Parents of adolescents are often confronted by a puzzling sequence of events. First, teenagers bring us their problems; second, we earnestly offer suggestions and solutions; and third, teenagers dismiss our ideas as irritating, irrelevant or both.
These moments feel ripe for connection. Why do they so often turn sour? Almost always, it’s because we’re not giving teenagers what they’re really looking for. Consciously or not, here’s what they most likely want.
They Need a Sounding Board
Adolescents, just like adults, may find the best relief from simply articulating their worries and concerns. Indeed, it’s an aphorism among psychologists that most problems feel better when they’re on the outside rather than on the inside, and this holds true whether the difficulties are big or small.
When teenagers bring problems our way, it’s best to start by assuming that they aren’t inviting suggestions, or at least are not inviting them yet. So let them vent.
“I’ll talk to my parents as a sounding board,” says 18-year-old Kathleen Deedy of Mission Hills, Kan., “especially if it’s not enough of an issue for me to want to do something about it. I just want to get it off my chest.”
Adolescents may also share what’s on their minds as a way to spill their jumbled thoughts on the table, where they can survey and perhaps organize them. According to 15-year-old Isla Steven-Schneider of Emerald Hills, Calif., “to list the problem, to put it into words, that helps a lot.” Adults can help create the space teenagers need to do this, so long as we remember to listen without interrupting and hold back from adding our own thoughts to the pile.
[Read more: When teenagers vent to the family dog.]
They’re Seeking Empathy
Much of what bothers teenagers cannot be solved. We can’t fix their broken hearts, prevent their social dramas, or do anything about the fact that they have three huge tests scheduled for the same day. But having a problem is not nearly so bad as feeling utterly alone with it.
Teenagers often have difficulties they feel like sharing, but not with their friends. At these times, they may come to us, but looking only for empathy, not solutions. Offering a sincere, “Oh man, that stinks,” or “You have every right to be upset,” lets them know that we are willing to keep them company in their distress.
To further express our solidarity we might ask, “Do you want me to stay nearby, or would it help to have some time alone?” or “Is there anything I can do that won’t make things feel worse?” These questions send the powerful message that we are not put off by the teenager’s distress and will stick with them, even when nothing can be done.
They Could Use a Vote of Confidence
As hard as it is for parents to stop ourselves, rushing in with suggestions carries the risk that you’ll be communicating the idea, “You can’t fix this, but I can.” This might strike our teenagers as a vote of no confidence when they are mainly seeking our reassurance that they can handle whatever life throws at them.
Instead of proposing solutions, we might bolster adolescents as they sort things out. Saying, “I’ve seen you get through things like this before” or “This is tough, but you are too” can effectively loan teenagers a bit of perspective and confidence when their own feels shaken.
Even teenagers who have already addressed a problem may still seek our reassurance. Kathleen said she sometimes tells her parents “about a situation and what I did to solve it” in order to get validation that she made the right choice. When this happens, she says she’s “not really looking for their solution, just checking that they think I did the right thing with my limited problem-solving experience.”
Adolescents often feel vulnerable, perhaps especially so when they open up to adults about their jams and scrapes. In these moments, well-intentioned guidance can land like criticism, and lectures or I-told-you-sos — however warranted — might feel like outright attacks. Even if you are itching to point out that studying for the chemistry test last weekend instead of going to a basketball game would have prevented the problem altogether, it’s probably best to save that conversation for another time.
They Want Ideas, Not Instructions
More often than not, offering our teenagers an ear, empathy and encouragement gives them what they came for. But if after that your adolescent is still seeking a resolution, some advice might (at last!) be welcome. Start by asking if your teenager wants help solving the problem. If you get a yes, divide the issue into categories: what can be changed and what cannot.
[Read more: The difference between helping and helicoptering.]
For the first type, focus on the needs your teenager identifies and work together to brainstorm solutions. For the second type, help them come to terms with the things they cannot control.
Joshua Siegel, a 16-year-old from Houston, lost all of his free time when the cross-country season landed on top of his already busy schedule. “I was completely overwhelmed with cross-country and band and class, but my parents understood that quitting the team wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
Instead, Joshua’s parents agreed to help him pack an abundance of food to take to school each day. This opened up time during his lunch period and significantly reduced his stress. They did, however, all have to accept that he would need to skimp on sleep to do homework until the season ended.
“I’m happy if I have sleep and food,” Joshua said. “When I couldn’t get enough sleep during cross-country, having my parents support my basic need for food turned out to be very valuable.”
Above all, aim to solve the problem with, not for, your teenager. However inspired we might think our advice to be, it’s best to hold it back until we’ve heard our teenagers out. “When adults offer up a solution too quickly,” notes Isla, the California 15-year-old, “it feels like they’re not really listening or understanding what I’m going through.” And it often turns out that listening and understanding is all that teenagers want or need.