Parents of teens are often faced with a puzzling chain of events. First, teens bring us their problems; second, they give serious advice; and third, teens think our thoughts are annoying, irrelevant, or both.
These moments feel ripe for connection. Why are they sour so often? Almost always, it’s because we’re not giving teenagers what they really want. Intentionally or not, that’s what they most likely want.
they need a sounding board
Like adults, teens may find the best relief from simply expressing their worries and concerns. In fact, there is an adage from psychologists that most problems feel better when they’re on the outside rather than on the inside, and that’s true whether the difficulty is big or small.
When teens ask questions our way, it’s best to assume they haven’t invited suggestions, or at least haven’t invited them yet.so let them vent.
Kathleen Deedy, 18, of Mission Hills, Kansas, said: “I would talk to my parents, especially if I wanted to do something that wasn’t enough of a problem. I just wanted to get it out of my chest. Take it.”
Teens can also share their thoughts as a way to spread their jumbled thoughts across the table, where they can investigate and even organize them. Isla Steven-Schneider, 15, of Emerald Hill, Calif., says, “Listing the problem, putting it in words, it helps.” Adults can help create the space that teens need to do, as long as we remember not to interrupt listening and prevent Add your own ideas to the heap.
[Read more: When teenagers vent to the family dog.]
They are seeking empathy
There are many problems plaguing teens that cannot be solved. We can’t fix their broken hearts, stop their social drama, or do anything about the fact that they have three big tests scheduled on the same day. But having a problem isn’t as bad as feeling completely alone.
Teens often encounter difficulties they want to share, but not with their friends.At these times, they may come to us, but Seek only empathy, not solutions. Say sincerely “Oh man, that stinks” or “You have every right to be angry” and let them know that we are willing to be there for them in their pain.
To further express our solidarity, we might ask, “Do you want me to be around, or would it help to have some time alone?” or “Is there anything I can do that won’t make things worse?” These Questions send a powerful message that we don’t hold back from our teenage pain and will persevere, even when there is nothing we can do about it.
they can use a vote of confidence
While it’s hard for parents to stop themselves, there is a risk that rushing to advise you will convey the thought, “You can’t fix this, but I can.” When our teens are primarily looking for our reassurance that they It can be distrustful to our teens when they can deal with whatever life throws at them.
Instead of proposing solutions, we may support teens as they solve their problems. Saying “I’ve seen you go through something like this before” or “It’s tough, but so are you” can be effective in giving teens a little insight and confidence when they feel shaken.
Even teens who have resolved their issues may seek our reassurance. Katherine said she sometimes told her parents “a situation and what I’ve done to fix it” to make sure she made the right choice. When that happened, she said she was “not really looking for their solution, just checking to see if they thought I was doing the right thing with my limited experience with problem solving.”
Teens often feel vulnerable, especially when they open up to adults about their blockages and bruises. In these moments, well-meaning guidance can land like criticism, and lectures or what I tell you—however plausible—may feel like outright attacks. Even if you’re tempted to point out that studying for a chemistry test last weekend instead of going to a basketball game would avoid the problem entirely, it’s best to save that conversation for another time.
They want ideas, not instructions
Often times, providing our teens with listening, empathy, and encouragement will get them what they want. But if your teen is still looking for a solution after that, some advice might (eventually!) be welcome. Start by asking if your teen needs help with a problem. If you get a yes, Categorize the problem: What can be changed and what cannot.
[Read more: The difference between helping and helicoptering.]
For the first type, focus on the needs your teen has identified and brainstorm solutions together. For the second type, help them accept things that are beyond their control.
Joshua Siegel, a 16-year-old from Houston, lost all his free time as the cross-country season topped his already busy schedule. “I was totally overwhelmed with cross country, the band and the class, but my parents understood that quitting the team wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
Instead, Joshua’s parents agreed to help him pack abundant food to take to school every day. This opened up time at his lunch hour and took a lot of stress off of him. They did have to accept, however, that he needed to sleep less to do his homework by the end of the season.
“If I had sleep and food, I would be happy,” Joshua said. “Having my parents support my basic need for food when I wasn’t able to get enough sleep during my off-road time proved to be very valuable.”
Most importantly, aim for problem solving, not for your child. No matter how inspiring we think our advice is, it’s best to keep it until we listen to teens. “When adults come up with solutions too quickly,” notes Isla, a 15-year-old California native, “it feels like they’re not really listening or understanding what I’m going through.” Listening and understanding, it turns out, are what teens want or all that is needed.