Sitting with him, in my therapy office, I was scratching my head. Every question I asked, and I mean EVERY question, ended with a shrug, a minuscule, dipped-head eye roll, or an emphatic “I don’t know”. It took me far too long to realize this getting-to-know-you talk I was hoping to have was going nowhere fast, and I felt helpless to turn the conversation around. I was losing him. What. am. I. missing??!!

When we have expectations of teens, they can smell it a mile away. They’ve formulated their answers to them with precision and detachment- because most of the time in our culture, teens live a 24-hour day, 7-day week, 365-day year managing the expectations of others. As they move into young adulthood, a long list forms; from parents, teachers, coaches, employers, tutors, friends, hook-ups, gender identities, futures, romantic relationships, appearances, etc. This usually comes in the form of well-meaning but overwhelming and confusing advice on how to grow up. Far too often, teens feel forced to respond to other’s expectations. When the scales tip sharply towards following the opinions of others, they suffer from a loss of self concept. Tipping too far towards their own decisions? Teens are then vulnerable to feeling the loss of belonging and significance of their family or community, maybe because of adults’ lack of understanding of their abilities. Normal and valuable development of teen’s individuality has every cell in their body screaming for them to follow the intuition, however impulsive or emotional, of their very own newly shaped values, perceptions, and needs recognition. If a teen’s parents manage to get them into my office without their agreement, they pull out their trusty Script for Adults Who Want Something From Me, or Label Me as a Flaky Teen and slide into character without batting an eye. Have you been there too?

It was up to me to meet him in the middle. With sincerity and genuine interest. I had forgotten this was a no expectations, no bullshit, here and now club- no exceptions- and I was paying dearly for that oversight. I took a deep breath and blurted out: “Wow, I’m sorry, I’m getting way ahead of things, and I can see I’m losing you. My bad. You look like you’re pretty sure you shouldn’t be here. Am I getting that right?” A glance came my direction and veered off towards the other side of the room. Taking this for an affirmative, I continued: “I don’t know about you but I sure hate it when people start blabbing about nothing, it’s boring. What would be the best use of your time today?”

This was my version, in that moment, of the four steps for winning cooperation based on the work of Jane Nelson, Ed. D of Positive Discipline. 1. Express understanding for the feelings you see. Check in to see if you got it right. 2. Show empathy. Share personally and honestly. 3. Share your feelings and perceptions of the situation. 4. Extend an invitation to find a solution based on information you receive, not information you think you know. When we drop the expectations we have of teens and dial up the active listening and reflecting, we create mutual respect and encourage them to be their authentic selves, opening our relationship with them up to the possibility of communication, closeness, and connection.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay