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Perspective | Magazine

How to get your teenager to open up to you, especially now

As the coronavirus lockdown puts families in a pressure cooker, these strategies from a therapist can help defuse the tension.

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Good therapists don’t use magic or mind control when we talk to teenagers about difficult subjects. Most of us have given up on tracking trends in slang and pop culture. And unlike our on-screen counterparts, we rarely bestow profound insights to achieve dramatic breakthroughs. Remember Robin Williams repeating the cryptic phrase “it’s not your fault” until Matt Damon dissolves in a puddle of tears in Good Will Hunting? It was an impressive cinematic moment, but take it from me: that’s hardly typical in real life.

I specialize in therapies for teens and young adults, and my clients generally receive my words of wisdom about as well as they accept advice from their parents. They don’t openly mock me, but they don’t listen to me, either. Most of us bristle when other people assume they know what’s best or try to solve our problems for us. This is doubly true for teenagers, whose entire lives are arranged around trying to become independent, functional adults. Since the coronavirus lockdown is undermining that independence — and putting familial relationships in a pressure cooker — parents can use simple therapeutic strategies to defuse the tension.

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Therapy should support the goal of independence, rather than undermine it. Although it would be nice if my clients considered me wise, I actually don’t want them to rely too much on my guidance. I want them to leave therapy feeling more confident on their paths than before I met them.

To do this, I use a therapeutic technique called motivational interviewing, a research-backed practice that involves asking the right questions and really listening to motivate people to tackle healthy changes. The technique is based on the premise that the best way to influence another person’s behavior is to respect their autonomy, recognize their values, and create space for them to explore their own ambivalence. The goal is to help kids abandon harmful behaviors and pursue more constructive ones — without telling them what to do.

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Thanks to a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and in collaboration with the state Department of Mental Health, I’m conducting research to test the theory that parents can use these skills with their teenagers to address serious concerns, such as abusing substances and refusing psychiatric care. Lately, my colleagues and I have been using the techniques to resolve conflicts in our own families.

Recently, one coworker was at her wits’ end with her 13-year-old daughter, who was refusing to do her math homework. She had confiscated her daughter’s phone, begged her to consider her future, and simply yelled at her in frustration, to no avail. Using motivational interviewing, she reframed the discussion: “I’ve heard you say that homework is boring and useless. What do you find especially boring about it?” Then she asked some questions that prompted her daughter to draw connections between completing homework and her dream of attending veterinary school. To her astonishment, the girl calmly walked off to do the assignment. The key, she told me later, was connecting with her daughter’s motivation and values, not imposing her own.

Most experts would not endorse using motivational interviewing as your primary vehicle for family communication. Teens know when adults aren’t being authentic, and it would just be weird to pretend that you don’t have any opinions at all. But there are several strategies from the toolbox that anyone can try.

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Next time you find yourself about to lose your cool, make a simple observation instead. Be direct and stick to easily agreed-upon facts, such as: “You’ve spent a lot of time looking at your phone today.” (“Your eyeballs are practically glued to that screen” is more of an opinion than a fact.) Then ask what they think. It might feel ridiculous, but do your best to radiate gentle curiosity. “Is this acceptable?” isn’t really a question. Try something more open-ended: “How does that affect you?”

Next, be quiet. Do not jump to fill the conversation with the fact that this behavior is driving you mad, or volunteer your suggestions for improvement. Wait for your teen to answer your question, listen to what he or she says, and repeat back what you heard. Show that you can listen without rushing to control.

Your teen might say something like: “I haven’t seen my friends in weeks and my teachers don’t even care if I do any work, and you’re on your phone all day too, so why are you judging me?” You might dislike this whiny deflection. But notice how this teen is confiding a number of sensitive emotions: loneliness, boredom, feeling judged. Rather than comment on his or her poor attitude or the flaws in that argument, respond in a compassionate way by acknowledging that it’s certainly understandable to feel stressed and sad about being away from friends and normal routines. Ask about the pros and cons of spending hours each day on social media or streaming platforms. Listen for and repeat back any intrinsic motivation to engage in other activities, such as reading books, baking cookies, or exercising, which might be quite different from what motivates an adult to do those activities. For instance, a classmate might be impressed by your teen’s talents through a photo of an artistic creation or a baking project posted on social media.

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When children learn to tie their shoes, parents watch in agony as they pull each shoe onto the wrong foot and fumble with the laces, but we know we must let them practice the skill to master it. Summon that patience now to resist offering your own advice about how to pass these endless hours at home. Encourage teens to brainstorm solutions, and ask if they want your input (most likely, they do not).

Finally, change the subject. You aren’t their therapist, after all. Research shows that healthy relationships require a generous ratio of positive and lighthearted interactions to difficult ones. So pivot to chatting about plans for what you’ll do when the lockdown is over or laughing about a teacher’s goofy sweaters, and savor these moments. It can feel so good to let go of molding our children into who we want them to be and to appreciate them now — exactly as they are.

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Dr. Emily Kline is a psychologist and researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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