Why is it So Hard? Cultivating Empathy for your Teen


Most people want to feel understood. It fills a human need for significance, feeling seen, appreciated and loved. Unfortunately, this is a challenge for us as parents of teenagers. Parents and teens seem to spend a lot of time feeling misunderstood. Are we destined to repeat this pattern again and again, or can we do something about it?

First, parents, take one small piece of advice from the late, great Steven Covey: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s good advice, so let’s start there.

Close your eyes for a moment and try to remember what it was like to be that age…14, 16, 18… What? You don’t want to? Can’t recall? Right! Now we’re getting to the heart of the problem. If your teen years were anything like mine, you felt something like this:
teen finger

In fact, I wasn’t quite this angry as a teen, I was more the edgy depressive honor’s student, but you get the idea. Teens experience a range of emotion during this tricky developmental phase. Teen emotions are amorphous, volatile and constantly changing.

So the first thing to understand is that you might not get a clear picture of what your teen is feeling because it’s mutating. Imagine, for a moment, how confusing that must be for him or her. Just when they are trying to understand the depth, quality and nature of emotion in general, it changes, often for no reason at all that they can identify.

Now, imagine that some of these feelings that change with the wind are absolutely terrifying! Sadness that cuts like a razor! Rage that can break bones! Alienation that feels like solitary confinement! Sexual frustration that feels like a constant jackhammer in their head! And then nothing. Numb. And then the blessed relief that comes with numb is interrupted by “I can’t believe you didn’t take out the garbage! How can you be so inconsiderate!” And he’s done. Gone. And you don’t understand why.

The first step to understanding your teen is to understand that you might not be able to. It’s a complex picture. Instead, work on accepting them. That is not to say we don’t need to set limits on speech and behavior. We absolutely do. But we can do that with compassion and love. So let’s learn to speak to our teens from the place of our own inner teen. Remember how hard it was. Remember what you needed from your parents. Say the things that people said to you that mattered, that soothed and that helped make those years bearable. Oh, and watch The Breakfast Club again.

breakfast club

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