"I feel sad and I don't know why"
Often times teens will come to me and tell me that they feel sad or bad "for no reason at all." Typically once we can help these teens learn to be more mindful and tune into their thoughts and feelings, a greater awareness of what is driving these feelings emerges.
In the meantime, insisting on knowing a reason or even insisting there's a reason at all can be counterproductive and create distance in the parent-child relationship.
In DBT, the Observe and Describe skill can be a great way to track your teen's mood and behavior while remaining non-judgmental and not adding pressure to your teen to have their feelings all figured out.
Stop Asking What's Wrong!
When you see that your teen is upset, you already KNOW what's wrong... they're upset! This question is one of the biggest stressors reported by teens who are overwhelmed. Be there with your child, help them implement coping skills, provide a safe space.
Asking what's wrong is not always a question that can (or needs to be) answered when a problem arises. The truth is that one difficult situation creates emotional vulnerability for the next situation that occurs. There may not be one identifiable trigger, but a build-up of difficult situations, or overwhelming feelings that your teen is not aware of in the moment.
What is important here is attending to the feeling and later allowing your teen to revisit the underlying concerns with a therapist to process his or her feelings and triggers that prompted it.
Now, I know being a parent myself that sometimes "What's wrong?" really means "How can I fix this?" Remember, our goal isn't to fix or change feelings, but to validate them so that your teen feels heard and understood so that they can appropriately manage them in the moment.
If you try to fix or change your teen's feelings, you're sending the message that having these feelings is not ok... a message that can result in your teen managing those feelings in unhealthy ways.
Use the DBT Skills of Observe and Describe
Instead of saying, "What's wrong," observe the nonverbal and verbal cues of your teen and describe what you notice in a non-judgemental way.
The Observe and Describe skill is kind of like being a sports announcer. You're tracking your teen's play by play in an effort to help them feel heard and validated without asking for them to give you anything in return.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
When you use Observe and Describe to reflect back to your teen that you SEE how they are feeling, it creates connection rather than distance. Allow your teen's actions and behaviors to show you how they feel without asking for a verbal explanation too. Sometimes words are not enough to truly convey a feeling and you can get all the information you need from your teen's nonverbals.
Focus on NOW, not then or when
Practice observing your teen's body language in the moment and describing what you see in an empathic and nonjudgmental tone. You may find that in doing so your teen readily opens up verbally too because you've created a connection by telling them you understand rather than asking a question that implies that you don't.