teens have complicated feelings. “Not understanding your teenager and the constant demands that are placed on them every day could lead to troubled behaviors.”
For instance, teens may look for fulfillment in all the wrong places when they’re regularly bombarded with questions or expectations are sky high. They may make poor choices when they’re mostly scolded for what they did wrong — and rarely “praised for the things they did right.”
Don’t be afraid of your own past.
Many of Morrison’s talks with parents focus on their fears for their teens — which are based on the negative choices they made when they were adolescents. This translates into trying to control their teens so they don’t make the same choices. But trying to prevent or control your child’s behavior can backfire.
For instance, you try to severely restrict the amount of time your teen spends with their friends. They sneak out of the house or engage in other risky behaviors to rebel and get what they want, Morrison said.
One of the best things you can do for your teen is to create an environment where they feel heard and know that you’re there for them. Of course, as a parent, this is not easy to do. And you might make mistakes. Naturally. Be honest with your teen, and try to foster an open dialogue. It’s incredibly powerful.
If you think your teen might be struggling, check out this earlier article with tips to help — which includes everything from teaching your teen healthy habits to reflecting on your own behavior.