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Talking with Your Teen -- David Elkind, PhD


Member question: I've found that teenagers generally don't think adults have any clue what they are going through. I remember thinking my parents grew up in such a different time they couldn't possibly understand my concerns. How do we adults convey empathy to teens without outright saying, "I remember, back in my day..."?

Elkind: They have what I call a personal fable, which is the belief that they are different, special, and other people will grow old and die but not them, they are the only one who have felt this way, so on. That sense of uniqueness makes them feel that their parents are living in a different time, and that their parents don't understand or appreciate them.

I think rather than argue with them we need to simply acknowledge that their experiences are unique and different, but nonetheless there are things we have in common. That's their reality, and we shouldn't argue with a young person's reality. Just accept they feel this way. We shouldn't try to say that we went through the same thing. In early adolescents, they almost take a pride in their uniqueness from their parents. It's not really possible to talk them out of that. We need to be sensitive to it, and appreciate their privacy and the uniqueness of their experience. It's partly this temporary sense of being special and unique from anybody else that makes him or her feel their parents can't understand them, and they are having experiences that no one else has ever had.

It's the same idea as, "Other kids will get hooked on drugs, other kids will get pregnant, not me." That's how kids can get into trouble at this age of 13 or 14 because they think they're special. That's when kids can really get into trouble.

Member question: I find myself frequently asking my 15-year-old son if there were drugs and alcohol present at the home where he has just spent time. I'm concerned that I am placing too great an influence on the subject and don't know how to keep in touch with him and his life without constantly questioning him about it.

Elkind: If we have done our job well, and communicated our values, most kids find other people that share the same values that they do. It's sometimes the kids that are not well-parented that get into trouble. If you feel you have communicated your values, and you've set good examples, I would trust him to find friends with the same values. Communicate that you trust him to handle these things if they come up. If he senses you don't trust him that can undo things you've taught in the past. So be careful in overdoing the questioning.

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