Many if not all of us in the business of working with teens would describe ourselves as understanding. So why do many teens walk away from their interactions with adults feeling like we just don’t understand?
Professionals in various roles are so often well meaning, desire to help, and are terrific and efficient problem solvers. It is understandable then that we tend to move very quickly to suggest interventions or helpful to dos. It’s tempting to want to help by fixing with ideas for action, and that is very often not what teens want or need from us. The truth is that teens would move more easily to resolution or needed change if we instead took the time to more fully understand the situation at hand and the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the teen we are trying to assist.
One way to elicit a sense of feeling genuinely understood is to communicate acceptance. We communicate acceptance through expressing validation. Validation recognizes or affirms that a person’s feelings, thoughts, sensations or opinions (internal experience) are valid, worthwhile, and make sense. This does not mean that we agree, endorse, or express permission for actions that may concern us or conflict with our values or viewpoints. It does mean taking the time to listen, reflect, and express that at least some part of what we are hearing and understanding makes sense given any number of factors (human nature, desire for a particular want or need, the current situation or history of experiences). Over time, the experience of feeling consistently understood and accepted promotes a sense of self-worth and self-understanding.
Validation is one of the most important skills we can use in our work with adolescents. When used consistently, it allows for a sense of stability, emotional regulation, and ultimately triggers parts of the brain that elicit social connection and allows for mentalization (observing one’s own internal experience of thoughts and emotions), and thus greater insight. When we take time to make teens feel understood, they’re more likely to engage with us for support, accept offered guidance, and thoughtfully take helpful actions.
I often remind myself when I feel stuck with a client, who may reject all suggestions or begin to withdrawal, that I am likely not sitting long enough in accepting what is and communicating understanding. It can feel passive to sit in this stance, like we are not doing enough to help. In reality, the time we offer to tune in, reflect, and express perceptions that match that teen’s inner experience goes a long way to allow for openness to our valuable problem solving efforts.