Teenagers routinely open their hearts to me, and I am honored to hold their secrets and dreams, their disappointments and their fears. Parents often ask me, “How do you get my kid to talk to you? They won’t tell me anything!” I tell them not to worry, it’s always easier to talk to an adult who is not your parent. But why is that, really? Here are 5 reasons why teenagers talk to me. If you are a parent, maybe this can help you get your teenager to talk to you, too!
1. The number one reason teenagers talk to me is that I do not judge them.
Teenagers tell me all the time about their indiscretions- things they feel bad that they have done, but need to “confess” and know that they are still good people. I know that they are wonderful, and I can remind them of that, even when they forget it because they said some nasty thing to their friend, or posted something malicious on their Instagram, or did something at a party that they now regret. I know that they did these things because they were impulsive (a predominant teenage characteristic, and driven by brain physiology) or in pain. I can calmly explain to them how teenagers simply don’t have the executive brain function yet that adults have, and their decision-making is notoriously bad. This doesn’t absolve them of responsibility, it just means they are typical teenagers, not terrible little humans. Then we make a plan for what they can do differently the next time, and we brainstorm different situations that might arise so that they can be better prepared, especially when they might be influenced by their peers to do something they would otherwise not do. And the truth is, they go back out into the world after leaving my office and do more stupid teenage things. But sometimes they make good choices and we emphasize those. We want to grow the part of them that makes them most proud.
Teen world today is ridiculously connected. We know that teenage brains are hard-wired to connect to their peers first and foremost. This was always true, but now the opportunities for connection are ubiquitous and, frankly, overwhelming. Most teenagers’ phones will ping all night long with messages from whatever group chat they are on. Social media make it possible for many, many teenagers to be connected to hundreds, if not thousands, of other teenagers they don’t even know.
Nothing is secret. Nothing. Ever.
Sure, your BFF promises she won’t tell anyone about your crush on that cute new guy, but somehow, well, she didn’t mention any names on her Insta, and she just used your initials, so it could be anyone, really… Jessica and Alexa think it’s you, but they don’t really know for sure… These are the stories I hear day in and day out. If you grew up before the advent of social media, it is probably hard for you to understand just how much it drives teen world these days. Kids have whole relationships with people they have never met. They share dreams, have arguments, lose sleep, make promises– all on-line. They have fights with their boyfriends and girlfriends that they post on their Instagram. They “get back” at each other with stories on Snapchat, where everyone can see and the other person can be humiliated in front of thousands of “friends”.
Confidentiality is golden. Platinum.
Therapists are legally mandated to keep confidentiality, but with minors (under 18) it is a bit tricky. My teenage clients know that if I need to, I will talk to their parents about their risky behavior in order to keep them safe. They also know that I will never do it behind their back. I will tell them that we need to talk to their parents about something, and then usually we will do it together. But mostly I hold their secrets. Which means they can tell me all of those embarrassing things (see point #1) they’ve done, and I will tell no one. My office is a safe place.
As parents, you have no mandate for confidentiality. And the kids know that when they tell you something, you will likely tell your friends or your spouse. Because really, parents need support, too. Parents need their friends to help them get through those difficult teenage years, or they would go nuts. Well, I am a strong believer in parents sticking together, supporting each other. But if you can find a way to explain to your teenager that when they tell you something, you will cherish their confidences, and never tell your friends the specifics of what they told you, it will go a long, long way to winning your teenager’s trust.
3. I am not personally invested in their success.
Of course, I want to feel like I am making a positive impact on their lives. But I do not define my success as a therapist by whether or not they get into UCLA, or get first place in the swim meet, or qualify for all AP classes. They have SO MUCH anxiety over grades and performance in many arenas, believe me. Anxiety is the number one mental health issue I see in teenagers. They really, really, really want to do well. They will not do better just because you are telling them that it’s really important. It is already really important to them to do well. The best thing parents can do for their teenagers is believe in them. Because, I can tell you, they do not believe in themselves. All their teenage bravado is just a front. They are all terrified that they will not measure up. I remember when parents were told, “tell your child you believe that they can do anything”. Though it might not be readily apparent, this message is actually stressful for kids. They think, “Well, if I could actually do anything, why am I such a loser? I could do anything, and I’m just third string on the soccer team. Epic fail.” The better message to give your kids is, “you are wonderful just the way you are”. I have it way easier than parents in this respect- I can tell kids this, and then I don’t have to be the one who picks up their dirty towels off the bathroom floor ten thousand times, or listens to them fight with their sister about who actually is the owner of that blue sweater. I know that as parents, there are a thousand things like this that will fray your nerves down to nothing. Believe me, I know. Do your best. We’re all human.
This brings me to the next point. Kids talk to me because
4. I remind them of their successes.
When you are a parent, you are often the voice in your teenager’s head that sounds like this, “Clean up your room”, “Be nice to your brother”, “Study for your test”, “Turn off the computer”, and “Why can’t you remember to turn in your homework?!” I mean, that’s the job, right? You have to keep track of these things, so your teenager will be the best they can be. To a certain extent this is true, but with teenagers it is veeeeery tricky. They see any suggestions as a criticism of their ability to cope. Now we, as parents, know that in fact, they are not so good at coping on their own. They forget their homework and they don’t like to clean up their room. Parenting teenagers is a continual balance between encouraging them to be their best and letting them fail on their own. And, because we are humans (tired humans!), we snap. And those comments that we meant to sound encouraging just come out harsh. Oops. But there are some times when it is absolutely critical that we forget how tired we are and we find the energy to remind our teenager just how terrific they actually are. When your teenager is truly anxious about their performance in school, or sports, or in front of their friends, remind them of specific instances in the past where they were amazing. Remind them of specific instances when they didn’t perform so well, but they handled the disappointment. They survived, and went on to do better another time. The message is, “Mostly you do great, kid. Sometimes you are frustrated with your performance, but you have handled that pretty well in the past, and I know you will handle it well in the future- because nobody can do well all of the time. But mostly you do great. And I love you more than anything.” And though this is waaaaay harder to remember to do when you are the parent than when you are the therapist, it will mean so much more than anything I can ever say. You hold the trump card there.
5. I help them figure out what they need.
Sounds so simple. And yet… Society, parents, school– everyone has a message for a teenager. What they should do, who they should be. “Hey, you’re fourteen. You should know what you want to be by now.” “If you don’t get 1800 on your SAT’s you’ll never get into a good school”. “If you quit volleyball you won’t be able to get a scholarship and you’ll never go to college”. These are all things that teenage clients of mine have reported their parents are telling them. The truth is, a fourteen-year-old can’t possibly know what they want to be, because more than half of the careers that will exist when they graduate from college, don’t exist yet today. And a “good school” is one that fits the student- not so easy that they are bored, but not so hard they can’t keep up. And there are lots of ways to go to college, or, in fact, to be a successful, happy adult without a college education by the time you are 22. It’s certainly true that teenagers need a lot of guidance– a lot more guidance than they think they need! At the same time, they need to feel that their wishes and desires have value. That someone is interested in what is important to them. I’ve seen parents suppress their worries and look for a school that teaches only how to create video games because their teenager can think of nothing else all day. I’ve seen parents who highly value academics, nonetheless take their teenager all over the country to look at art schools, because that was their teenager’s particular passion. These are the kinds of things that instill a deep feeling of value in a teenager– to know that their parents hear their wishes, and honor their values. These are the kids who will continue on to follow their passion in life, whether or not it continues to be video games or art, because they know that their needs and desires are important to the people who mean the most to them. Kudos to all the parents who honor their teenagers’ own distinct natures, especially when they are different from what the parents expected. This is a terrific parenting challenge, and though we could all probably do better, so many of you are doing it very well indeed.
So…why do your teenagers tell me everything? It’s not complicated. But it’s not easy, either. Parenting a teenager is one of the hardest things we can do. There are lots of ways you can learn to improve your relationship with your teenager, though. Hang in there, there is help available. And before you know it, they will be in their 20’s and 30’s and maybe even think you are amazing!
If you want to learn more about how to communicate with your teenager, please call or email me for a free 20-minute phone consultation. We will talk about the best way to help you get what you need to make your life as a parent less frustrating and more satisfying!