As a therapist working with teenagers, I see the same phenomenon happen over and over in my initial sessions. I invite my client in with a parent for the first portion as we review paperwork and how therapy works and discuss the general reasons behind the visit, often from the parents’ perspective. My client typically has their gaze down at the floor, it might flicker up intermittently and is often accompanied by either a furrowed brow of disagreement with whatever the parent is sharing, or a solemn nod of resignation. Then, I excuse the parent for the rest of session, close the door, and almost instantly there is an entirely different energy in the room. My client relaxes, gazes up and starts to share their thoughts on why it is they have wound up in my office and where their side of the story (almost always) differs.
To be clear, I take absolutely zero credit in eliciting this response. My teenage clients tend to have a LOT on their minds to download and explore, but find it excruciatingly painful to even dip a toe in the water in the presence of a parent. I feel confident saying that it is simply my identity as NOT their parent, that allows this shift to take place. I am not attached to the results, sharing with me is low stakes. A lot of my work with teenagers ends up being helping parents to work on relaxing their attachments and simultaneously helping teenagers to empathize with why that is so challenging for parents to do.
The movie ‘Eighth Grade,’ did such a heartbreakingly beautiful job capturing the depth of these quintessentially adolescent silences, both between teenagers and parents and in so many other moments. The thing is, teenagers really get the idea of being attached to the results. They are attached to an invitation to a party, a reply on Snapchat, the number of likes on a post, whether a casual glance was reciprocated in the hall, getting that summer job at the pool, getting the 98% rather than the 95% on the test, the list is excruciatingly long. The challenge is that parents and their kids are often attached to different results and the lack of curiosity about one another’s positions is where the gap widens.
What the above moments of attachment all have in common, is that they are almost always conducted internally in those ‘awkward’ silences. There is a misunderstanding about teenagers that they are lacking, especially in these moments, it is assumed that they are lacking direction, lacking the language, lacking ideas, lacking drive etc. and this couldn’t be further from the truth. In these moments, they are brimming. As the movie illustrates, if parents can work to get more comfortable with silence and loosen their own attachments just a bit, their teens will become radically more willing to step forward out of their silence, even if it's awkward.