How To Listen To Anxious Teens

Mags - May 16, 2017

Talking to teenagers can be a tricky proposition at times; this is primarily because we adults have an agenda—we want them to listen to us and take our advice. Of course this is well-intended, but most teens I know (and from my years as a social worker in a high school, I know quite a few) find conversations with the adults in their lives to be frustrating. A friend of mine’s son put it this way: “I don’t think they [adults] really listen to us. They are so busy trying to get their point across, they don’t hear anything else.”

This situation is complicated further when mental health issues arise. Teenagers, especially those dealing with anxiety disorder and depression, don’t express in words what they are feeling. You won’t hear a typical teen say, “I spent the weekend in my room because I have social anxiety” or “I cut school because I am too depressed to face another day” or “I’m self medicating with drugs to stop my obsessive thoughts.” In fact, when teenagers are doing things to cope with emotional distress, they often don’t even know what they are feeling.

Late adolescence is an extremely difficult time for most kids. It is a time of transition and constant public evaluation, which doesn’t help in a teen’s battle to develop feelings of self-worth. Now, especially when the world most teens inhabit is so competitive and fraught with pressure, they need to be able to talk to us.

What if, as the adults in their lives (parents, teachers, counselors), we listened well enough to help them understand their feelings and the subsequent behaviors that follow? Perhaps we’ll find ourselves understanding and connecting to them in a new way that is more fulfilling for both parties.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned as a parent, a social worker, and, perhaps most importantly, as an anxiety sufferer:

(1) Listen to teens’ actions rather than their words.
Very few of us are always in touch with the “why” of our actions, and we have had a lot of experience trying to understand ourselves! Teenagers are just getting started and often “act out” their feelings. A teen might stop showering and putting on her make-up (which may seem like a good thing to you) rather than understanding she is too depressed to do these things. Your budding thespian may decide not to try out for the play, more from social anxiety than from a loss of interest in acting. Your once decent student may stop doing homework because depression is sapping his energy, making it difficult to concentrate. Watch for changes in behaviors—they are often the best window into a teen’s mind.

2) Reach for feelings, not solutions.
When our kids have a problem, we all want to help them fix it. (Isn’t that what we’re here for?) We tend to become very analytical and prone to lecture, looking for concrete solutions. A student getting poor grades needs structure, a tutor, consequences, etc. But we often jump right to the solution so quickly, we lose sight of the feelings involved.  When we are really listening to our teenagers, we need to do so with the goal of discovery, rather than looking for an entrance where we can tell them how to fix the problem. We need to challenge ourselves to have listening conversations during which, no matter how apparent the solution seems, we keep it to ourselves. Spend more time than you think necessary exploring feelings. Use phrases like “how does that make you feel?” or “I imagine that must feel very…” or “you sound really….” Let the teen do most, if not all, of the talking. (This is one of the hardest things to do—it may take a while to get comfortable with it.)

3) Pay attention to your own feelings.
As a social worker, I have learned that how I am feeling when talking to someone can tell me a lot about the situation. As I listen, I try to figure out whether I am picking up on the other person’s feelings or if what he/she is saying is touching off something in me. Just be aware of what you are feeling and why, so that your teenager’s struggles don’t morph into your own.

4) Be patient.
It will probably take more than one conversation to get your teen to open up to you. Be patient with your teen and especially with yourself. It is perfectly reasonable to take breaks when the discussion gets too intense or to leave it alone until the next day. Communicating with an anxious child of any age requires time and commitment. You may take a few steps backward before you can progress.

(5) Ask for help.
If you aren’t sure that you can do this on your own, get help from a school counselor or a therapist. Even if your teen doesn’t think he/she needs therapy, it is ok to insist on following that path, especially if you are willing to go first. Dealing with anxious teens is a really difficult and anxiety-provoking endeavor. You should not feel that you have to go it alone.

Have questions about this very complicated topic?  Ask us. We are here to help.

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