By Ashley Hale, LCSW
“Nobody likes me.” “I hate school.” “Something is wrong with me.” “I don’t care about anything.”
As a school social worker, these are common sentiments I hear when talking with students. I think it is safe to say we all sometimes struggle with negative thoughts, but these thoughts are becoming more prevalent in our homes and schools, especially with teens.
The teen years can be difficult, as a lot of changes, new responsibilities, and expectations emerge. Helping our teens navigate these changes and emotions is challenging, but vital.
How can we positively influence how teens feel about themselves without so much pushback? It’s important to understand that teens desire privacy, space, and independence as a normal part of their development. This makes it more challenging for parents and caregivers to get them to open up to have genuine conversations.
Here are some tips to help facilitate meaningful conversations with your teen and promote a positive self-image:
- Be authentic. Teens can detect when someone is not being authentic, and this is the key to creating the respect and rapport necessary to build a positive relationship. I highly encourage you to learn about the teenage brain. This will help you gain insight into their thought processes and empathize with their experiences.
- Let them know you care by listening. Sometimes we worry so much about what we are going to say that we forget to open our ears. Listen to your teen while also showing positive regard. Be present in conversations and follow through with your commitments. Put your phone down, nod, and make eye contact. Most teens are more likely to share when they feel less pressure for details and are more in control of the conversation. Watch their mood and body language. Verbalize that you can see this is a hard situation for them. Let them know they don’t have to explain everything right now, but you are there for them when they’re ready. Tell them you love them and show physical affection with hugs if they are okay with that.
- Ask them what they need. Most often, teens don’t want a lecture, they want to be heard. Active listening will open the door. Ask them regularly about their day with specific questions that you change up. Examples: “What was the hardest part of your day?” “What is your favorite class right now and why?” Point out specific skills and strengths. Focus more on providing praise than criticism.
- Don’t avoid the hard conversations. Conversations about sexual health, gender, relationships, consent, drugs and alcohol, and other challenging conversations are hard, but they are essential.
- Take a deep breath before you respond. It’s not uncommon for the things teens share with you to trigger worry, anxiety, and the desire to fix it for them. This often causes us to over respond. Responding with a lecture is likely to shut the conversation down. Note your internal thoughts, take a deep breath, and think about what you needed when you were their age. It is okay to say something like, “I love you. I don’t quite understand this right now, but we can figure it out together. What can I do to help right now?”
Remember, teens will make mistakes. It’s how they learn. Talking to teens can be challenging and takes a lot of patience, but it is worth the effort. You will build a strong rapport and will help them create a positive self-image during the process.