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Ask a Therapist: My Teen Says I Don’t Understand Them. What Do I Do?

Embark Behavioral Health
November 9, 2021

During an argument, my teenager said, “You don’t understand me.” This caught me off guard. I’ve known them their entire life and I’m with them nearly every day, of course I understand them! What should I do?  

While you do know your child, it’s important to recognize that knowing your teen is different than connecting with them. And, as teens grow, change, and individuate, they may feel misunderstood. If your child says something to this effect, take it as a sign that it’s time to change the dynamic and create opportunities to learn more about your teen as they learn about themself. Brandon Holt, a therapist at Embark at The Forge, has helpful advice for parents who feel like their child feels like they’re being misread: 

“It makes me think of when I was a first-time parent to a newborn, trying to attune to the needs of my baby. I had known my newborn literally their entire life! Shouldn’t I know, as a parent, what my child needs? But many times, I didn’t understand what my baby was crying for. I had to go through a process of trying to attune to them. “Is he hungry? Is he tired? Does he need a diaper?” I would run through the checklist. Eventually, I began to determine what each individual cry meant, and I could quickly tune in and meet that specific need.”  

That’s the process of attunement, and it’s a big goal of family therapy. In talking to the parents of his teen clients, Holt often tells them that sometimes they have to go back to their roots and try to re-understand their teens as they grow and change. 

“That clear communication with your teenager is going to be crucial,” he said. One of the goals of family therapy is that you shouldn’t tell them what they feel or guess, but you should work toward letting them tell you those things. The act of sharing and empathizing creates intimacy and connection, which are essential when a teen says they aren’t “understood.” 

How To Get Your Child To Open Up 

“Stop problem-solving and stop telling your kids how they should feel,” Holt said. Once you do that, you’ll start opening up the door to communication

“If you approach your kid and you want to be attuned to them, you shouldn’t cave to the temptation to problem-solve because that temptation is the symptom of our discomfort as parents. We don’t want our kids to suffer. But in the moment, your child needs to be heard, not to be fixed. Listen first, attune, and hold space for them to feel and express pain,” Holt added. Clinicians will tell you that it’s only normal to feel uncomfortable that your child may be suffering or is in slight distress, and we understand that as a parent, you want to fix that for them. However, what your teen needs is for you to sit with them and their emotion. To achieve one of the goals of family therapy, he advised: 

“Judgment free and without jumping to problem-solving, let them have that voice. Accept their invitation to know their inner world.” 

Take the time to understand their needs, their perspective, their well-being, and their sense of self. In creating that safe space for them to open up, you’ll learn more about them and how you can support them in creating their own identity. 
 
You can also get them to open up about specific things by taking the approach of being curious over questioning your teen. Using “I noticed” statements is a great technique that allows you to start specific conversations about your child’s behavior, wellness, self-esteem, or mental health issues in a gentle, open way. Examples include: 

  • Disinterest in an old hobby: “I noticed that you haven’t played the guitar in a while.” 
  • Change in cleanliness: “I noticed that you haven’t seemed to have the time to clean your room lately.” 
  • Slipping grades: “I noticed that you seem discouraged when you’re doing your math homework.” 
  • Isolation: “I noticed that you haven’t seen Alex since school started.” 

Because questions can sometimes seem like they have a motive (such as “When’s the last time you cleaned your room?”) or are disapproving (e.g., “Why are your grades slipping?”), by bringing up the topic in an open-ended manner, young people will be more likely to respond honestly.  

How To Practice Active Listening 

Active listening is important because it opens up the door to feeling safe and secure in the relationship with your teen. Holt explained: 

“When your teen begins to understand that they can come to you and be accepted, that they will not be judged, that you want to understand their experience without problem-solving, they will approach you more and more with problems and trust you to walk with them through tough times.”  

If you recognize that you’re trying to think of what you’re going to say next, then you need to refocus so you can practice active listening. The main goal is to understand them better, not to fix an issue or say the right thing. Active listening requires reflecting back what they’ve said to you.

To practice active listening, use these two strategies:  

  1. Reflect: Repeat or rephrase what they’ve said without judgment or an agenda.  
  2. Show empathy: When your teen tells you something about their emotional state, consider their emotions based on what they’ve said.  

It’s also important to predict their feelings and outlook in advance. Think about what they’re feeling or what they’ve been through, so you’re prepared.  
 
Considering a young adult’s point of view in advance can help you show empathy, too. Think about what their emotions might be and what their experience could be like when going through hard times, dealing with high school issues, or struggling with their sense of self. In doing this, you’ll be able to approach conversations without an agenda or judgment.  
 
If they’re responding to you with “I don’t know,” understand that your teen may not always know how to express exactly what they’re feeling. In those cases, think about what your child is emotionally telling you over what they’re verbally telling you.  
 
Read the cues. For example, if they’re having trouble paying attention, they may be feeling overwhelmed by something. You can help them define the emotions they’re experiencing by reading them in addition to listening.

At the end of the conversation, address their emotional and physical needs instead of focusing on problem-solving or giving your child what you think they want. They may not need help solving a problem, but they may need validation and support from family members. 

In practicing active listening, you’ll be able to better understand your teen as they grow and change, and you’ll also create that safe space for them to express their feelings and needs.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.