Why Isn’t My Teenager Honest With Me?

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.

When Things Fall Apart by Pam Chordron

Here are some paragraphs from this book:

“When the bottom falls out and we can’t find anything to grasp, it hurts a lot. It’s like the Naropa Institute motto, ‘Love of the truth puts you on the spot.” We might have some romantic view of what that means, but when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer. We look in the bathroom mirror, and there we are with our pimples, our aging face, or lack of kindness, our aggression and all that timidity– all that stuff.

This is where the tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very honorable and tender place, and tenderness could go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch and I met throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about that groundlessness.

Things falling apart as a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: Room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

(pages 7-8).

What to do instead of criticize yourself

Try softening your stance, gently relax your face, and allow your muscles to become loose and less tight. Put a hand over your heart with an intention of lovingkindness, and try repeating the following statements with a tone of voice that conveys self-compassion:

May I bear this pain with kindness to myself

May I safely endure this pain

May I accept the circumstances of my life

May I find peace in my heart

May I let go of what I can not control

May I remember that others are also suffering

 

A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

Is everything really going to be okay?

When people tell you that everything is going to be okay, sometimes it is helpful to hear. Sometimes it is soothing, and can give you a sense of hopefulness and shared understanding. There are many ways in which other people try to soothe us, and which we find help and assurance in cases of extreme distress.

However, people sometimes use this statement in a way that is unhelpful. For instance, the statement that everything is going to be okay may be an attempt to avoid the subject, offer a platitude, or inhibit communication of distress. Sometimes it is more helpful to obtain some acknowledgment or understanding of how you really feel. Sometimes worries, fears, or concerns about the future just need to be openly expressed. In addition, it is hard to know that things are going to be okay when you don’t have a way to solve the current problem.

The statement that everything is going to be okay is a statement of expressed hope. It can be offered to the person who is going through the most severe of all crises, and even though there may be some irony to it, there is some truth to it as well. Sometimes when we feel very hopeless it is hard for us to hear the usefulness of this statement. Sometimes in the worst of moments we can find and create experiences of hope and joy- despite significant loss. Being able to find and participate in these moments help people survive.

Thinking about the ways in which this statement is both helpful and not helpful at the same time can help us to create space for different perspectives. When we can see things from different angles, we have more flexibility in addressing situations, responding to our environment, and finding help that may actually be helpful. There is always some element of truth to things turning out okay, but there are also moments when hopelessness prevails. Sometimes it is nice to consider the kindness of another person’s intentions, even if their attempts to be helpful aren’t always exactly what we need to hear in our moment of our pain.

When you have no reason to feel the way you feel

People tell me all the time that they don’t deserve to feel the way they feel. When they start to feel sad/distressed/upset, they immediately think of all the positive things they have in their lives, convince themselves that they have no reason be upset, and spend a considerable amount of time in their heads trying to argue away the existence of their emotions. The problem with this kind of response is that it doesn’t make emotions disappear in the long run.

If you are one of these people who has “no reason” to feel the way you feel, here are a couple of things you can try:

1)   Make a list of all the stressors going on in your life. Brainstorm every little thing, even if it seems small. Little things (like an annoying smell) can actually create a lot more stress than actually realize. Doing this exercise can help you actually identify the extent of your stressors. Some people find it quite validating.

2)   Identify if there have been recent changes, losses, or shifts in relationships or life situations that have been hard on you. Sometimes these things seem subtle; such as no longer being able to have lunch with a friend who is suddenly preoccupied with something else in his/her life. This person may have a good reason to stop meeting with you, but the interactions and what they meant to you are suddenly no longer available. This naturally may elicit sadness.

3)   Consider if your environment tends to diminish, dismiss, or ignore your requests to be heard, get your point across, or communicate what you feel. Sometimes people end up in pretty harsh environments and then blame themselves when others ignore or dismiss them.

4)   Even if you can’t figure out why, try focusing instead on the what. What you feel is experienced in your body. A tightness in the chest, a pit at the bottom or your stomach, or a sense of restlessness and agitation are all feelings. When you focus on the what, try to make space for the experience of your feelings to simply exist, without you trying to change them. Your feelings are probably trying to tell you something! This is the opposite of what you do when you can’t figure out why (i.e., ruminate endlessly, suppress feelings, and try to talk yourself out of experiencing what is felt). Give yourself the opportunity to simply allow feelings to be-without a wordy, logistical, or rational explanation.

 

Three mindfulness exercises to use right now to quiet your mind and focus your attention

One of the reasons mindfulness is used is to get yourself calm. If you are a person with a lot of anxiety, your anxiety might get in your way of handling problems, thinking clearly, or addressing something with your full attention.

Mindfulness is one way to lower emotional arousal, center yourself, and help you get back on track. When emotional arousal returns to baseline, accessing the problem solving part of your brain becomes easier.

1)   Inhale to the count of one, exhale to the count of two. Keep going until you get to the bottom of six. Start over. Do this for about three minutes. If you get lost or distracted simply start over. The point is to have something to focus your attention on; which helps cut the distractions of your mind.

2)   Trace your hand. Inhale on the way to the tips of your fingers, exhale on the way to the crevice. This can be done with pen/ pencil on paper or with the finger of the opposite hand. This is a tactile way to “trace” your breath and focus your mind. Keep your attention on your breath.

3)   Pause for three minutes and focus your attention entirely on sound. Try to tune in to every possible nuance of sound. See what you can hear that you typically don’t pay attention to. If your mind drifts, bring it gently back to the experience of hearing.

When individual therapy with adolescents doesn’t work

Individual outpatient therapy with adolescents can sometimes be limited in that

1) It can fall into Question and Answer sessions-losing the spontaneity and flow of a helpful interaction

2) Adolescents have shorter attention spans, and keeping them focused on painful topics on purpose can be, well, painful!

3) Sharing personal information with an adult you don’t know, but were paired up with because your parents are making you, doesn’t always have the desired results.

4) Adolescents aren’t necessarily going to do things differently because an adult is telling them to.

Group therapy has several advantages in that

1) Its members will be able to tell your daughter if they like it, how it is helpful, and what it has done for them.

2)  It is private (no one knows each other outside of the groups) and participation can be minimal (it doesn’t have to be about you all the time).

3) Group members can help each other think things through, make decisions, look at consequences, generate feedback, and put words on experiences in way that an adult provider may not be able to.

4) Talking about peer situations leads to identifying oneself in peer situations- thus what matters is sometimes brought up by someone other than yourself- or an adult, who may not have a clue.

(Hey! I’m not in high school anymore!)

Click here to see more on what group can do for your daughter.