As I start to work with them, their parents will say things like, "How do you get her to talk to you? She won't talk to me."
I believe that teenagers open up to counselors for several reasons: how we react, our interest level and our perseverance. I have found that parents can also do these things to improve relationship with their teenagers, you just need to know what your teen needs from you.
1. They need you to react in a caring and stable way
Teenagers often act like they have everything figured out. You may ask, "Why bother trying to help them? They don't need me."
But here's the big secret: they do need you. Teenagers are not grown-ups. They are often scared and overwhelmed. The world is big and life is scary. And when they start to feel scared, overwhelmed and out-of-control, they often will try to talk to their parents about it.
Unfortunately, when a teenager shares something shocking or big, even when parents try to stay calm, they don't always handle the news well. You find yourself yelling about grades or crying because they are growing up too quickly.
When you react in those ways, your kids will clam up.
Part of the reason that teenagers feel comfortable confiding in their counselor is that the counselor's reactions are caring and stable. Whether they share minor issues ("I couldn't find my locker and I felt stupid") or big issues ("My boyfriend and I went farther than I meant to"), I try to react to their issues in a caring and emotionally stable way. I don't burst into tears or scream at them. I simply say, "I can't believe you're dealing with that. Let's talk about it."
Being a parent is tough and it can be difficult to keep your emotions under control. However, if you want your child to open up, they have to be able to trust that you will react in a calm, loving, consistent manner.
Learn to breathe deeply and work on staying even-tempered when they approach you with something. When you respond calmly about the littler issues, they will trust you more with the big stuff.
2. They need you to care about their lives
I often read young adult fiction these days. Not because I always love the books, but because it allows me to connect to the teenagers I work with. There is nothing as awesome as watching a teenager's face light up when I tell them, "Guess which book I'm reading? The one you recommended!"
One day I was running a therapeutic group at a psychiatric hospital, and I asked the teens in the room, "How do you know someone cares about you?" One boy said, "When I care about someone, I make sure I know what they like, how their day goes, what music they listen to." Shrugging, he shared, "The people in my life, the ones that care about me know all that." I realized that caring about teenagers is more than just caring about their overall well-being. It is caring about the songs, books and YouTube videos they love.
It's easy to tack on a quick, "I love you" as we run out the door. But for many teenagers, feeling loved goes deeper than rushed words. They feel loved and valued when their parents remember how they like their coffee or their favorite song. I know which Justin Bieber song is on the radio, not because I need to, but because it makes the teenagers I work with feel valued that I use my time to learn about something important to them.
If your teenager keeps saying, "You just don't understand me," seek to understand them. Not by sitting them down and forcing them to talk to you. Instead, ask them what's on their iPod or about the last book they read. It will mean a lot to them, and it will give you things to talk about.
3. They need you to keep trying
You know how at home your teens will ignore you and walk into their room? They do that with counselors too! If a teen won't talk to his parents, the first few sessions are pretty rough with the counselor as well. But do you know what? The more questions I ask, the more books I read, over time they open up.
With teenagers, even when they are ignoring you, they are aware of you. So when they push you away, and you leave them alone, they notice. They tell me things like, "I know I've been awful lately, but I wish my mom would talk to me." When I ask teenagers what they want their positive reward to be for good behavior, they often want time with their parents. They want to be with you. Even when they act like they don't want you around.
There is such a tug-of-war with teenagers. They push parents away, but want comfort and support. So when your teen pushes you away, don't stay away! Instead, keep trying to connect with them. Hug them, write them a note, ask them about school. Keep trying to build a relationship with them. It's not easy, but the trade-off is worth it. When they are close to you and feel sure that you can handle their issues, you will have a rewarding relationship with them.
These are difficult steps to take when you are the parent of a withdrawn teenager, but be confident. You can stay calm, you can connect and just keep trying