Being There When Teens Need Help

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The father could see there was something on his son’s mind. The boy had has forehead furrowed and he was looking slightly agitated.

“Is there something on your mind son?” the father asked. That simple question seemed to break the ice as a look of relief passed over his son’s face.

“Actually Dad, there has been something that has been on my mind and I can’t seem to figure out what to do,” the son replied.

While it might not seem like much, the father sent several messages to his son with his simple question. The father let his son know that he could tell something was not right even without his son saying anything. He also signaled that he was open to hearing about what was on his son’s mind and that he wanted to help his son figure out what to do.

Parents are often the first line of support for teenagers when they are looking for support. Teens will need to feel comfortable opening up to their parents and being able to discuss issues that are troubling them. There are several steps that can be taken to make opening up easier for them.

First, teens need to feel safe. Often teens are fearful that they are in trouble or going to be punished when they are pulled aside or encouraged to talk. Parents can reassure them that they are not in trouble but rather that the parents are there to offer support. One way to overcome teens’ fear is to schedule a regular time during the week to talk one-on-one with a parent over lunch or some other activity. This way a talk is not always associated with something troubling.

Second, parents need to make a concerted effort to actively listen to what teens have to say. Many times teens just wants to be heard. Although it can be tempting as a parent to immediately offer advice, resist the impulse and hear out all that they have to say. Sometimes simply being listened to and understood can be enough for teens to work through their issue.

Third, parents should affirm and support teens’ need for help. Letting parents know about their feelings and insecurities can feel very risky for teens. Therefore, parents should acknowledge how tough it can be to open up and let them know how proud they are that the teens shared their feelings.

Fourth, parents should strive to be genuine in their conversation with the teens so that is does not feel like they are reading from a script. When a conversation feels stilted and unnatural, it is hard for teens to feel like opening up. Rather, parents should try to be open, authentic and relaxed. Teens will pick up on this and reply in a similar manner.

Finally, it is OK for parents to admit when they don’t know an answer. Teens will respect parents for admitting that they do not know an answer more so than when parents try to fake it. Of course once they admit to not knowing an answer, parents should make every effort to follow-up and find an answer or find someone who can help.

When teens feel comfortable in opening up to their parents, problems and concerns can be addressed quickly. Whether it is simply listening and being available for their teen or getting professional help for more serious problems, parents will be glad that they spent the time establishing a relationship with their teen based on open communication.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Medical Beat Magazine for Spring 2015.

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