How to Talk to Teenagers Who Don't Want to Talk to You
Continued from previous page
Kids will let go when they want to. The work of therapy isn't getting them to do it, but helping them want to. More important, though, is to know that they don't have to let go in order for you to take the therapy forward. Elise could hate everybody and have a gigantic blind spot for the liabilities of being a lone wolf, while still being titillated by the notion, for instance, that letting others align with her could actually help her feel bigger, not smaller.
I suggested to Elise's therapist that instead of trying to "do therapy" right out of the gate, she give her students more room just to make the comments they wanted to make at the beginning. In the case of Elise, I suggested she might respond with something like, "Yeah, I think I have days when I hate everybody, too" or "What was your day like that you ended up feeling like you hate everybody?" or "How long does your 'I hate everybody' mood usually last?" all asked sincerely, not somberly as if trying to ferret out an underlying pathology. These questions would assist the counselor in joining Elise by normalizing what she felt instead of turning it into something "bad" or abnormal. Moreover, such responses would prevent conversational shutdown by communicating, "Yes, I understand how you can feel that you hate everyone in the world, and maybe today--or every day--you do. But nothing about that keeps us from talking about ways to help you make it through the school day."
Because teenage clients are legally underage, we tend to treat them as if they weren't fully capable of making their own decisions. But no matter what we want for them or can see in them, the choice of whether to accept our help is always theirs--just as it is for adult clients we treat. Unless we honor that choice, creating a therapeutic climate in which they feel respected and able to accept our help is impossible.
"The customer is always right" is increasingly the mantra for adults in therapy, but not yet for teenagers. If they don't talk enough or follow our recommendations, they're likely to be labeled "resistant," even "oppositional." The question of why they don't like therapy is rarely reviewed beyond the hermetic perspective of therapists. But paying attention to their complaints could benefit both us and them.
We already know some of the things teens don't respond well to in therapy--excessive questioning, standardized treatment protocols, enforced between-session homework--so let's stop using them. They do respond well to active, authentic, and respectful relating, direct feedback, and advice. If these were to become a standard part of clinical training and treatment, we'd be taking a great step toward providing services to teens that they'd be as interested in getting as we've been in offering.