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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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This was not an ideal end to therapy. That would have been that a chastened, more insightful Danielle saw the error of her ways and became a kinder, gentler, more compassionate young person, who started working harder and getting better grades in school. But, whatever we like to pretend, relatively few therapy cases actually end with complete resolution, grateful tears, and the launching of a happy new life. Particularly when dealing with spiky, touchy adolescents who are in therapy only because they've been dragged in, we're lucky to make any impression whatsoever. I like to think that the therapy left Danielle with a reference experience of having genuinely, if briefly and despite herself, connected with someone whose values are antithetical to her own. Maybe in my office, she was imbued with that glint of curiosity, of vagrant hope--a tiny light at the end of her tunnel vision--that would draw her back at some point in the future to be open to some kind of therapeutic experience again.

Meeting Clients Where They Are

Elise, who was 16, was having a difficult day at school. Depressed, picked on by classmates, and unable to get sufficient attention from her few friends, she'd gone down to talk with her guidance counselor, a supervisee of mine. Early in their conversation, Elise emphatically announced that she hated everybody. "And I mean everybody!"

"No, you don't hate everybody," her counselor responded. "You don't hate me. You don't hate your mom. You don't hate your therapist." That was the end of that. Elise got up and walked back to class. What's the point in expressing how you feel if someone's right there to tell you you're wrong?

I asked Elise's counselor what it was she didn't like about Elise's statement that she hated everybody. "It's just so negative," she replied. "I wanted her to realize that there were all these people trying to help her, and that she didn't really hate them."

Elise's counselor was trying for too much too soon. I also didn't think it was the right approach for Elise, whose aloof demeanor and critical manner made it hard for anyone to make much of an impression on her. Without the traction of a relationship in which the counselor or therapist mattered to her, Elise would have no interest in hearing about anything other than what she wanted to hear at that moment--words of comfort or a remark that she could morph into something that validated her jaded outlook.

What was the difference between Elise's counselor's efforts to champion an alternative perspective and my similar efforts with Danielle? It was their personalities and interpersonal relationship styles. Elise was impenetrable and remote. She considered little of what others said or did. By contrast, Danielle took in everything around her, and then would spit it out on the floor in front of you. But for all her pugnaciousness, Danielle engaged with the people in her world, and each moment of engagement held open the possibility for someone--a therapist, teacher, parent--to leave something of him- or herself behind.

Latent power struggles in therapy make their way to the surface whenever our clients begin to see us as a threat to a point of view or sense of injustice they're not yet ready to relinquish. Elise wasn't ready to give up her negativity, which helped her keep people at bay and control interactions with adults, who predictably tried to get her to abandon her negativity in favor of something more hopeful. The conversation was the same each time: "Everything sucks." "No it doesn't! C'mon, look on the bright side." Just as predictably, their response confirmed Elise in her negativity.

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