You Don't Know What It's Like (And That's Okay): Talking with Teens

By Jennifer Reisberg

A very useful thing I’ve learned as a therapist working with teenagers is that they don’t want you to pretend that you know what they’re going through, because frankly, you don’t. Even if you’re not pretending and feel certain that you do know exactly what your teenager is going through, chances are, you don’t. Think you know what your teen’s experience of depression is like because you were depressed when you were a teenager? For better or worse, you don’t. You weren’t 16 years old in 2016. You didn’t occupy the same social spaces that they occupy. You haven’t had all of the same thoughts that they’ve had. You don’t have the same particular constellation of personality traits that they have. And neither do I. But fear not! Here’s the good part: they don’t expect you to already know what it’s like, or even want you to.

One of the biggest mistakes that therapists make (and I’m most certainly no exception) is going into a situation as though they already know the whole story, and therefore aren’t open to hearing a different ending. For instance, if I learn that one of my clients has been struggling in school, and I go into the session assuming that I’ve figured out what’s going on and how to fix it, I won’t be open to learning something new. I will have shut down a myriad of other possibilities in favor of the one I’m familiar with. Aside from being an ineffective catalyst for change and progress, it also sends a dangerous message that my mind is already made up – what’s actually going on in the client’s life isn’t of any particular importance to me. Why would anyone, teenaged or otherwise, feel comfortable really opening up to someone who comes in with all of the answers? Add in the hyper-self-consciousness of adolescence and you have a recipe for alienation.

So, what can you do in the face of all of this unknowing? First, be honest and transparent, with discretion. There have been times when my clients have brought up things that I know nothing about. If I respond with, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about. What is that?” they respond a lot better than if I were to pretend to have the subject (and, by extension, my clients) all figured out. If I level with them and let them know that I don’t already know the whole story, I can invite them to tell it and communicate to them that I’m all ears.

I also ask lots of questions. Curiosity is absolutely key. Sometimes I’ll preface my questions with something like, “I’m asking this because I’m trying to get a better sense of [insert the topic at hand].” We often perceive and portray teenagers as bumbling idiots (and don’t get me wrong – they sometimes are, just like the rest of us), but they are undoubtedly experts in one arena: their own experience. No one knows what their lives are like better than they do. When you enter a conversation with a teenager from a place of open curiosity and a genuine desire to get a better picture of what it is that they’re going through, they’re much more likely to let you into their world.

If you really have a hunch that you might be onto something or that you can relate in a valuable way, always check in and see if it fits. I say things like, “I think I might have some idea of what you’re talking about. Is it like this…?” or, “Okay, let me know if I’m wrong, but do you mean…?” This shows the person sitting across from you that you’re actively involved in the conversation and are trying to relate it to your experience in a way that doesn’t overshadow their experience. Checking in to see whether or not you’re on the right track also shows that you respect the other person enough to want to make sure that you’re both on the same page.

This leads me to my next point, which I’ve found to be very important: give teenagers space to correct you, or to reject your interpretations all together. If you throw something out there and it doesn’t quite land, your teenager should feel comfortable letting you know, and then helping you to come to a better understanding. You can do this by leaving room for a different description or interpretation. It’s ideally built into the statements you make and questions you ask when you’re checking in. This step can also require a significant amount of patience, flexibility, and humility. It’s not easy to be challenged, and matters aren’t necessarily made easier when the person doing the challenging is 14years-old. But it’s worth it if you can ultimately come to a better understanding of your teen.

Make it obvious that your understanding is based on what they’ve shared with you of their experience. If your teenager has just opened up to you and described what something was like for her, she might feel like she’s been talking to a brick wall if you reflect something back to her that wasn’t rooted in what she was talking about. It’s fine to add other thoughts to the conversation, but it’s important for the person you’ve been talking with to feel sure that you’ve been listening to them and take what they have to say seriously.

I hope it’s obvious by this point that these ideas also apply to parenting and other situations where you’re living or working closely with a teenager. In fact, these steps can be considered as good practice regardless of the age of the person with whom you’re in conversation. Just bear in mind that, as with so many other areas during that tumultuous period of life, a teen’s sense of being misunderstood tends to be heightened, as is their need to feel heard. As I’ve mentioned, a considerable amount of honesty, curiosity, flexibility, and patience go into really getting a better understanding of where your teenager (client, child, student, or otherwise) is coming from. This investment, though, can offer rich returns.