Originally Published in the Napa Valley Features on October 2nd, 2023
By Jeni Olsen, Mentis Prevention Director
NAPA, Calif. — When I share with people that I work with teenagers, I often hear comments such as “Whoa, you’re so brave!” or “That must be hard. Teenagers are scary!” There is and always has been a feeling of dread and disdain when discussing “the teenage years.” The truth is, I love working with teenagers. They inspire me with their willingness to be open and vulnerable and their fresh perspectives about things that truly matter. They motivate me to continue working on initiatives that create a safer, more inclusive world for our youth.
In my opinion, teenagers are the most misunderstood age group. We need to stop demonizing them and instead look at the multitude of ways they enhance our lives and our communities. How might we change our perspective and work toward understanding them and embracing their individuality?
Young people are growing up in a fast-paced, technology-obsessed world filled with uncertainty. They are trying to navigate school, relationships, their mental health and the complicated transition into adulthood. They need us to be there for them. They crave connection and approval. It is our responsibility to engage in conversations that validate them as individuals.
In my last column I shared about the importance of being a good listener, about how valuable this simple yet complex skill is in building meaningful relationships. Listening is especially important if you are aiming to build an authentic relationship with a teenager.
Authenticity requires vulnerability. Being authentic means showing up fully as yourself, being true to your values, being honest and taking responsibility for your actions, including your mistakes. Authenticity doesn’t mean being perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect parent.
Dr. Becky Kennedy, lauded clinical psychologist, shares that “the single most important parenting strategy is to get good at repair.” We all make mistakes. We often don’t know what to do when our child pushes us to the brink. Sometimes we yell or react in ways where we don’t bring our best selves. She assures us that it’s never too late to repair a relationship, which opens the door for better communication and a more trusting connection.
It can be challenging to learn how to have conversations with teenagers, especially if they are giving off “leave me alone” vibes. It’s important to focus on positivity and encouragement and to keep it simple.
When my boys were in middle school and starting to seek independence, I identified places and spaces where they seemed to let down their guard and opened up to me. Our best conversations happened in the car. It didn’t matter
where we were going. What mattered was that the car was neutral territory and we weren’t making eye contact, which put them at ease. The second most popular place was anywhere with food. After they got their driver’s licenses, I’d ask them to go for drives to pick up food. They never turned down food, and the ride to and from a restaurant or grocery store continued to offer space for connection and conversation.
Conversations don’t need to be deep. Ask questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Ask what their favorite moment was that day or week. Ask what their least favorite moment was. Start a conversation about something that they’re interested in. Try asking for their advice about something. Asking questions that show you care about their feelings and interests goes a long way, and it opens space if your teen has something deeper to talk about.
Once you start a conversation, allow your teen the time and space to share. Offer follow-up questions to keep the conversation going, especially if they are sharing something difficult. You can ask, “How did that make you feel?” or “That sounds really hard. Can you share more?” It can be difficult to be quiet and just listen, especially if strong feelings come up for you around what they’re sharing. Your teen needs to feel heard and validated. Only offer advice if they ask for it. If they feel supported, they will be more likely to open up and seek your advice. Please note, if your teenager is in danger of making decisions that put themselves or others at risk, you should absolutely intervene and help them navigate to safety.
Don’t force your teen to talk to you. If the conversation isn’t flowing, change the subject. Let them know you care and that they can come to you if they ever want to talk. Find things to do together that don’t require conversation. Watch a movie, walk the dog or turn up the music while driving. If conversations in person are hard for them, try texting or sharing funny memes on social media. Connection is the goal.
Teens often have a hard time believing in themselves, so they need us to believe in them. They need to know we’re proud of them, regardless of their grades or
accomplishments. Notice the things they are doing well and offer your praise. They need to know we love them.
If your teenager is struggling with their mental health, it’s OK to seek counseling or therapy. Many schools in Napa County have mental health support available on campus. Speak with your teen’s school counselor or social worker. Or visit our Mentis Youth Resource Database for outside support.
If your teen is craving social connection, encourage them to learn more about our Mentis Teens Connect program. There are many ways for youth ages 13 to 19 to get involved in projects centered around art and wellness, volunteerism, and campaigns that promote positive mental health and wellness.
Raising children is hard. It can be exhausting. Don’t forget to care for yourself. Seek support if you need it from a friend, family member or professional. We are not meant to do this alone.
NOTE: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. If you or someone you love needs mental health or wellness support, please visit our Mentis Youth Resource Database.
As the founder of Teens Connect and director of Mentis’ Prevention Division, Jeni Olsen manages youth wellness programs through a mental health lens together with local teenagers and her Prevention team. As a director, speaker and writer, she is often sought out for her in-depth expertise around teens and her forward-thinking, collaborative approach to supporting youth and their complex needs.