The blog

The Power of Feeling Understood

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.

Parents Just Don’t Understand!

Aside from being an 80’s wrap song by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince aka Will Smith, it’s an age-old assumption made by teens across generations. In some ways, teens may need to hold onto this notion to allow for the separation and development of individuality needed to confidently head out into the world. On the other hand, teens deep down crave acceptance and want to fundamentally feel understood by their parents and caretakers.

Across my career and experience as a parent the single most important tool I have found in managing my relationships with the teens I serve and those I am raising is validation. It is also the hardest skill to teach parents and practice consistently and the one that most communicates understanding.

Let’s explore why it is so hard to let our kids know we are trying and want to understand:

  • When our kids are dealing with something difficult or have done something problematic, we first feel profoundly worried, scared, anxious, embarrassed, or angry
  • We want them more than anything to understand what to do instead or how to fix the problem
  • We want them to acknowledge their responsibility and be able to hold them accountable
  • We fear judgment from others (family members, other parents, school, etc)
  • We jump to conclusions about the demise of their future (or ours if they forever live in our basement- see above emotions)
  • We think if we accept what they have done or how they feel or what they think that they will interpret it as approval
  • It is really hard to accept something we do not want to be true
  •  It feels like we are doing something when we yell, scream or try to solve the problem (we may believe this is the way to make an impact)- in reality this usually pushes teens further away or allows them to focus on our behavior rather than their own

What can we do to communicate acceptance through validation and therefore a greater understanding of our teen children?

  • Recognize our own emotions, own them as ours and not theirs
  • Take time to allow those emotions to settle before acting
  • Ask questions rather than express assumptions
  • Listen fully and give your full attention (or balance with your attention to driving if you are in the car, which can be a conducive venue for conversation with teens)
  • Find SOMETHING true for them that you can express makes sense and is understandable (an emotion, thought, motivation, worry, etc)
  • Refrain from name calling or adjectives that insult, ie “that was really stupid” (c’mon we all have done that). Even if we are speaking to the action, the likelihood they will personalize it being about them is high.
  • Hold off on discussion of responses, consequences, suggestions, problem solving or any sort of fixing until efforts to understand have been tried and communicated in earnest.

There is no guarantee that your teen will thank you or express appreciation for your efforts. However, when validation is communicated consistently, teens learn to regulate their emotions, tolerate distress, and are more likely to listen to what guidance you have to offer. Most importantly, it will strengthen your relationship with your teen.

Julie Baron, LCSW-C