talking with teenagers: some ideas

I wrote this opinion paper for my psychology class earlier in the semester. When I did it, I sat down and basically ranted in one quick session what I thought about stuff. I didn’t bother to save a copy of it at the time, because I kind of just banged it out.

I got my paper back today though from the professor, and reading over it, I kind of liked it. It could stand some editing and cleanup, but I think the message itself is worth something. So I decided I’d post it up here, and just share some of my ideas I have about working with teens. 🙂

In working with teenagers I find that many of them at times have a hesitancy to open up and discuss their thoughts and feelings with mentors, adults or parents. I believe that in order for a teenager to be able to discuss things, some elements need to be in place. First, the teen must be willing to talk about something. Generally, if something is weighing on their mind, they are more open to the idea of discussing it. Also, it is very important for the mentors involved to be able and willing to talk candidly with the teen. There needs to be a willingness to listen, to listen closely, and to verify that they are getting the correct message. Communication can be difficult for teens, as they are developing new sets of social skills. It can be hard for them to identify their own emotional sensations, and so a close listener can be of vital importance.

As my personal style of working with teenagers evolves, I’ve found two analogies recently that have helped me to explain how you can facilitate communication. For the first one, I will use a scenario from my own life. When I was a teenager, there were a lot of good people that were willing to work with the youth from my church group. I would often spend time at their house, either because of activities or an impartial visit. In retrospect, I can see that these mentors were willing to discuss with me any agenda that was on my mind at the time. It seemed like I had to start the conversation though, which is something I was never comfortable with, and so I never got to really talk about things that were on my mind. An analogy I likened this to was spending time at someone else’s house. You got hungry, and asked if you could eat something. The host would be gracious, and would generally wave their hand towards the kitchen and warmly say, “Go ahead and eat anything you like.” I would go to the fridge, and opening it up, see lots of stuff that I would have liked to eat. Cake, cookies, soda, ice cream, pizza, etc. However, I would not want to be a poor guest, so I would choose something “safe,” like bread and cheese to make a sandwich. Even though the host probably intended that I could eat some of the more fun stuff, because they didn’t make that particularly clear, it was left to my judgement what was appropriate to eat and what was not, and I would err on the side of caution.

The same approach can happen with communication with adolescents. Well-intentioned mentors and adults will say to teenagers, “You can talk to me about anything,” then leaving it up to the teen to figure out what is safe and appropriate to bring up. Using my analogy of the kitchen, if a host would have said something like this, then I would have felt much more comfortable: “The kitchen is over there, please go eat anything you like. I know there is cake, pizza, and pie in there … please, feel free to help yourself and not to worry about it.” That invitation specifically addresses the areas that the teenager is probably most interested in, and instead of making the subjects taboo, lays them on the table for open discussion and acceptance.

It works in communication, as well. In chatting with adolescents, I will say, “We can talk about anything you’d like. I know teenagers are curious about a lot of things, such as sex, friends, school, the opposite sex, dating, social development, what they want to do with their life, maybe drugs, alcohol, or simpler things like music. We can even chat about stuff you’d like to tell your parents but aren’t sure how to bring up. It’s all fine with me, and I’d be happy to chat with you about anything that’s on your mind.” I’ve noticed that in doing that, that the teens will then relax quite a bit. They may not be willing to open up at that moment, but having put out the menu on display and calling them out on things that they themselves want to talk about, it lets them know that I’m willing to discuss it with them, and they don’t have to bring it up or feel awkward. It works well in creating a comfortable atmosphere.

Along those same lines, one thing that works well is to bring up the subjects myself. If it is something taboo, you can bring up questions yourself that they might have, and then simply ask them if they’ve ever wondered about that, or have had friends talk to them about it. This brings me to my second analogy. Once a topic has been selected to discuss, I like to do what I call setting the stage. The analogy is that I, as a mentor, will be a stagehand. I can dress the stage with the props, the backgrounds, and the lighting, but the teenager him or herself is going to be the main actor.

Setting the stage means bringing out as much information as you can possibly think of, without being presumptious or over-bearing. You can think back to your own life as a teenager and remember the things that you wondered about a lot, and start telling them how you imagine they might have heard or wondered things about that, and how it felt for you at that time. If it’s a difficult subject to work with, then the teenager might not do more than nod or agree with you. Getting teenagers to go into detail can be hard work, but it’s important not to press the issue. They need to come on stage when they are ready, and not before.

In my experience, and in asking follow-up questions with the teenagers I’ve been working with, they have said that it makes them feel much more comfortable and much less awkward if I am the one who broaches the subjects. They then like if I deliver as much as I know or think about the subject, and let them ask questions about specific things, letting me fill in the gaps with the answers I have or the ones I will have to look for.

I’d like to stress that it’s important to make sure there is a distinct difference between passing along objective information and delivering a lecture where your opinion on their situation and decisions should be based. I believe that as you provide them with the answers to the questions they have, and encourage them to make their own decisions, they will come to trust you and be able to talk to you about the hard questions they have.

Finally, as being a mentor, I have to tell myself often that just because someone doesn’t ask me all the things that I think they would like to approach, does not mean that I have failed in some fashion. From my own life, I have had mentors that were excellent with their communication skills where I could confide and ask them confidential questionsl. I didn’t exercise the opportunity much to open myself up, but the knowledge that someone was available and willing to explore the issues with me was far greater worth than the actual question and answer sessions themselves.

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