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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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So, instead of openly pointing out to Rachel what I regarded as her instinctive kindness, I just said that I'd been moved by the stories she'd told me about caring tenderly for her two younger brothers when her mother was away and about getting two girls to stop teasing a third online. "You keep these two facets of your personality--your caring nature and high sense of justice--under such wraps though; nobody sees this part of you." I said this simply as an observation and opinion--not implied advice--indicating no requirement for her to respond. But she did, with a shrug. "It's no big deal," she said.

"Rachel," I responded. "Why is it so important for you to present yourself as less than you are?"

"Because I don't care," she replied. She then added, "Actually, I think I just really hate myself."

It would have been tempting to ask, in deeply concerned tones, "But why? You have no reason to hate yourself. You're such a lovely, kind, good person. You just aren't having a very good day." Such a response--essentially denying that she feels what she feels--could only inspire the client to clam up or just get up and walk out. Instead, we sat together quietly and easily for the remaining few minutes of the session.

Soon after Rachel's comment about realizing she hated herself, I started noticing changes in her demeanor and in the stories she brought to therapy. She looked more carefree, and one day said she was aware of "smiling a lot." She hadn't mentioned school in months, dwelling more on issues with friends and family. Now, she began talking about school, telling me that she'd been writing poems about "conscience," and "putting down the knife." Rachel was offended when her mother suggested she was cutting herself because of a boy, and even more offended when her mother asked if it was because of her. "These are my scars!" Rachel pronounced to me in session. "I don't do this because of a boy. That would be kind of pathetic, don't you think? And my mother just thinks everything is all about her!" At some point in a conversation around this time, I found the right opportunity to say to Rachel, "You know, you have a 'no' in you now." She nodded.

Shortly thereafter, Rachel's mother called me to say that her daughter had indicated she wanted to come in to therapy less often since she didn't have all that much to talk about anymore. In the last few weeks of therapy, Rachel described her new interest: serial killers. With insight and compassion, she talked about how they were often dehumanized by the media and even by the people who were studying them and trying to understand them. Interestingly, she added, "If you dehumanize them, then you can't understand them or catch them. It turns them into monsters, but they're human, too." For some therapists, this new interest in serial killers might itself sound alarm bells. I took it as a reflection of how Rachel had managed to rehumanize herself in her own eyes--an important first step in allowing others to see her that way, as well.

The Paradox of Breaking Eggshells

Thirteen-year-old Danielle arrived in my office--courtesy of her mom--and was stinking mad about it. She didn't agree with anything her mom had to say: that Danielle had become more and more angry over the past few months, that she didn't seem to care about school anymore, that she was rude and disrespectful at home. All that was wrong in Danielle's world, according to Danielle, was that her mother wouldn't let her live with her dad.

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