Please welcome my guest blogger, talented therapist Catherine McConnell. Check out more information from her below, and check out her website here
Being a teenager is a really intense time in life. Often, as adults, we forget or distance ourselves from the intensity, confusion, and overwhelmed feelings of those years. When we have children of our own we can find ourselves at a loss for understanding our teens. It’s already difficult to communicate with them but when our teen is going through a difficult time it can be very frustrating to try and support them. Where is the line between parenting and intrusiveness? Why won’t they talk to me?! How can I support them without them feeling that I am condescending or being intrusive? As they gain their independence it can be very difficult for us to recognize them as their own person with their own way of dealing with things. So, how do we connect?
It seems odd, but I often think of teenagers as very large toddlers. They are similar in the sense that they are learning new things, growing independence, and learning to deal with big, difficult and very intense feelings. To a toddler, and to a teenager, everything is a crisis. They don’t know how to titrate their emotions. They have specific tasks to learn in this phase, which can make it that much more difficult for a parent. A toddler learns basic skills, the dreaded “no,” and is identifying their independence. Teenagers have larger, more confusing tasks ahead of them: having to learn adult themes without an adult brain. They are learning to be adults and don’t realize they need guidance. Like our toddlers, they are fiercely independent and very stubborn! It’s our job to guide without being restricting. If you can keep this foremost in your mind when trying to connect it can be very helpful. The goal here is to go in to guide them through these emotions NOT to control them.
A few tips for parents trying to connect to a teen (or adult for that matter) who is having a difficult time.
- First and foremost- REMEMBER THAT YOU CANNOT EXPECT ADULT THINKING FROM THEM. Did I emphasize this enough? You must remember that, though their bodies appear adult, their brains are not. They are NOT CAPABLE of thinking through things the way adults are. This is a learning period for them and it is the time that they learn from us how to do this. Try not to expect too much. They are not little adults.
- Give them their space, but with an open line of communication. Even if communication is only going one way. I promise they hear you. Let them know that you’re really sorry that whatever hurtful thing happened and you would like to help them through it. Acknowledge their feelings- don’t be condescending. We as adults know that this great guy was not the last great love of her life, but she doesn’t. Don’t invalidate that. Acknowledge that you know that she’s sorting through a lot of big feelings and you’re there if you need her. Just be present. I cannot emphasize this enough. It is so valuable just to know that you are there, even if they don’t come to you. Be the faithful lab waiting at the outside of the cave. Simply be. This is so difficult for so many parents because we want to take action. That’s about you and your anxiety, not your teen and you need to handle that yourself. Don’t put that on them. Simply being there is an action.
- If they don’t want to talk, you MUST respect this. You cannot, and should not, force anyone to talk to you. Let them know that you are there. Again, be present. Be available to talk and remind them that you are but also allow them to not talk. They sometimes need space to process and sort through things. Respect that. If you have let them know that they are there, kept the lines of communication open, and created a safe space for them to express these emotions, they’ll come to you when they’re ready.
- Realize that talking isn’t the only way to communicate. Assist them in finding another way to process if they don’t want to talk. Art, journaling,and physical activity are all ways to cope. Body language and behavior are also ways that they are communicating with you. Listen with your eyes. What messages are you getting? Help them translate. “I see that you’re feeling a little guarded today. (Arms are crossed, line of sight is down) Is that right? (If not, they will often label the appropriate feeling.) How can I help?” Just the same, your behavior can communicate to them that you are safe and open to supporting them if they need it.
- Don’t invalidate their feelings. That means you need to let them be in the moment. Let them feel what they feel, without judgement. If you think your child is being too sensitive, please keep it to yourself. If you judge or shame them it will only teach them to not express their feelings. This leads to dysfunctional ways of coping and is a straight shot to mental health difficulties. Encourage them to be open about what they’re feeling.
- Try not to “adult” them. Reminding them that you were a teen once and remember what this feels like is good. However, don’t give an anecdote with the message that it wasn’t that bad, or you’ll get over it. Even though we know this, and we want them to as well, this kind of thinking requires rational thought. Save that lesson for later. For now, just help them through the confusion. You can give life lessons later. They won’t hear you in an over-emotional state anyway.
- Don’t get your feelings hurt if they talk to their friends but not you. This is a really difficult time for them, without something terrible happening. They need to feel understood and know that they’re not alone. Their peers can do this for them. (The one exception to this is if they have peers who are encouraging behaviors that are harmful to them. Then, obviously, you must do whatever it takes to keep them safe.)
- *Make life as normal as possible for them.* Rather than telling them life goes on, show them. Don’t give them pitying looks, be overly clingy if that is not your usual personality, or hover. Just continue on with life. Many people, whatever age they are, just want to feel normal after something bad happens.
- Assist them into a “survivor” mentality and away from a “victim” mentality. Choose your words carefully. Refer to them as a survivor. Being a victim is a mindset of helplessness and pity. Being a survivor gives the message that your teen is in control of how this plays out. Rather than emphasizing that their power was taken away, emphasize what they did right to get out of the situation. A survivor is a fighter who ultimately thrives.
- Establish authority when necessary, but do it gently. There are certain things that you cannot ignore- like self-harm or suicidal ideations. In that sense, you have to let your teen know that now you need to be the adult and help them through the process. You’d like their cooperation. Let them know that you care that they are hurting and that you want them safe. They are obviously in a lot of pain if they are acting out in this way. Acknowledge that. DO NOT shame them for these actions. They will shut down if you do. Let them know that even though “nobody understands me” you still want to support them, even if you don’t quite get it. Remind them that it is your job to make sure that they are safe and make it to a healthy adulthood.
If you can reserve judgement and remember that they are their own person it will go a long way in assisting your teen through whatever crisis may have befallen them. Try to respect who they are as an individual and don’t try to force healing. It’s a natural process that happens on its own.
I have over ten years experience in working with traumatized individuals to move past their pain. I have a special interest in Post Traumatic Stress, military related trauma, and how trauma affects a person. I specialize in trauma and PTSD, specifically in the military and first responder populations. i’m very familiar with those worlds, though I work with civilians too. I work with all ages.I believe that, while often hard work, therapy doesn’t have to be made any more painful than necessary. I believe in being as gentle as possible while working through the difficult things you have experienced.-Catherine