“Confusing. Selfish. Always in trouble. Ungrateful. Isolating. Pushing limits.”
These describe sometimes stereotypical thoughts of an adult about a teenager.
“Misunderstood. Lonely. Always in trouble. Not loved. Need to fend for myself.”
These describe sometimes stereotypical thoughts of a teenager.
I have a lot of parents ask me for my opinion on what typical teenage behavior is, and when it crosses the border of normalcy. This is an excellent question when it comes to knowing whether or not your teenager needs therapy. For example, oftentimes teenagers prefer to hang out and confide in their friends and peers rather than their parents. They might prefer to play games on their phone, iPad, or tablet instead of participate in a family movie night. Teenagers display an array of emotions and behaviors including anger, excitement, disobedience, sadness, and stress. These while sometimes perhaps frustrating, are normal behaviors for teenagers.
In my opinion, what crosses the threshold from healthy into needing professional aid is when whatever troubling the teen actually inhibits them in one or more areas of their life.
For example, if a teen is struggling in making friends, is being bullied, or isolates at school and if the teen is experiencing an issue both at school and at home, they may benefit from therapy discussing depression, low self-esteem, or possibly anxiety. Perhaps this is displayed in missing school, dropping grades, loss of interests, and acting out at home. On the other hand, if a teen is able to talk about these things at home or with parents, have other friends or support/other activities outside of school or outside of the tough situation successfully—theoretically, these things indicate that while life can be challenging, they have a support system to navigate those challenges. In a situation where the teen feels at the end of their wits and as though they have no one to turn to (even if this isn’t necessarily true), a mediator, an outsider to the situation, and a safe space such as in therapy, may help. Let’s say a parent is realizing how the amount of screen time is affecting grades and performance in school; therapy could provide some behavioral boundaries and guidelines that would help get them back on track. If teens express their emotions in unhealthy ways, they may need to learn some healthy and effective coping skills.
The latter statements are where I come in. I love working with adolescents, and I find that I gravitate towards them. I love the challenge when parents say “he probably won’t want to talk with you, but I’m bringing him anyways.” I use a softened approach to connect with the teenager on a human, personal level before putting on my Therapist Hat. Not to be confused with being the teen’s friend, connecting with them first allows me to build their trust and to show them that therapy is a safe place to open up.
One of the benefits of being a younger adult therapist is the ability to connect with the teenagers. Here is an example: I had an adolescent boy come in with his mom. He slumped in the chair, made no eye contact, and answered in one word statements only. He wanted no part in discussing the angry outbursts that he was displaying both at home and at school. I asked if Mom minded stepping out for a few minutes, and she agreed. I started asking the boy what his interests were, and he mentioned music. We started talking about music and before I knew it, I was sitting with a seemingly different person. He was sitting on the edge of the couch, making complete eye contact, and talking excitingly about his passion for music. (He was impressed I knew a few Eminem songs even). From then on, I realized that I could use music as a channel into his deeper emotions. Eventually, we got to the point where he rapped a song that he had written about his past wounds. It was inspiring!
Sometimes I think adults forget how difficult being a teenager is, and we lack empathy when hearing about the things they are going through. We minimize statements such as “my teacher called me out in class,” or “Johnny asked Bridget to the prom instead of me,” or “I got in trouble and I didn’t even do anything wrong!” As adults, we forget that these statements are meaningful and problematic for our teens and because we have survived those dramatic times, and we are likely to seem them as just that—big giant feelings. And, it’s easy to diminish those feelings when they seem so over the top. Not only are teens still going through puberty with hormonal changes, but their brains are still forming. They actually do not yet have the complete brain capacity to problem-solve for themselves as easily as we do. Not to mention that they don’t have as much life experience in coping with these issues, and therefore, the ability to see past their current situation.
Don’t worry—they won’t always be teenagers—we all grow up eventually! But parents: if you have a gut feeling your teenager is really struggling, never ignore your gut. It never ever hurts to call a counselor to ask questions about your concerns. Many people are put off by the thought of counseling because of the stigmas that have sometimes accompanied the idea of it. It is simply a safe space to explore feelings, vulnerabilities, passions, and hopes. I can tell you that having a safe space to share feelings and stressors is not only a huge burden off of a teen’s shoulders, but a huge weight off of a parent’s as well! Having a support avenue such as this can help the functioning of an entire family. Therapy is not something that has to be long term either. Together we learn communication skills, emotional coping skills, and parental techniques to boost the entire family’s livelihood.