One of the problems teens struggle with is honesty. And it’s not only honesty with one’s parents or authority, but honesty with oneself.
Part of psychological distress comes from hiding the more difficult and disturbing aspects of experience from oneself. While this can sometimes be adaptive, it can become problematic when it comes to drinking, sexting, drug use, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, and other situations teens can sometimes get themselves into.
Being honest about a situation means admitting it is actually happening, admitting it is real, admitting the distress is real, and addressing potential consequences. Not admitting it is real, not asking for help, and not coping with the situation can lead to even more problematic consequences. Addressing something openly- while often difficult- can lead to prevention of further problems.
Admitting to the reality of a situation also may involve admitting to one’s role or part in the situation. Teens can sometimes not be honest because they have a fear of getting into trouble or a fear that it will escalate an intense reaction in the person they tell. They would rather avoid the short-term pain of intense reactions than the long-term problems of the situation. And teenagers are often not thinking about long- term consequences! The double bind is to deal with it all alone. A teenager who is all about gaining independence and relying less on one’s parents may believe that secret keeping is the only way to gain privacy and independence.
If you are a parent and want to increase you teen’s ability to confide in you, consider the following:
What are you doing to invite conversations about difficult topics, and what are you doing to punish conversations about difficult topics?
Are there topics or themes in your own life that are “off topic”? Are there conversations that would be too emotional for you to handle if someone were to ask?
Is the short-term anxiety of “not knowing” something worth avoiding based on the long-term consequences of not having a conversation at all?
What types of things do you “hide” from yourself because if you admitted they were true, you’d have to face the consequences?
If you were being completely honest with yourself, what situations would you have to confront?
What types of things did you keep from your parent/s when you were a teen, and what do you wish could have been different?
Being open about emotionally “forbidden” topics will help create an environment where openness is encouraged. Being more and more comfortable with intense emotions, painful life situations, and one’s own ghosts will help you develop deeper relationships. Avoiding painful life situations can sometimes create more psychological distress than seeing what is in front of you, admitting it exists, and taking steps to address it.