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How to Talk to Teenagers Who Don't Want to Talk to You

Why teens don't need to be asked about their "feelings."

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When I began treating adolescents in earnest, I realized that if I wanted to keep one of them sitting in my office for more than half a session, I'd have to change how I spoke with them. We needed language that was more natural, shared, mutually revealing than the questioning, interpreting, ritualized clinical language I'd been taught. I did learn this new tongue, but not by myself--I was taught by these angry, unhappy kids. They became my first postgraduate instructors as they began to respond to our more transparent and unaffected encounters. They showed me that successful treatment with them wasn't a matter of how I thought therapy "should" go, but of what would make them want to come back a second and third time.

I began to realize that the point of talking to them was to get them a little curious about what we might wind up chatting, joking, or arguing about in the current or following session. Another point of our talks was to get them to be less afraid of hope. So many of these kids had been let down so often by different adults, institutions, and circumstances that they'd learned to protect themselves by refusing to allow themselves to want anything they thought they might not get--lasting friendship, support from parents and teachers, good grades, a sense of self-worth, and certainly any real help from a therapist. So, I started to feel that if I could nudge them along to think that they might want to try just a little bit, with my help, to get something they wanted, it would be a great leap forward in treatment.

Over the years, I've developed an approach I call Natural Law Therapy, which simply means that I try to conduct therapy as much as possible according to the normal, natural way people talk to each other in different circumstances, without premeditated rules, protocols, or scripts. People who are perceived as not sounding natural or real or normal often are considered phony, duplicitous, and overbearing. Not surprisingly, they evoke in others a sense of distrust, anxiety, defensiveness, and anger. Of all clients, perhaps teenagers are the most protective of their vulnerable sense of dignity, and are particularly unforgiving of adults who seem to talk down to them, attempt to get some advantage over them, or assume a verbal one-up stance.

Some of my therapy principles have a counterintuitive element to them. For example, how can we demonstrate our trustworthiness to a teen who distrusts all adults? A standard rule for inducing trust in clients is promising confidentiality up front. But I've found that refraining from pointing out inconsistencies in their stories that they aren't yet ready to address is a better way to gain teens' trust than promising to keep their secrets. Rather than using the standard clinical technique of addressing these inconsistencies in the form of a mild confrontation, it's more respectful to protect their dignity by keeping mum. What makes a kid feel safe is knowing that if he says something he hasn't meant to say, or hasn't realized would invalidate his previous assertions, I'm not going embarrass him by pointing out his oversight.

For example, I once treated a 14-year-old girl who was adamant for the first three sessions that she had no problems at all. In the fourth session, I was commenting on her apparent lack of awareness of how her anger and irritability affected the rest of her family when she blurted out, "Why should I be worried about them when I'm the one with all the problems?!" To point out that she'd just contradicted what she'd been saying for weeks would have been unkind and unhelpful, demonstrating that I was far more eager to be right and make her see the truth as others saw it than to help her become more comfortable with saying what she really felt or thought.

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