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Want to Understand Your Teen? Think Back to When You Were One

I’ll never forget the time during my work as a school counselor when a teacher accused me of babying a student when she “should be in class.” The student missed part of her math class because she was in my office in tears after her boyfriend broke up with her at lunch.

The teacher must have caught me on the wrong day because I was more vocal than I normally am. “If by babying, you mean being empathetic and supporting an upset child, then yes, I was babying her.” I couldn’t believe that the teacher didn’t have more compassion or understanding for how heart wrenching that first teenage break up can be.

I have lost count of the number of teens who talk to me about how the adults in their lives—teachers, parents, coaches—just don’t understand them. However, it wasn’t until that moment when I was accused of “babying” a student whose boyfriend just broke up with her that I understood what they were feeling.

It’s so easy to get caught up in adult worries and lose sight of what is important to teens. At first glance, when comparing teen concerns to those of being an adult, their problems may seem less critical. But that’s not really a fair comparison when you consider the developmental stage of adolescents.

In Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, our teens are in the fifth stage of development and are trying to figure out who they are. Comparatively, as adults we are in the seventh stage of development where we are more concerned with creating a sense of purpose and contribution to society through work and family.

Understanding Teenage Development

We are exactly where we are supposed to be—and our teens are exactly where they are supposed to be, too. Each series of challenges and concerns is unique to each life stage. So we need to do our best to respond with compassion to our teens’ concerns without diminishing their experiences. They simply aren’t where we are yet.

We need to take off our adult hats and consider the problems our teens face through an age appropriate lens. This is easier said than done, especially in the midst of an argument. It takes patience, an open mind, willingness to see things from their perspective—and a lot of practice.

I try to shift my perspective by comparing common problems from our teens’ life stage with that of the adult life stage:

Both teen and adult issues are equally challenging, we just have to see it through the right lens.

It’s hard for teens to understand what we are going through because they have not yet been an adult and have no idea what it is like. That’s where we have an empathy advantage. We have been there before, so with a little patience and understanding, we can recall our experiences and consider their problems from their perspective.

The teacher who accused me of babysitting was frustrated that the student was too distraught to go to math class after her boyfriend broke up with her. I have seen this teacher show compassion to others, so I have no doubt that her response would have been different if she were talking to an adult friend whose spouse had just asked them for a divorce.

If we keep our teen’s life stage in mind, we can avoid unintentionally minimizing their feelings. And we can boost our relationship with our teens by honoring where they are and taking their concerns seriously.

Courtney Conley

Courtney Conley is an adolescent therapist and author. Her mission is to equip adolescents with the inner tools needed to successfully and authentically navigate their teenage years. She partners with parents to support struggling youth. Sign up for her weekly newsletter to receive tips, strategies, and information about webinars, trainings, and live book readings. Follow Courtney on social media by clicking @ConleyEmpowerment.

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