Any problem, big or small, within a family, always seems to start with bad communication. Someone isn’t listening.
Teenagers. Angry kids. Youth. Misunderstood kids. Though now adults, we were once kids ourselves. If we just take a few minutes to recall those days, those moments of pause help us reflect on our youth and can guide us on how to best respond to kids now.
What do you do when a teenager “needs” support, but doesn’t want to be supported or helped? As adults, we try to determine the need, but often feel helpless to insert our wisdom or advice. Our words may seem like they have fallen on deaf ears or are hanging in the air. It often seems this way. But youth do listen. I often wonder what piece of what an adult says sticks with a youth.
I have had the privilege and opportunity to have three of my own children, and to have worked with hundreds of youth, mostly teenagers, who have taught me that most kids want help and support. At least I believe they do. The first task for an adult trying to support or help a youth is to answer the question, “Do I believe youth want to be supported and offered help?” It is important that we not get stuck in the thought, “She/he doesn’t listen to me, and because of this does not want my support or help.” This often results in a loss of opportunity to join, connect with, and establish a relationship with a youth.
I wonder if it isn’t that kids don’t want to be helped, but that they don’t know how to be helped. Or they’re not ready to make a change, or not ready to hear about the change they’re being asked to make. Their personal experiences, and normal developmental steps (e.g., practicing independence), can be reasons that they don’t rely on adults to make decisions for them. The key in this situation is trying to understand a youth’s experiences and beliefs so we can engage with them and avoid power struggles, which only complicate the opportunity to support and help. So when a youth refuses help or support, this can actually be a positive sign of growth.
As parents and caregivers, we do a dance with our youth, trying to understand and learn how and when to support and help them. We often reflect on our past experiences of when we were their age. This helps us as the adults/caregivers to remember our own attempts to become individuals, become independent, and make our own choices. This gives us a path to follow not only on how to best accept our youth’s attempts to use our support and help, but also how to be an independent thinker.
Imagine this: Your 16 ½ year old daughter who’s pretty easy at home and in school begins spending time with new kids that she’s met – a group that has more leeway in terms of curfew. She sees these girls as fun and exciting. She has to be in 9:00pm. They don’t have a curfew until 11:00pm. Your daughter calls and tells you that she and her friends are driving to attend a bonfire by the community beach. Your response is, “no”, because your ground rule is a 9:00pm curfew. She asks why she cannot stay out until 10:00pm and you tell her that not only can’t she stay out till 10:00pm, but that she cannot go to the bonfire. You explain to her the reasons about why you do not want her at the bonfire. She says you don’t trust her, exclaims that you that you are the worst parent in the world, and she is not coming home until 10:00pm.
What is your response? Or do you react, instead? All you wanted to do was be protective of your daughter by telling her what the potential problems might be at the bonfire and wanted to be supportive and helpful to her by keeping her safe! What is your fear? Is it realistic? What is the likelihood of this fear actually occurring? What is your thought when you know that you will not be able to stop everything your child chooses to do? How do you manage that yourself? And what does it mean to you that your child is saying “no”? What did YOU do when you were their age? How did you react to situations where there maybe temptations or react to peer pressure? How did you respond to your parents when you disagreed with their rules/expectations?
We want our youth to learn to accept support, reach out for help, and know when to try to make their own decisions. That is tough stuff. We as adults still struggle to get these things right. As parents, our job is learning when to guide youth with our wisdom, and when to allow them to make safe mistakes to learn from as they become their own person.
We often assume that youth have more competencies and skills than they really have. We expect them to know and exercise everything we’ve taught them. We impart our knowledge, but sometimes we need to wait for our youth to filter these teachings into their own beings. It’s OK if it seems they are not listening. They really are hearing our messages on how to handle various life circumstances.
A difficult task for caregivers is to allow youth to have opportunities to make choices and safe mistakes. All the while, we are supporting and helping them when they are successful, not successful, and even when their choice may result in a difficult situation. It is at these times that our youth know we are there to help and support them. It is at these times that they learn what support and help is about, and what it means. More importantly, these experiences are the paths for our youths to become the next generation of parent, caregiver, and professional.
Dan Hibbs, LCSW
Senior Program Director
Linda Butler, Ph.D., LCSW
Director of Research & Outcomes