Adolescents are guided by something called egocentric abstraction. They see life through the limited lenses of self-interest and protection. So they say things and do things that are actually deeper cries for help that they don’t even recognize themselves. In this article we will explore six of the most powerful longings of today’s adolescents, but in our interactions with young people we rarely if ever hear these longing expressed so clearly. That’s because kids are seldom aware of what their own longings are or how to express them.
Both kids and adults can fall into communication styles that keep them from hearing each other. What they say is often different from what we hear, and both of these are usually different from what they mean.
No. 1:’You Don’t Know Me’ vs. ‘I Long to Belong’
Kids say this when they feel an adult is trying to put them in a box. What we too often hear in their response is that they want to push us away. This makes us feel, “I don’t matter to her.” The problem with this reaction is that it produces exactly the opposite of what your child actually needs.
When a young person says, “You don’t even know me,” remember, it is not about you. They are using you as a punching bag for their own inner struggle to connect with others. They have an intense longing to belong, and this is always a difficult longing because relationships feel so tenuous and unpredictable.
Here are four ways to respond when you sense that young people have a need to belong: Acknowledge that you care about them; let them know that it sounds to you like they may have some deep feelings going on that you may have triggered; let them know you want to know more about why they feel the way they do; and let them know you’d love to sit and talk with them when they are ready.
No. 2: ‘You Never Listen to Me’ vs. ‘I Long to Be Taken Seriously’
When adolescents say you never listen, they accompany their words by actions: They roll their eyes, fold their arms and adopt a look of boredom or exasperation with our common “lecture mode.” So parents complain that their kids don’t want to listen to them, and kids say exactly the same thing about parents!
Having an authentic, two-way, respectful and honoring dialogue is the greatest gift any two people can give each other. Unfortunately, too many times adults get hoodwinked into believing it is their job to get information through to their kid.
Kids deserve and desperately need the gift of give-and-take talk. By disciplining yourself to slow down your instruction, wisdom or agenda and learn how to truly listen to them, you will communicate volumes more than you ever could with words alone.
No. 3: ‘I Can Do It!’ vs. ‘I Long to Matter’
To move from childhood compliance through the struggle to become a unique individual, kids have to learn how to become independent; but because we believe we have the wisdom that comes from experience, we have difficulty letting them make the mistakes that we are certain will lead to failure.
Unfortunately, lots of parents and youth workers take so much control of young people’s lives that many kids do not have chances to discover their unique identity, develop their autonomy or even explore their calling and giftedness. When an adult is overly-controlling, even with a young child, the kid can all too easily feel like they don’t matter.
Some adults go in the opposite direction. They treat an adolescent as an adult, even while she is desperate to rely on the fact that you are the adult. As she spreads her wings and makes decisions, you need to assure her that you are there for her, to listen, guide and, yes, set boundaries.
No. 4: ‘I’m Fine, OK? vs. ‘I Long for a Safe Place’
When our kids retreat, say or do something to communicate that they are doing just fine without us, what we hear and feel is that they want to be left alone. Often that is exactly what they think they want, too. Occasionally one of your kids may truly want you to get away and give them space. Again, as adults we tend to overreact by giving in to one of two extreme reactions. Either we take them at their word and give them all the space they say they need, or we push back and force them to stay engaged with us.
Our default reaction to any discomfort, any emotional outburst or any number of uncomfortable to difficult situations is to try and fix whatever we see or hear—taken at face value; but we must remember that with an adolescent, a much deeper river of influence and motivation is always just beneath the surface of any issue they face.
Defensiveness always comes from somewhere. When they push against you, often they are actually trying to say to you, “Don’t you get it? I am confused, lonely and insecure. I don’t feel like anybody understands me or wants to; and when you push, or criticize or counsel me with sage advice, I feel more threatened and less understood. I long for a safe place.”
When their defensiveness or silence gives you a clue to their sense of aloneness, the task for you becomes obvious—to be that safe place for them. Your presence, stability, sensitivity and even timing can be the salve that is exactly what they need when they are at their most vulnerable.
No. 5: ‘It’s My Life’ vs. ‘I Long to Be Uniquely Me’
By the time kids hit mid-adolescence, they become aware they are on their own in the middle of this scary and lengthy trek. At the same time, they know that in order to make it in the world, they have to become someone.
This tension—the feeling of being set adrift and isolated from everyone else competing with the need to keep moving forward in figuring out how to interact with a world perceived as uncaring and even hostile—fights against any authentic self-discovery process. The greatest tension between adults and teenagers comes down to this inner struggle.
The deeper longing expressed by this attitude, however, is one that gets to the core of our kids’ daily journey. When you hear, or even feel, teenagers communicate that it is their life they are dealing with, the only choice they make available to you is to stand beside them and let them know that, yes, it is their life, and you know it. Again, timing is crucial and so are facial expressions, genuine care and compassion; and any other tool in your kit that assures them of your committed belief in them.
No. 6: ‘Nobody Cares about Me’ vs. ‘I Long to Be Wanted’
When you hear or even sense that one of your kids is feeling like no one cares, what they are doing is offering you a gift: he or she being vulnerable and letting you into the pain of their personal world. This gift needs to be handled with kid gloves, gently caressing the wounds beneath the words and embracing the feelings behind the despair. In real life, we get swept up in attitudes that can easily slam the door on the exposed raw places we have been offered.
Granted, excessive complaining or nonstop whining needs to be dealt with when it is used as a tool for self-indulgence or to somehow manipulate the response of others. Especially during mid-adolescence, when the very essence of the stage is marked by self-interest and self-protection, we can find it hard to drum up too much sympathy when our child wants attention.
We need to discern when we are getting played and when we are being allowed into that tender part of our kids’ souls where they are scared or sad. Sometimes repeated self-loathing or self-deprecating messages and behaviors may be both manipulative and at the same time an unveiling of a deeper pain. We believe this is true in almost every case.
Your teens, even though they may not even be aware of it, carry around inside of them messages that criticize and question their worth. What they need, several times a day, are words and acts that consistently and without qualification proclaim their worth and value.
Love Is the Answer
Our role and calling is to be the adult. Our job is to listen and look as deeply as we can to what is behind their words and underneath their behavior. Discipline, nurture and training require that we work hard to show compassion and to understand what adolescents feel, experience and mean. What they are longing for is love.
Chap Clark is Senior Editor of YouthWorker Journal. His wife Dee Clark is a family therapist and the coauthor of Let Me Ask You This and Daughters and Dads. Article is adapted from Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World by Chap Clark and Dee Clark (Baker Books, 2007). Used by permission.