Over the years in my counseling practice, I noticed that the majority of teenagers would refuse to tell their parents about their innermost feelings. The thought of having to express themselves after experiencing depression, bullying, loneliness, suicide, or sadness felt overwhelming. As one teenager explained, “it seems to be too much of a hassle” to get the parents involved.
Sometimes when a family comes into my office, one parent will openly say to the teen, “Tell me what is going wrong,” but the son will refuse to open up verbally, despite the look of despair on that parent’s face. Meanwhile, the disengaged parent will sit ever so quietly in the room and appear to not care what is going on with the teen. What seals the deal is the expression that parent gives me: “Now you fix him.” It further drives home the reason that teen doesn’t want to talk with his parents.
After two months of counseling, a 14-year-old who was being bullied at school finally built up the courage to talk to his father about one particular incident. Gathering his words, the teen described the situation that leaves him broken inside. Afterward his father replied, “You don’t have it as bad as I did as a teen.” That simple comparison downgrades the son’s rank in generational trouble and discourages the opportunity of open dialogue in their relationship. The teen explained to me, “I don’t want to feel worse after talking to my father; I will just keep everything to myself.”
In another instance, a 16-year-old confided to me that she was raped during a routine dance competition. This tragic event happened in a place that was familiar to her, with the same familiar coaches, but the resulting trauma will last a lifetime. Afraid that her mother would accuse her of provoking the incident, the girl decided not to tell. She judged it easier to carry the burden alone rather than risk the shame of hearing her mother explain that what she was wearing “had” to influence the sexual act.
Talking with your teen on a routine basis helps establish an open dialogue that is important whether a problem is happening or not. Discussion creates a natural interaction between parent and teen that can generate cohesion and support. Here are some ways to maintain a talking routine:
• Share time outside
• Enjoy a sport together
• Play weekly board games
• Eat a meal together
• Ride in a car with the radio off
• Connect by cell phone (an activity that may not seem like connecting, but that’s the world we live in!)
Finally, normalizing the expression of your feelings will promote open communication. Having family members take turns describing their “high” of the week (what was good) and their “low” of the week (what was not so good) will help a teen to understand even Mom and Dad have bad days, and this is how to express yourself in the most healthy way.
Meredith Lewis, PhD, LICSW, has worked for more than 17 years with teens and families in therapeutic foster care, substance use, and in the outpatient setting. She is a mother of teenage sons, and her passion is to address symptoms of depression and anxiety.