by Paul Chiariello, LMSW, MSc. Ed., Staff Psychotherapist, Loving at Your Best
Uncertainty across the country is rampant, with a deadly pandemic, turbulent protests, and highly ambiguous school plans that could change at any moment. At the same time, your teen may have taken an active interest in social and politic issues. Great!! Well… depending on what they’re advocating.
Whether you, parent, are conservative or liberal, there’s a decent chance your teen’s moving further and further away from your worldview and what you believe is best for our society. Maybe they’re joining riots to dismantle the system and begin a communist revolt. Or maybe they’re taking a different direction and entertaining incel or neo-nazi groups. Point is, you feel you can’t stand idly by as your teen wanders into more extreme positions.
Regardless of the direction, here are three basic points to both help your teen and maintain your relationship:
1. Focus on your long-term relationship with your teen, not agreement in the short-term.
You’ll have to let go of getting them to agree with you here and now. Hard to hear, but true. Humans generally, and teens especially, just don’t go, “oh, you’re right,” in the middle of a confrontation about something they’re passionate about. In fact, it’s much more likely that arguing will cement their beliefs even further.
Note: this does not mean you’ll abandon trying to change their mind. It just means you have to take a long-term, pragmatic approach. Specifically, your teen will only accept influence from you if you already have two fundamental ingredients:
a). They feel that you respect them and want to understand them
b.) They respect your values, even when they disagree
First, nobody listens to people they don’t feel connected to. We’re all social creatures, with teens excessively so. To use an old metaphor, relationships are like bank accounts. You deposit money over the years by spending quality time together, caring for them, and listening to their ideas. In contrast, telling them that the beliefs they’re passionate about are wrong leads to a huge withdrawal. So if you don’t have enough in your emotional account with your teen, they will not likely accept influence from you. Instead, your teen will much more likely rebel and push you away further.
Second, work with your teen to help them understand and respect where you’re coming from. In fact, it’d be irrational for them to defer to you on moral issues if they don’t respect your morals to begin with. So make sure your teen:
a). knows what you stand for – compassion, fairness, equality, and so on
b). sees you living those values
For instance, you might regularly give blood together or help out a neighbor in need, or maybe sit down and explain which charities you donate to and why. The more your teen respects you, the more likely they’ll think to themselves, “Huh, maybe there’s something to what they’re saying.”
2) It’s not about the broader issues. It’s about their personal values.
Don’t – I repeat, do not – get bogged down with intellectual arguments with your teen. Ultimately, these details don’t matter as much as your teen’s underlying values. First and foremost, be curious. Start by asking about the deeper concerns that make them so passionate, and then just listen. For instance, you might ask what’s driving them, what good or bad outcomes they’re concerned with, or how they’re planning to help the situation. Not only does this avoid getting into an argument (unintentionally making a withdrawal in your relationship), but it builds trust in your relationship (depositing money in your emotional account).
During this “curiosity phase,” make sure to avoid shaming them. Instead, validate what they’re saying. Chances are they’re motivated by issues of justice, compassion, and so on. Or maybe they have deeper fears or shame rooted in their righteous anger. Even if their intellectual details are off, it’s important to praise or empathize with their underlying concerns. After all, you likely share at least some of their concerns! If you share their values, make sure they know you genuinely respect their drive and agree with them. If they’re motivated by deeper personal issues, treat them as serious matters you want to understand, and ask if and how you can help (without intruding on their journey).
More pragmatically, you need to start with curiosity to understand where your teen is actually coming from. If instead you assume things about them and you’re wrong, well… I’m sure we can agree that won’t help your relationship. Only after you have a solid grasp of what’s really leading your teen to their conclusions can you begin a more productive conversation about the details of the issues that compel their actions.
With political and social unrest erupting at a fever pace, many parents are struggling to understand and interact with their teens.
3) Model honest self-reflection.
To put it bluntly: you might be wrong. Be open to this fact. Remember, you’re asking them to question beliefs that to them probably feel completely “right.” To avoid being hypocritical, question your own beliefs, and be open to accepting influence from your teen to be more flexible about seeing and understanding all sides. Model being a healthier parent by practicing self-reflection.
Trust me, not only is it more likely that your teen will experience you as more open and willing to listen, but you can show your willingness to accept influence by saying, “huh, I didn’t think about it like that.” Your curiosity toward your teen can make a bigger deposit in their emotional bank account than any other single thing you can do.
Keep in mind, your teen is still growing and learning. And they learn best by watching adults model healthy behaviors. Once you’ve shown your teen how to self-reflect, you’ve opened the door for them to do the same. Not only will they see how it’s done, but you’ve signaled the safety that they need to know that you won’t shame or hold something over them.
If, at the end of the day, you and your teen still sharply disagree about a topic or belief, and you both believe the other’s conclusions are causing some of society’s biggest problems, emphasize two key points to your teen:
Ask for patience. Your beliefs have probably developed over at least a few decades, so rethinking how they may have developed, what influenced them, and whether they are still applicable in the same ways is challenging. Also, make sure to remind them that you’re inviting them to practice the same type of self-reflection and critical thinking!
Emphasize commonalities. Remind your teen that deep down inside, humans are more alike than different. You and your teen probably share many of the same values, and are both trying to navigate challenges and to improve a difficult world. And those shared goals count for something. Right?
About the author:
“Paul has a diverse background in conflict resolution, education, and clinical social work that he applies to his therapeutic practice. He focuses on helping clients as they explore and become their best versions of themselves.
Paul’s clinical approach is grounded in unconditional positive regard, mindfulness, cognitive and dialectical behavior therapies, and schema therapy. He specializes in working with relationships, men’s issues, identity formation, religion and spirituality, shame, depression and anxiety disorders. Paul works with adult individuals and couples, along with adolescents.
He earned his Masters in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University. In addition, Paul is certified by the International Association of Trauma Professionals as a Certified Trauma Professional, and is currently completing certification in Advanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at New York University.
Before his career as a psychotherapist, Paul worked in sociology research, conflict resolution, and curriculum development. After completing a Fulbright in Indonesia and earning his Masters of Science in Sociology of Education at the University of Oxford, he worked with humanitarian non-profits and think tanks in post-conflict contexts in Uganda, Bosnia, and other countries abroad.
Thereafter, he developed and led socio-emotional, critical thinking and ethics curricula for camps and school programs for adolescents.
Paul loves to read, play chess, travel, explore the outdoors, binge watch TV shows, and occasionally gets lost in abstract philosophical discussions.”