How to Communicate with Your Teenager About Their Problem Behavior

Does your teenager engage in self damaging behaviors (e.g.,. cutting, binge/restrictive eating, or substance use)? If so, you know first hand how difficult it is to respond to these behaviors. Caregivers can find themselves in a cycle of communication that leads to mistrust, anger, resentment, fear, and even increased problem behaviors. As counselors, we are trained to have conversations with people about their problematic behaviors, and it can be incredibly difficult to navigate those conversations effectively. It only becomes harder when the person exhibiting those behaviors is your loved one. Behaviors, even problem behaviors, have a function. They are caused by our desire to change or express our internal emotional/physical/mental need. There is a way to communicate with your teenager about their problem behavior to help you get to that deeper emotional/physical/mental need. Those conversations are incredibly powerful and will lead to trust, hope, and connection. 

In order to have those types of conversations it requires the right kind of conditions. Here are some questions/factors to consider before having a conversation with your teen about their problem behavior. 

1. Are you or your teen able to be present during the conversation?  

Being present is to be aware and to fully participate in the current moment. There are so many factors that keep us from being present including escalated emotional states, hunger, exhaustion, cell phones, time constrains, or other deadlines. Find a time when YOU can be present! This means probably not after a long day of work, when you're exhausted, haven't eaten, and only had 3 hours of sleep. This conversation is worth being present for. Ask your teenager when they can talk with you. Just because you're ready, doesn't mean they are. Maybe now is not a time when they can give you their full attention. If you let them choose, it shows them you respect their time. "Aaron, I would like to spend some time with you where we can really talk about what's going on in your life. I know you have a lot going on with school and friends, and I would like to find a time/place that works for you?" 

2. What is your intention in this conversation?

 If you are approaching this conversation with the intention of being right, controlling, or manipulating, then it will have an effect on the conversation. This effect will be felt as a continuation of the cycle of anger, fear, resentment, shame, blame, mistrust, and pain. Go into the conversation with the intention of curiosity about what is going on, even if you think you already know; with compassion for the your teenager; and with a desire to understand. Let go of the need to correct, give advice, or punish. This will be difficult. Prepare yourself for that. Just gather information curiously and compassionately. Gathering information and listening compassionately is not in any way saying you approve of this behavior, but it will help your loved one put their guard down. Try utilizing questions like: "What does cutting do for you? What are you hoping will happen when you cut? Has cutting helped you in some way? When did you first try it? What does it feel like for you? When are do you cut?" 

3. What are you going to choose to pay attention to during the conversation? 

Pay attention to what is happening both for you and your teenager, for example body language, tone, and emotional state. When you pay attention, you can respond more accurately and effectively. Try to let go of assumptions, and accept what is going on in the present moment. Let go of judgement, and be willing to be flexible in your responses. "I'm noticing feelings of sadness and fear as I listen to you talk about cutting. I also notice the desire to want to protect you and stop you from doing this behavior. What is it like to talk to me about cutting? How would you like me to respond to this conversation?"

Don't go into battle only having read a blog about how to use a sword. PRACTICE these concepts in low risk conversations about low risk topics. Once you get the hang of it, then you will be able to apply it to more difficult topics including discussions about problem behaviors. Also, please talk to a counselor who can teach you how to set these conditions and apply them real time.

Does your teenager have behaviors that are concerning and you want to seek help for them? Emily Ellis works with adolescents and young adults on such behaviors. Please send her an email to get started today!