Windows of Experience: how to relate to troubled teens

Being able to relate to the teens that we work with has to be at the core of what we do. If we can’t relate, we can’t really communicate, we can’t understand, we can’t empathise, we can’t connect, we can’t build a relationship that has the potential to transform. We become therapeutic statues and our hearts become like stone. We are untouched, unchanged. They are untouched and unchanged. There is no life in the relationship.

The question is, how can we relate to teenagers whose life experiences are often so radically different from our own?

Windows of emotional experience

Think about when you do relate to someone else, when you relate to their experience. It could be anyone in your life. Were your experiences identical? I’m guessing in some cases yes, in many no. I’m sure there were similarities, but I’m sure there were probably more practical experiential differences. I’m sure that the key element of the relational experience was most likely emotional resonance. The circumstances may not be the same but the emotions felt were. They may have differed in intensity, but the connection, the relating was fundamentally an emotional phenomenon.

So the person who has had to deal with the death of a loved one recently, empathises and can really relate to the pain of another person who has recently lost someone. It might not be the same relationship (e.g. the loss of a mother rather than the loss of a sibling), the closeness of the relationship might differ, but the experience of loss is what makes the connection, is what helps you to understand, to empathise.

On a less serious note, think of an advert that has really resonated with you. The one that springs to mind for me is John Lewis’ 2011 Christmas advert. For those of you not in the UK, John Lewis is a department store and I’ve put their advert below .

I am not one to get hooked into adverts, but as a parent of a young child myself this had me hook, line and sinker. And why? Because it connected with emotions I had already experienced myself- of being desperate for Christmas to come as a child (although usually for the more typical selfish reasons!), of being so unendingly proud of my daughter when she thinks of others before herself or of the joy of receiving a slightly crooked gift that my daughter has made for me that is infused with love and thought… and so it goes on. Not identical experiences or circumstances, but similar emotions.

Connections based on emotion are the ones that make a lasting impression because we are fundamentally feeling beings. This applies to advertising, to any relationship we have with anybody. The ones that ‘get us’, that ‘stick’ are the ones that involve a sharing of emotion, even if it is a corporate sharing through an advert. And no less is it with our teens.

Relating to the teens in front of us is about emotional connection with them and is not dependent on us having been through their life experiences (thank God). We don’t have to have experienced the same level or complexity of emotion. What we do need is a reasonable level of personal emotional awareness and an ability to use those emotional experiences to give us windows of understanding into theirs.

For example, my previous blog post Constant Change, Life Changing Constants, about how challenging teens have probably had to endure more change in their lives than we realise (change of care placement, change of school etc), was actually sparked by my experience of moving house. Thinking about how unsettling that was for me and my family, got me to thinking about how utterly unsettling and emotionally draining all the change that a troubled teen may have to endure would be. So while my experience was significantly different, while the intensity and complexity of the emotions also differed, that experience gave me a little peak into their emotional lives and started a whole train of thought or exploration (also based on my experience of working with teens and what they have told me), that led to that blog post.

Or we might have a teen sat in front of us and we can tell that they have a deep, deep ingrained fear of something, but we have no idea what that is. They don’t want to share. Tapping into our own experience of when we might have been afraid of something in the past or present, even something as daft as being scared of spiders can help us to begin to understand their fear and therefore what might help them talk about it.

For example, if you are scared of spiders you might not want to talk about spiders even. So the best chances of getting you to talk about spiders is to make it clear that right here and now there are no spiders that are going to get you so it is safe. You then might be more inclined to talk. You then use this knowledge of your fear of spiders to help you with whatever your teens fear is. So you might say, “I sense you’re afraid of something. If so, does it scare you to even talk about it?” To that you might get a nod, so then you definitely know there is something they are afraid of and then you can discuss ways that might help them to feel safe enough to talk about it.

Most of the time our windows of experience are something that we never actually share in our sessions. They are just there as we contemplate our teens and try to find points of connection and understanding of their experience, from what they have told us or what we might have read in their file, as a means of working out what is going on in their lives, in their heads, in their hearts, and what might help us understand them better and practically help them.

The emotional connection is still there even if it is not explicit as it will be evident to our teens through our words and actions and the care that we demonstrate. If they can sense that we are trying to ‘get them’ to understand them, then they know we are emotionally as well as professionally invested in them (through our care) and the relationship will grow.

Sometimes it is appropriate to share our experience, although this has to be done with the right intention, with sensitivity and never losing sight of the fact their sessions with us are about them, not us.

So using the change example again, if a teen is about to experience another change themselves and seems really down about it but isn’t very communicative, I might say something along the lines of, “Change is tough don’t you think? I recently moved house and found that quite unsettling so I can guess that you might be finding this change coming up quite hard? Or are you okay with it?“. If they resonate with what I am saying, they will usually speak.

Nothing knocks down communication barriers more quickly than an exchange of personal experience, of personal emotion. If we give them a little window into who we are and our emotions, they are way more likely to give us a little window into theirs where possible.

It’s important not to throw our personal experiences in all the time. We should only do it if it is going to help them express themselves, to help them open up. We also have to be careful that we are not sharing with the purpose of making ourselves feel better, but with the sole purpose of helping them.

It is also important not to project our experiences onto them (transference), as if their experience was just like ours. We have to allow them to tell their own story, describe their own experience and emotions for themselves. We should never presume to know their emotions and their experience just because we’ve had our own experience, whether big or small.

So regarding change for example we should never say something like, “When I moved house I was so unsettled. You must be feeling the same way. Not knowing anyone, anywhere…..”. Here we are telling them they should be feeling the same way we did. We are also giving them a list of things to worry about. Our windows of experience should be helping them talk more, express themselves more and the above certainly does not do this. We should never say “you must be” and we should always have a statement or a queston in there that gives them an opportunity to voice a different experience or emotion. e.g. In the example above the last question that allowed for a different view was, “Or are you okay with it?”. By doing this you give them permission to feel as they feel, a vital ingredient to a strong working relationship.

If these experience sharing pitfalls are avoided, some real communication can occur. Whether we like it or not, we and our teens are human beings who have a natural need to emotionally relate and connect. If we don’t give of our emotional selves in any way in our practice, whether in our thoughts or our practical discussions with teens we have a difficult question to consider. Do we really have any actually working relationships with our teens or are we are merely statues meeting on a regular basis, untouched and unchanged?

What are your experiences of the success or not of relating to teens using your own personal experiences? All my readers and I would love you to share. Please comment below.

Anger management not working?

2 comments On Windows of Experience: how to relate to troubled teens

  • As a mental health counselor, it’s all about creating the emotional connection with my teen. Helping them to feel safe enough to share and me being willing to relate is vital to helping us all realize we are human and need one another to get through this life! Thanks for your great info. on this site 🙂

  • Hi Cheryl,
    You’re exactly right. There has to be an emotional connection in order to safely share and as you say, it’s an important strategy for anyone trying to cope with life. Thanks for commenting. Great to hear from you.

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