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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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"Why would I want to help them?" Danielle looks genuinely puzzled.

"Wow," is all I manage to say, suddenly very still.

Danielle looks up, disarmed and unsettled by my response. She stares at me for a moment and then turns away.

And there was the therapy--in that brief collision of our two different phenomenological worlds. In hers, being cavalier and mean is OK and even cool, but in my world it isn't. For a few moments, Danielle felt what it was like to be herself in my world, where the rules are different, and it made her uncomfortable. I don't think she'd ever had reason to consider just how dependent she was on having an accommodating context to make her lifestyle work.

If I'd tried to connect with Danielle simply by being understanding or "neutral," the conversation might have gone something like this: When Danielle said, "I can't stand my mom's boyfriend. He keeps buying my brother and me all these things just so we'll like him, but it's such bullshit." I might have responded, "What would you rather him do?" But, by following Danielle's lead in this way, I would merely be condoning her dismissive position. By saying "I feel sorry for the guy," I was getting across the point that her statement wasn't as cool as she thought it was, without directly challenging her. If I'd suggested that she "cut him some slack," I'd basically have been telling her to "be different," which is exactly what all the other adults in her life have done--to noticeably little effect. By saying that I felt sorry for her mother's boyfriend, however, I was sending a similar message, but in a way she couldn't really fight, since I was stating my own position.

When she said "You're so lost" to me with contempt, I might have responded, "What do you mean I'm so lost?" This suggests that, as her therapist, I was more interested in her criteria for how I should be than I was in what was happening between us. It also hints at my reticence to go down the path of opposing her attitude and behavior, with its potential for conflict.

So, what was the therapy, exactly, in that brief collision of worlds? Danielle is like the emperor whose lack of clothing nobody dares point out. In this exchange, without telling her she should change anything about the way she conducts her life, I was able to get the things I thought she needed to hear out into the room:

I don't agree with you.

I'm going to feel sorry for your mother's boyfriend, even if you don't.

Not everyone associates compassion with being a loser.

You control conversations by punishing people for responding in a way you don't like.

You're controlling with your mom, and she tolerates it because you mean so much to her and she's afraid of losing you.

That's not very nice.

Danielle kept coming back for her sessions week after week. They were always made up of a lively mix of storytelling, debate, humor, confrontation, rages on her part, and the two of us visually appraising each other. Sometimes I met with Danielle's mom, and tried to help her play a less ingratiating role to her daughter's imperial manner and stand her ground more often, even if it meant being "punished" over the next few days by Danielle's snarky comments and noncompliance around the house. Two months into the therapy, Danielle insisted that I join her in excoriating her mother for not being willing to pay a deposit on an apartment rental for her dad, who'd just been booted out of his current one for nonpayment of rent. I declined to do this and she decided to end therapy. "How come my not backing you on this means we don't meet anymore?" I asked her before the end of what, in fact, turned out to be the last session. She looked at me and said nothing. "It's OK," I said. "When you feel it's safe to make room in your world for people who don't always agree with you, come back and we'll pick up where we left off." Danielle turned her face away from mine so I wouldn't see her begin to cry. I never did see her again.

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