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Communication Tips for Parents with Teens

Imagine this conversation between a teen and her father.

The adolescent says, “I don’t trust you. That’s why I don’t open up to you. I feel like you are going to criticize me.”

Later this same teen says, “I’ve been depressed so my screen time has gone up. I’ve noticed when I’m sad, I scroll social media more.”

Dad responds, “Well, why are you doing that? Social media is the last thing to help you with your depression.”

This is a great example of communication going (somewhat) wrong. Dad thinks he’s being helpful by solving her problem. His solution is, “Don’t scroll social media when you are depressed; it will make you more depressed.” It’s not like he’s wrong. It’s not like he doesn’t care. But when his daughter said, “I feel like when I talk to you, you criticize me”; it appeared he did exactly that and he probably didn’t realize it.

So what do you focus on when your teen opens up to you? Let’s look at an example.

“I’m so sad that school is out. I’m lonely without my friends,” says teen.

Parent could say, “Yes, you really enjoy your friends, I can tell. Tell me about them.” (Helpful response. This response makes contact with the teens actual feelings. It invites more into the discussion. Through telling you more about what she loves about her friends, it’s likely she will strengthen her commitment to finding new social activities during the summer without you having to say it.)

Or parent could say, “Well, maybe you could get a job.” (Teen hears criticism, it’s also a very quick answer, her feeling wasn’t contacted first.)

Or parent could say, “You are sad that things have come to an end. That’s always hard.” (Helpful response. Dad contacted the sadness and allowed the child room to feel this.)

Teen continues, “Yeah, it’s so depressing to just be stuck at home all day long with just the dog!”

Dad says, “I get it. You are bored. The dog doesn’t talk much.” (Dad contacts the boredom now.)

Teen continues, “I wish I could find a way to have people to hang out with. Maybe I’ll call so and so. Maybe I will try to get a job.”

Dad says, “Where would you like to work?” (Dad contacted her statement; didn’t give advice, kept the flow going. Dad is communicating respect for her choices. If Dad had suggested getting a job, it would’ve robbed her of the success of coming up with that solution on her own.) Granted: If this child won’t get a job after a long period of time, Dad certainly has the right to bring it up. However, this conversation started with the teen’s sadness and depression. That’s not a great time to bring up getting a job.

Teen responds, “Well, I don’t want to work in fast food!”

Dad says, “Oh, really, what is it about fast food you don’t like?” (Dad just keeps asking for more and more information. This fosters FLOW. He didn’t jump in and say something like “well, I worked in fast food and it was fine!” He can do that later, maybe, but not during a depression talk.)

Teen says, “Because everyone makes fun of fast food jobs.”

Dad says, “I see.” (He ponders. He’s leaving room for continual contact of the emotion at hand. He’s not making it about himself. He’s being respectful, patient.)

Teen says, “Maybe I’ll work at the ice cream shop. My friend words there.”

Dad, “Which friend? Tell me about them.”

You hopefully get the idea here. When a parent jumps in too quickly with advice, it stops the flow. Often when a parent (or a therapist) attempts to fix someone’s problem, it’s often taken as criticism. The timing has to be just right for solutions. A depressed or anxious person when given solutions hears, “Why didn’t I do this already?” or “I’m not doing it right” or “If I was good enough, I would’ve already taken the steps to solve this.”

Look for the emotion and contact that instead of giving a solution. Sad, mad, bored, jealous, anxious, guilty, embarrassed. Look for an emotion behind the words. “Oh, it sounds like you feel embarrassed.” “It sounds like you are feeling sad today.” “Oh, sad, huh?” Just contact the emotion and sit with that. Leave room.

Later, when there’s connection and a sense of trust and flow, solutions can be discussed.

Happy Friday! I hope you have some connected conversations.

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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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