By Will McNeese
Needless to say, a gap exists between today’s generation of adolescents and adults.
Chap Clark, in his book, Hurt, states that “teenagers honestly seem to believe that adults are unnecessary. Yet it is an equally if not more deeply felt truth that every mid-adolescent is crying out for an adult who cares” (p. 62).
The focus of this article is not the many ways in which our young generation has been corrupted by technology, social media, or a hyper-sexualized pop culture.
The focus instead is the responsibility of adults to alter the way in which they interact with youth—in order to meet the needs of those youth.
Why do I put emphasis on the adults? It is the responsibility of adults to meet the needs of children, not the other way around. If relational change needs to happen between a parent and child or teen, the initiation must start with the parent focusing on what is in his or her own power to change.
What I’m about to say may sound like I am advocating for a laissez-faire style of parenting—by not giving instruction, correction, discipline, or boundaries. Withholding direction or correction is not what I am proposing. I am proposing an alteration on the timing of offering direction and correction.
I am proposing that adults make an intentional effort to do what the prominent relational researcher, John Gottman, calls turning towards their teen which involves two components: Listening and Connecting.
First, there is listening. This means hearing what your teen is saying and acknowledging it. It means summarizing to him what he said in such a way that he can then say, “Yes, that’s what I am saying.”
Listening to him means momentarily withholding your response or your concern about what he has said. Listening tells your teen that you are willing to acknowledge his opinions, emotions, or experiences whether you agree with them or not.
Here is an example of what I mean: Your son is frustrated about his curfew and tells you why he thinks he should be able to stay out longer. We might usually say, “I hear you—” and then launch into a response. Merely stating, “I hear you,” is not sufficient. We must demonstrate that we have heard him.
An alternative listening statement would be something like, “Son, you are saying that you believe that you have shown me that you are trustworthy enough for me to extend your curfew.” The purpose of listening is to ensure that you accurately understand what your teen is trying to communicate.
This first step is so important because it is surprisingly easy to repeat what your teen says back to him and have him say, “No, that’s not it.” I’m sure you’ve felt the frustration of someone misjudging what you say and then giving you advice or condemnation based on this misjudgment.
To immediately respond with a comeback or answer without first listening usually sends the message, “I know what is better for you and I don’t care what you think, feel, or have experienced.”
If you want your teen to believe that you know what is best and have his best interest in mind, you must first develop his trust by communicating that you hear what he says.
After listening and repeating to your teen what he or she has said, the second step is to connect with the experience. This means putting yourself in her shoes and imagining what it would be like to see things from her perspective.
This is the basic idea of empathy. Empathy is different from thinking about how you would respond if you were in her situation. People respond differently to similar situations and there is not always one singularly correct way a person should respond. Empathy is imagining what it would be like to respond the way that she did in the situation.
An example would be that your daughter is angry with a teacher after receiving a bad grade. Your daughter believes the teacher is showing favoritism. Connecting with her experience would mean thinking about a time in your life when you have felt similar emotions to what she is describing and recalling what it is like to experience those emotions. Now would be the time to withhold your opinion about the accuracy of her perception (I know. Easier said than done!)
Connecting by being willing to imagine what it would be like to feel your teen’s emotions sends the message that she is not alone in the world and that you have compassion without condemnation for her.
For any person to be willing to talk about her inner world, there must be an established sense of safety. For your teen to share what is happening inside of him, he must trust that you not going to use what he shares to ridicule, condemn, dismiss, or harm him whether you agree with him or not.
Again, I am not advocating that parents should withhold their assessment of the rightness or wrongness of their child’s behavior or perceptions. I am advocating that for them to hear us, we must first build within our teens an internal belief that, “My parents understand me, care about my thoughts/desires/emotions, and love me as I am.”
Closing the gap between your and your teen will take many small experiences of demonstrating that you are a safe person. The more you model and embody that you care about listening and are safe, the higher your chances are at being let in. Trust takes time.
Will McNeese, LPC, LMFTA, is a counselor at Summit Counseling with experience working with families and individuals, including children and adolescents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.