In my time as a therapist, some of my most enjoyable and at times, most frustrating clients, have been teenagers. Sometimes they enter my office so deeply guarded. They are afraid to be open, afraid to disappoint, afraid to express emotions that they have worked so hard to bury. And then there is this beautiful transformation that can happen as they learn to trust the relationship and trust the process.
I will quickly admit that these teens have taught me immeasurable lessons as I have sat with them and as they have vulnerably shared their hearts and stories with me. While the teens may come from different backgrounds and have likely been dragged into my office for differing reasons, the lessons they teach me are often similar. Their sadness has similar roots. Their needs have similar themes. As a way of honoring their stories, I want to share some of the lessons they have taught me…
Teenagers want a place to belong.
Without exception, every teenager that has sat in my counseling office wants that place to be their literal home. Yet, I have talked to many teens who struggle to feel like they actually belong at home. When this doubt exists, teens search for an alternative place where their need for belonging will be met. I have seen teens search to fulfill their belonging needs through sports, through good grades, through questionable peer groups, through premature romantic relationships, through social media, and more. While I am not saying engagement in all of these areas is negative, I am saying a teen’s effort to fulfill their core belonging needs through these means often leaves them hungry and longing for something deeper.
I have sat with high achieving teens that have struggled with classes and have wondered if they will still be accepted in their family. I have sat with teens that have experienced the fracture of friendships or romantic relationships and believe that no one else will ever want them. I have sat with teens that no longer feel the drive to continue with the sport to which they have dedicated much of their life, and they wonder if they have any other contributions for this world.
When your teen feels like their world is crumbling, my hope is that they will know that home is awaiting them…a home that feels safe and a home where they know they are undeniably loved. This is their hope. And I am confident that it is your hope as well.
I do not take lightly the open view I am given into the hearts and minds of the teens that venture into therapy. They are so brave and have such wisdom to offer. They have spoken to and have influenced this momma’s heart without even knowing it. There are needs they wish they could express and messages they wish they could speak. I want to give a voice to them…because they matter…because I want you to possibly benefit from their wisdom as much as I have.
Here is some of what they are sharing. And in my opinion, some of the keys to creating an atmosphere of belonging.
Teens want to know that you want them around. They want to know that you are willing to be distracted from what is in front of you to engage with them. They crave your smile. They still want to see that look in your eyes when you see them come into the house…the one that says, “It is so good to see you.” They want to know that their stories make you laugh and smile more than an article, group text or Facebook post.
Teens want to know that you are not only willing, but also desire to enter their world. They want you to listen to their music without it always producing your opinion or your judgment. They want you to watch their shows without the obvious signs that you’d rather be doing something more productive. They want you to ask about their latest sketches, doodles, unfinished poems, and daydreams.
Teens want to know that you care about their hearts and their dreams and not primarily about their accomplishments. They don’t want to primarily talk about their “future self”…you know, the “future self” when they are a college athlete (on a full/partial scholarship), the “future self” when they are living the dream of a successful career, or the “future self” when they are making lots of money so that they can return the favor and send you on extraordinary vacations. Make sure your teen knows you are proud of who they are today. Some teens mistaken your excitement for the future as delaying approval for who they are today. Be mindful that your words do not imply that you will be more proud of them once they get that scholarship, that perfect pass, that outstanding grade, or that dream job.
Teens want to have confidence that imperfection is acceptable. They want to tell you about their shortcomings and mistakes without feeling the disappointing glare that many of us are pros at demonstrating. Even more, they want to tell you about their shortcomings and know that even still, you are proud of them.
They want to know that you know you are not perfect. Truth be told…the teens I talk to are aware that their parents aren’t perfect. However, conflict arises most often with the teens that tell me their parents think they are perfect. So again, teens want to know that YOU KNOW you are not perfect. In appropriate ways, tell them about your mistakes. Tell them when you were late for a meeting, how you got lost on your way to a friend’s house, or how you became impatient in the store. Take ownership for your own shortcomings without blaming it on the person who distracted you on the way to the meeting, incorrect GPS directions, or a slow cashier. Demonstrate through your words that we are all growing and learning…and imperfect.
Teens know when their environment is tense. They know when their home is unsettled. When they lack the confidence that the tension will resolve, many teens find ways to disconnect or escape emotionally or physically. While, just like we individually are not perfect, we cannot expect our most intimate relationships to be free of conflict. However, I want you to know that your teens (and children for that matter) are observing if/how the conflict will resolve. They can tell when you are pretending even if you think you are a master at doing so. They pick up on the glares, the irritated tones, and the times you are ignoring your partner. But even more importantly, they also pick up on the smiles, the hugs, the genuine “I’m sorries”, and the “I Love You’s” that are also exchanged with your partner following conflict. When you demonstrate an atmosphere of resolution, grace, forgiveness and connection with your partner, this atmosphere infuses the home, creating a space where teens are more likely to believe they belong.
Teens LOVE to see their parents laugh. They LOVE to laugh with you. They LOVE when the entire family unit is a part of it. I learned long ago that LAUGHING together releases Oxytocin. Oxytocin is the same hormone that is released when a mother nurses her infant and through the process of being released, it creates a bond between the mother and infant. HOW AMAZING IS THAT!!! The same hormone that produces the bond established during the nursing process is also released in humans when they laugh!! When families share laughter, they create a connection. Genuine connection creates a sense of belonging and a sense of safety. Dance together, read jokes together, watch funny animals videos on YouTube together, Hula Hoop together, play charades, sing at the top of your lungs. P.S. That same hormone is also released during hugs.
As I consider the insights that I have gained from the teens in my office, I am full of hope. Full of hope for them and full of hope for you. They are giving us ways to grow, ways to respond, ways to succeed. Most of the wants they express are within our scope of control. We can effect the change they are looking for. They want what we want. They want the same connection, emotional safety, and acceptance that we desire for ourselves and for them. Be encouraged. Small changes today can lead to significant impact tomorrow.