How to Respond When Your Teen Is Hurting

Mother Talking With Unhappy Teenage Daughter On Sofa
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"I know teens can be mean, but kids at my daughter's school take it to a whole new level."

"He hasn't acted like himself for more than a year — ever since the divorce."

As a psychologist, I often hear comments like these from the parents of hurting teens. In today's unpredictable world, encountering hurt is as inevitable as paying taxes. It's even more so for your teen. Add intense peer pressure, a friend's betrayal, derogatory comments on social media, and the cultural rearranging of values and family structure, and it's no wonder teens face significant trauma.

No parent likes to see her children in pain. When your teen is hurting, you can follow these three simple principles to help him work through the hurt and develop strength and resilience.

Acknowledge the hurt

Ignoring a hurt doesn't make it disappear. But you can comfort your teen by saying, "I know you're hurting. If that happened to me, I'd be hurting, too." That speaks volumes to your teen about your support.

A month after Ben committed suicide, his classmates stopped talking about him. But Ryan, his best friend, continued to struggle with the loss. His parents gave him space to grieve but occasionally talked about what happened.

"I know you miss Ben," his father told Ryan one night. "I lost a friend in high school, and it was hard. If you ever want to talk or cry, I'm here. Ben was a great friend to you. I miss him, too. When he laughed, you couldn't help but laugh. Remember when . . . ?"

In just a few words, Ryan's dad acknowledged the hurt, connected with his son's experience and affirmed that he'd remain by his son's side. With Dad firmly in his court, Ryan felt less isolated in his pain. Dad also nudged his son's heart toward healing by sharing a happy memory.

Listen without judgment

Emotions are not right or wrong. They're simply what your hurting teen feels. If you want her to talk, sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. When Adele's boyfriend dumped her in a text message after six months of dating (an eternity in high school), she blurted out, "I hate him! How could he do this to me?"

Her wise mom didn't say, "You don't mean that. You shouldn't hate people." Nor did she exclaim, "He what? Broke up with you? I'm going to call his mother right now!"

Instead, she sat next to her grieving daughter. Adele vented and cried for two hours. Being with her mother helped Adele's heart long term, simply because her mother listened without judgment.

Strategize how to handle situations

Rather than solving the problem for your teen, encourage him to strategize a path to healing. Adam, a top striker on his soccer team, and a young woman were targeted with malicious gossip by a teammate. Adam's parents knew something was up when their normally even-keeled son went straight to his room and slammed the door. They waited until he was ready to talk. Four hours later, he explained how teammates were talking about him having a crude relationship with a girl at his school.

"I'd be upset, too," his mom said. "What they said is mean and untrue. What's your next move?"

His parents listened and empathized but didn't solve Adam's problem. Instead, they encouraged him to do something about the situation.

The next day, Adam privately asked his coach if he could speak to the team. "I'm disappointed in you guys," he told his teammates. "If you don't like me or something I've done, tell me straight. Don't start a rumor about me and hurt an innocent girl. She deserves better than that, and I want you to stop."

Helping your teen brainstorm his next move will make him more resilient in the future. On the other hand, rescuing your teen from emotional hurt weakens him and promotes a victim mentality. Yes, there are times when he should get an adult involved. But most of the time, his staying in the fight and proactively problem-solving will help him stand strong in life's storms.

When your teen has followed through on his plan, cheer his effort: "What happened to you was really tough. But you were strong and rose above the situation."

Your belief in your child means more than you will ever know.

Dr. Kevin Leman is The New York Times best-selling author of Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, The Birth Order Book and When Your Kid Is Hurting.
This article first appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2019 by Kevin Leman. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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