Column By Jaime Castillo, LCSW
Many parents I work with will attest that having meaningful conversations with their teens can be challenging, especially when it’s a tough topic, like conversations about mental health or drugs and alcohol. My experience is that typically, caregivers – parents, grandparents, aunts, even older siblings – find it hard to get through to their teenage family members and wonder if they’re really listening. As a therapist for more than nine years, I know that proactive communication for teens is difficult, but I will tell you that having these conversations is always worth it.
It’s important for caregivers to be really thoughtful in their interactions with their teenagers, even when emotions are running high. And being part of a new campaign, Talk Heals, which helps kids self-reflect before potentially turning to substances to quiet negative feelings. Its main message is that instead of cloaking difficult emotions and temporarily concealing these with substances, it is better to talk to a trusted person. It encourages young people to seek out the adults in their lives for emotional support, which begs the question, are these adults equipped to be good listeners and advisors? Below are three pieces of advice to support positive conversations with teens, which helps them to be well and make smart choices:
Make sure teens know that they are already good enough. Don’t get so caught up in creating a “good” kid that you forget you already have one. It is natural as a caregiver to place expectations on your teen, but it’s important to balance those demands and expectations with remarks about all the ways in which they are already good enough. Highlight the character strengths and values that they already possess and watch those flourish.
Try to refrain from passing judgment. When teens feel judged by their caregivers, it may encourage them to keep secrets from them rather than reach out for the support they need. If teens are shamed when they share their experiences or feelings, they will quickly learn to hide parts of themselves from their caregivers. If caregivers want their teens to be open and honest, they need to make it safe for them to do so.
Pay attention to your words. The words you use matter. When dealing with a difficult circumstance, one simple strategy is to separate behavior from the teen as a character trait. There is a huge difference between saying “you really screwed up” versus “you are a screw-up.” The latter promotes feelings of shame or guilt. In short, saying “you did something bad” versus “you are bad” has very different implications for a teen’s mental health.
Conventional knowledge paints teens as risk-takers and out-of-control, mostly influenced by their peers. While teens can certainly be influenced by their peers, there is also evidence that supportive adults can positively influence them in their life.
Knowing that adults are influencers is even more reason to treat this privilege with extra care. I’m an advocate for Talk Heals because I know how much teens benefit from caregivers creating a safe, healthy space to communicate what they are experiencing and feeling. Check in with a teen you know today, remember that talk really does heal.
(Jaime Castillo is working in partnership with Talk Healswww.talkheals.org from the Arizona Healthcare Cost Containment System, a new public awareness campaign to reduce substance abuse among teens and young adults in Arizona. It is focused on encouraging open conversation about difficult emotions instead of cloaking them. She is a clinical social worker, therapist, and the founder and clinical director of Find Your Shine Therapy in Tempe.)