On the couch across from me was a young teenage girl—articulate, witty, and surprisingly self-aware for her age. This isn’t the girl I was expecting. In our pre-counseling consultation, her mother doubted she would readily open up; she said her daughter was withdrawn, angry, unmotivated, and making lots of poor choices. Based on this description I was prepared to work hard to build a connection. The mother also told me they had “tried everything,” and were desperate to fix help her. I knew what this implied. It was the same message I frequently get from parents—the expectation that I will work magic and in no time their troubled adolescent will be better.
As I listened to the girl, who openly shared (and not just the sugar-coated version of herself), her perspective too sounded familiar. Sure, the details were slightly different, but the underlying story line was one often repeated by the plethora of “withdrawn” teenagers who make their way into my office.
“I can’t talk to my parents.”
“They don’t understand.”
“All they do is try to fix me.”
“They never listen.”
“They would judge me (or my friends).”
“I would be grounded/they would take away my phone if I told them that.”
Loads of fear, anger, and shame lie underneath these sentiments. Living under the weight of fear or shame is what often leads to “maladaptive ways of coping,” as we would say in therapist-speak. As a believer I would put it this way—we turn to false sources (substances, food, self-harm, sex, social media followings, and the like) to suppress sin and negative emotions, which in turn leads to more fear and shame. It is a vicious cycle that leaves us isolated and often depressed.
Does this mean every teenager who isn’t talking is hiding something? Not necessarily. There are lots of valid reasons kids make statements like the ones listed above. But I have yet to hear a parent who, when expressing concerns about their teenager at the onset of counseling, reflects on how they might be contributing to the problem or be “unsafe” for their teen to talk openly with.
No, quite the contrary, and I say this not as a counselor, but as a parent in your same shoes. We believe we are safe to talk to. We tell our kids they can tell us anything. We think they can come to us with anything. The problem is we don’t show them what we tell them.
Long before I had teenagers sitting in my counseling office, I learned the hard way when I discovered my own teenage daughter didn’t feel like I could identify with her. I thought we were close, but she thought I had it all together—that I was perfect—and she couldn’t measure up. Of course, I don’t have it all together, but there was a reason she didn’t see me as relatable and in the same boat as a struggling sinner.
How We Fail to Be Safe
First and foremost, parents, we must go first in confessing our sin and seeking forgiveness. I can’t tell you how many times teenagers have told me their parents never apologize, admit failures, or even share struggles. But if we aren’t vulnerable or willing to acknowledge ours, is it any wonder our kids don’t feel safe to share their sin and struggles?
When we cover up our own sin or come across as perfect, our kids don’t see us as identifying with them in their sins and shortcomings. Furthermore, they fear we would reject them or be disappointed if we really knew what they are thinking, feeling, or doing. For this reason, many kids hide behind masks and play the Christian game while distancing themselves more from us.
At the same time, if or when we do discover hidden sin, bad behavior, or lying, our response often confirms their fears. This is not to say we won’t be disappointed or angry, or that there shouldn’t be discipline. But as fellow sinners, if we understand our own heart’s bent, we should be able to enter in alongside our teenagers with compassion rather than condemnation. We should seek not to just correct the behavior, but to identify with them in their underlying motive. In other words, the driving desire behind the behavior: Were they looking for acceptance? Longing for validation? Craving love? I get that, I want those things too, and I too at times act in sinful ways trying to secure these things. This is how we identify with our teens in their sin, helping them see we are safe to confide in, and in their sin, they really can go boldly to God.
Our children learn to relate to God by what they experience from us. If they don’t know absolute acceptance and love at home, they will see God as someone to hide from, someone looking down upon them. On the contrary, when we show compassion and grace, when we model confession and forgiveness, our children learn that God is a loving Father who always draws near.
How Can We Strengthen Felt Safety
As I mentioned, counselors feel the unsaid expectation of parents to “fix” their child and fix them quickly. More than once a parent has communicated to me frustration over the lack of change. For this reason, I frequently now incorporate family sessions into the treatment plan. And from what I have experienced after family sessions, problems dissipate when children begin to feel seen, heard, and loved.
In the same way we as parents believe we are safe for our kids to confide in, we know the immense love we have for our children. It’s hard to imagine they don’t always feel loved by us. But children struggle to believe our words, our “I love you,” when connection is missing. Here is what I mean: Conversations about schoolwork, activities, and household logistics don’t cut it as connecting. In fact, teens often feel like all they get from their parents is nagging reminders, task-oriented discussions, and lecturing. What they need is our agenda-less time and active listening. Are we delighting in them? Do we prioritize doing fun things together? Are we paying attention to what they are verbally and nonverbally communicating?
Teen clients often tell me they wish their parents weren’t so distracted, so stressed. They wish their parents would listen better without trying to fix. That their parents would be more interested in the same things they are. That their parents would get to know their friends. That their parents would stop hounding them about everything. Parents, if you want your teenager to feel safe to talk, you need unstructured time to build a track record of helping them feel heard.
I’m always amazed—though I shouldn’t be—soon after deeper connections occur in a family is when a parent or teen tell me they don’t think they need to continue with counseling. Isn’t that so encouraging? Parenting is hard and connecting takes work, but God has not left you to yourself. As we seek to draw out our children, God calls us to draw unto him. In our uncertainty and inadequacies, in our fears and weaknesses, in our deepest desires, in our hopes and hopelessness, he calls us to come. For he will “equip you that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ… (Hebrews 13:21).”