How to help your teen feel understood

When you find someone that understands you, the world just makes sense. 

We all fear judgment. Feeling embarrassed or singled out is one of the biggest fears that we as humans experience. And, part of a typical teen's development is experiencing the "personal fable" -- the belief that you are the center of the world and that everyone's focused on you.

When you're eating with new friends, you fear that they are judging you for your food choice, or how much you're eating.

When you enter a crowd you imagine that they're thinking about the shirt you're wearing that you may have second guessed when you put it on that morning.

When you have a pimple, it becomes the only thing you believe people see when they look at you.

The world becomes a mirror for all your insecurities. 
And anything you think about yourself becomes magnified and projected onto everyone else.

It feels lonely.
It feels rejecting.
It feels humiliating.

And your teen doesn't have to go through it alone.

Learning that you're not the only one who feels a certain way and that others understand you is a VALIDATING experience. And for a highly sensitive teen, validation is step one before you can begin to see any kind of change at all.

How can you validate your teen?

Hear your teen out without telling them what to do, making disapproving faces or "shoulding" them into further shame or embarrassment. Just be there to listen without trying to change anything.

Decide how your teen may be feeling based on what they are sharing, their tone and their facial expression, then reflect this back to them.

This can be as simple as:

"I can tell you're really angry about this."

^^ Use a tone and body language that communicate this message too.

Give your teen permission to stay sad or anxious or stuck if that's what they desire. Or, you can offer choices for how to shift out of difficult thoughts and feelings and to make changes. >> It has to be their decision.

Imagine that your support is like a buffet. They can view all the options and pick the ones that work best for them.

Here's how:

"If you want me to sit here and rub your back while you cry, I can do that for you. Or, if you'd like to go for a walk or watch Netflix together to take your mind off this, I'm game for that too."

You don't need to solve your teen's problems for them to feel supported. (In fact they're telling us here at the teen support center that that's not what they want at all.)

What they really need is to have a felt sense that they are not alone. And when you validate your teen's feelings, you accomplish this.

Overcome the myth of, "I'll do better in school once I get to college because I'll care more and I'm paying for it." 

This is an example of magical thinking at it's finest. And it's the lie that many teens are telling themselves to give them permission to coast through the rest of the school year.

But here's the truth

Unless you COMMIT to a routine that brings you success right now, it's going to be super hard to change your internal motivation or day-to-day work ethic just because you've had a change of location (even when there's more money involved.)



Here's how...

People tend to get overwhelmed with big responsibilities, so it helps to break them down into smaller steps. Make a list of overall goals, then schedule smaller objectives directly into your calendar. Small wins lead to big successes.

Having a daily routine allows you to wash, rinse and repeat success in a way that feels normal and keeps you from getting stuck. Write down your weekly routine. Of course you can allow yourself to be flexible within this routine, but committing to an hour of studying per day, or physical activity daily is a way of creating a strong foundation for a happy and healthy life.

Productivity is great, but when you ignore what makes you happy, tasks and responsibilities get more difficult to complete. Build in time for fun and self-care every single day. Make a list of activities that you feel confident when you're engaging in and that you feel happy when you complete. Make doing at least one per day as routine as brushing your teeth.

When you can be mindful of how routines help you build a more satisfying life and you commit to taking the time to make routine a habit, you'll soon be soaring towards your goals and ready for college now, not crossing your fingers and hoping it happens when you get there.


4 Ways to Manage Suffering to Empower Your Teen

Even when you're suffering you have a choice

When you are having a hard time, you may want to ignore the situation. You may try to push it out of your mind and present it isn't happening.

Or, you may feel angry and continually try to change other people and the world around you to bend to your needs. And when that doesn't work, you feel even more angry, sad and helpless.


Acceptance instead of resistance releases you to access resources, and move forward.

Know that even when you're in pain, you have choices. Here are the four choices that you can enact when you are suffering...

Change the Situation

First, figure out if you have some control in the situation. If there are things you can change, go ahead and change them. This may mean walking away from toxic friendships, asserting your needs to someone, or beginning to exercise. When you have a way to change your situation, it's all about problem solving to make your life better.

Change How You Think About the Situation

If you're stuck in a situation that's difficult for you, sometimes reframing the difficulty can make it easier. Did you learn something about yourself or your life as a result of a difficulty? Can you think of a long boring car ride instead as an opportunity to connect with your family in a new way? How can you look at your situation differently in order to find balance?

Accept the Situation

Stop fighting reality and start accepting it as it is. This is what can give you the freedom to move forward. In DBT, the idea of RADICAL ACCEPTANCE means being willing to experience a difficult situation without trying to change it or escape it. It's understanding that you have to go through difficult feelings to get to the other side of them.

Stay Stuck in Difficult Feelings

This is a choice. No one can make you change or accept difficulties before you're ready. You may remain in denial, anger or sadness for quite some time before you're ready to move into another choice.

You are NOT your suffering.

Understand that you always have a choice and the possibility of rewriting your story so that you are not a victim of your circumstances. Even when life is hard and the people around you are treating you poorly, changing your outlook and responses can do wonders for your own mood and emotional experience.


It's time to break the silence...

know the signs of suicide.png

Hey there, parent... 

It's a stressful time of year.  School is almost over and with finals and APs and keystones and senior projects, there is just SO MUCH PRESSURE on your teen to get it all done... to not only keep up with their friends, but to complete assignments and make big life decisions with what they hope is a perceived effortless perfection.

Why are we doing this to our teens?

Why do we do it to ourselves?

At the teen support center, we see over 100 teens in office each week (between groups and therapists) and a major consensus right now is that "THE STRUGGLE IS REAL." 

Teens are reporting "dark thoughts"

Teens are engaging in unhealthy behaviors as a means of escape

Teens are shutting down and just simply refusing to complete work because it's all TOO MUCH

Be aware of the warning signs 

If your teen is isolating more than usual, reports feeling hopeless or makes statements about wanting to go to sleep and never wake up, or wonders aloud if anyone would care if they weren't around, these are signs that your teen may be passively or actively having suicidal thoughts.  

Talk to your teen! 

It is important to be direct when talking to your teen about safety concerns.  If you are unable to comfortably ask the questions to keep your teen safe, they will sense this and perhaps not be straightforward with you in an attempt to spare your feelings. 

Many parents fear that being so direct and asking questions about suicide will put ideas in their teen’s head that was not there before.  This is simply not true.  Bringing up the idea of suicide shows that you are taking your child’s pain seriously and that there is no topic that is too shocking or difficult for you to hear about if they choose to talk about it.

Arm yourself with the same knowledge that a clinician assessing for suicide would have so that you can understand your teen's thoughts and feelings.

Using the questions below, you can assess your teen’s intentions.

  •     Are you feeling hopeless about your future?

  •     Do you have thoughts to end your life?

  •     Do you have a plan for how you would end your life?

  •     When were you thinking about doing this?

  •     On a scale from zero to ten, if zero is not at all, and ten is definitely, how likely are you to follow through with this plan?

** ALWAYS seek professional help when you have safety concerns regarding your teen.  These questions are simply meant to be a guide for how to better understand your teen's inner monologue. **

Validate the struggle 

Validating your teen shows them that their thoughts and feelings make sense and that you can understand why they feel this way.  It does not mean that you are condoning or agreeing with their thoughts or behavior.  

Validating your teen will show your teen that you are listening, that you are not judging them, and that you care about them and the
relationship. Giving your teen this understanding and nonjudgmental acceptance can help to decrease urges to self-harm that stem from feeling invalidated.

How is it done?

• Look at your teen; make eye contact.

• Pay attention to your teens words AND nonverbal cues, like facial expressions and body language.

• Decide how you think your teen is feeling in the moment.

• Use your own words to reflect back to your teen how you think they feel like, 

“It seems like you feel really disappointed about that,”

or,  “I can understand why you would be upset by that.”

• Be sure your own nonverbal communication matches your words.  Be mindful of what your facial expressions and body language convey to your teen too.

Don't be afraid to check in and monitor them more closely (even if it annoys them) 

Let your teen know that because you care about them and their safety that you'll be monitoring them a little bit more closely.  Of course YOU know that this is not a punishment, but your teen may perceive this as frustrating and/or annoying when they KNOW and insist that they are "fine" in any given moment.

Nighttime seems to generally be the hardest for teens.  Having an extra goodnight check in closer to midnight than 10 PM to ensure they are not stuck in negative or harmful thoughts may be helpful.

Implementing a number system for how to discuss safety concerns and difficult emotions may be helpful too.  Have your teen mark a number on the calendar each day for their current status.  0 is happy and 10 is actively suicidal. Using numbers helps your teen have a simple system to relay information and it takes away some of the fear sharing emotionally charged information.

Seek help and create a support system to surround your teen 

Raising any teen is a wild ride, but when your teen is in emotional distress, please seek support immediately.  Here are some local numbers to get you started...

Crisis support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at Access Services, Mobile Crisis Center in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, PA:

1-855-634-HOPE (4673)

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress to prevent crises and keep you safe.


Real Talk... 

Your teen's safety is more important than their GPA.  Period.  

If your teen is struggling now, please take the pressure off and get them the support they need.  Don't wait until the school year ends and you have more time or less activities and obligations.  Depression and "dark thoughts" are serious and we need to receive them that way and take action.

Do You Have the "I Want-They Want" Balance in Relationships?

Communication in relationships is key 

The way you communicate in relationships impacts your interactions with others and how close you feel to the people who are important to you.

Being passive may feel safe... 

Passive people tend to give in to the needs of others because it feels safe.  They avoid conflict because arguing or disagreeing triggers a fear that others will leave them.  Passive communicators may be people pleasers and tend to give in rather than say anything that could be upsetting.

What happens, though, is that these behaviors often lead to your own needs being unmet or others never fully knowing WHO you are because you've always gone along with everyone else.  

Ultimately passivity leads to big blow outs or completely shutting down because you begin to resent other people for not understanding you or giving you what you need.

Aggressive communication may feel "right" or justified... 

Aggressive communication often comes from thinking that things "should" be a certain way.  This may spring from your values or upbringing, but dictating how others should or need to behave can destroy your relationships with them.

You may also feel a need to control how others around you behave or interact.  Your anger may drive you lash out at others which pushes them away.  You may feel justified in this interaction thinking that you needed to "teach them a lesson."

Being passive OR aggressive is destructive 

Both extremes in communication push people away and destroy relationships.  Both extremes come from a need to control others -- either by compromising your own needs to keep them around, or by insisting that they behave a certain way to meet your own expectations.

Assertiveness is the balance you need 

When you assert yourself, you find the "I want/you want" balance that you need.  Using DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills is the best way to find the middle ground.

How can you start finding balance?  It starts by getting crystal clear on what YOU want and learning how to communicate these needs in relationships in a calm and collaborative way.  (Here's where your DEAR MAN skill becomes so important!)

You'll also want to practice skillfully listening and negotiating conflicts.  This may include learning to say no when necessary and to stick to your values to preserve your self-respect in relationships too.

3 Tools to Improve Family Communication

The good news is, you WANT communication to improve... 

You and your family are doing the best you can to communicate with each other. It's not a lack of want or even a lack of trying.

What may be missing, though, are some practical tools to help you act skillfully and learn to communicate and relate to each other effectively.

The strategies below have been successfully used by many families in the past to improve communication and build trust in the parent-teen relationship.

The Family Journal 

Sometimes taking that first step towards effective verbal communication can be too daunting. It’s like learning a new language and when it’s too uncomfortable, you or your teen may shut down or never take action.

A family journal is a good way to take that first step. Choose a notebook and a location to keep it. Begin by explaining the function of the family journal to your teen (and partner if you have one.) Let them know that you want to practice communication and building trust.

Start small:  simple notes about your day or messages of love or gratitude. For example, “It was nice seeing you at breakfast today. I hope you enjoyed your pancakes.”

Review expectations that everyone in the family writes in the journal once daily, even if it is just a sentence. Create buy-in for your teen by letting them know it is a way of you working on trust so that you are not watching over them constantly. Teens typically hate the constant monitoring that result from their inappropriate, unsafe or unhealthy behaviors.

The Code Word 

Sometimes teens are open to support or trying a new coping skill, but feel embarrassed or resistant to saying the words “I'm sad / need help / want to do something unhealthy/unsafe” (often due to being conditioned to fear your reaction.) Choosing a code word that everyone in the family agrees upon can be helpful.

When your child uses the code word or phrase, you will respond in the agreed upon way. You can coach your child through a DBT Distract, Self-soothe or Improve the Moment skill (if you have previously agreed to this) or simply join your child in an activity such as:

  • Talking about something else
  • Be with your teen and watch a funny tv show or movie
  • Take your teen for a drive
  • Go for a walk with your teen
  • Go get food with your teen
  • Window shop at stores
  • Offer your teen art supplies or a coloring book

Remember to keep your own emotions and reactions in check and reinforce to your teen that you are grateful they trusted you. If you appear too distraught or overbearing, your teen will likely not come to you next time.

It is also important not to ask questions or pressure your teen into discussing "What's wrong?" The Code Word strategy is simply about helping your teen manage an urge without acting on it and offering your support by engaging them with a coping activity. If you ask questions or try to identify a trigger, your teen will think twice before coming to you the next time an urge arises.

Remember, don't try and teach your child to swim when they are drowning! Help them cope with the feeling in the moment with the strategies listed here, then go back to the situation when you are both in a calm state of mind to process the thoughts and feelings that arose.

The Rating Scale 

Another helpful tool to develop a mutual language with your teen is to create a rating scale:

0 - Things are OK. No thoughts or urges are present

1 - I’m upset. Thoughts are there, but more passing thoughts or feelings. I’m OK for now. I have no plan to act on anything.

2 - I’m overwhelmed. I’m very upset. I can’t focus on anything else. I’m thinking about hurting myself.

3 - I’m about to lose control. I have a plan to hurt myself.

Using a number system allows you to gauge where your teen’s thoughts and feelings are so that you can appropriately respond.

You can even discuss with your teen what different numbers on the scale might look like in terms of behaviors. Some teens may be more irritable as the numbers on the scale increase. Others become more isolative. With others, you may not see any difference in behavior at all. This is typically what concerns parents the most.

Teens often appreciate this simple way of relaying their status to you. You can incentivize them by letting them  know that this provides an opportunity for more time alone without monitoring.

For example, if at a 0 your teen is in his room listening to music, but this is also what your teen does at a 3, the only difference between them could be your questioning “What number are you at right now?" and trusting in your teen's response.

Help your teen help you too! 

Better communication means that EVERYONE in the family knows how to respond and interact with each other in appropriate and healthy ways.

This means happy and safe teens and happier families overall!

Help Your Teen Act Skillfully to Shift Out of Sadness

Feeling sad is a natural human emotion. And we WANT to feel a full range of emotional experiences. If there were no sad, we wouldn't know the full extent of happy. << That's the dialectic in it... being able to acknowledge that both sides of the coin CAN exist at the same time.

But when the scales tip for your teen to the point where sadness is overwhelming...

... and they are isolating

... and having trouble making it through the day or even getting out of bed in the morning

... or they feel like life is pointless or too much to bear

Well, then sadness is problematic and a plan to cope is in order. Use the following tips to help your teen create a plan to shift out of sadness and to cope with intense lows.

Validate Yourself and Feel Your Feelings

Before you can change your emotions, you need to acknowledge that they are there and that it's OK to feel them. You have to go THROUGH to get TO the other side. So, start by observing and describing the feelings as they are.

Once you have actually acknowledged and accepted that you are sad, you can decide whether it feels like you are ready to change them. At the teen support center, we always give teens the CHOICE to remain sad if it suits them. In some cases, like grieving for example, feeling sad is to be expected and something that we wouldn't necessarily want to change right away.

Take Your Time and Listen To Your Body

If you're having trouble getting out of bed, do you need more rest? Have you been pushing yourself too hard? If you're isolating from friends, has there been drama that makes you feel worse when you are around them? Learn to listen to what your body is trying to tell you and you may come up with solutions that you didn't know were even a part of your sadness.

Break the Cycle with Opposite Action

In DBT, the skill of Opposite Action is one in which you recognize the BEHAVIORS that come with your feeling and that do opposite behaviors to break you out of an unhealthy cycle. So, if you've been avoiding your friends because you don't want to be a burden on them with your sadness, reach out and text a friend about something fun or interesting instead (not about your sadness.) If you've been holding everything in, make a choice to write a letter to your parents explaining how you feel,then read it to them too.

Practice Compassion

Do something soothing to take care of yourself. Take a walk or go get a manicure. Take a warm bubble bath. And don't forget to do something nice for someone else in your life too! When you can take the focus off of your inner experience and turn it into outward kindness, it has been proven to boost your mood.

Be Proactive

Make a list of activities and topics of discussion that you can use when you're feeling sad. In the midst of depression, it can be hard to even consider that life can be fun or that you can feel happy. When you can be proactive and have a list of activities you're willing to engage in ahead of time, all you have to do is commit to trying even one in those low moments to experiment with how they will improve your mood.

Get Support

Understand that you are not alone in your depression.  Research has shown that social support is one of the biggest predictors of your overall happiness and resilience.  If your teen feels alone in their experience, group therapy may be the recommended treatment option to help them gain peer support and feedback while also learning healthy and appropriate coping strategies to manage difficult feelings.  Click the button below to contact us and explore the next best steps to help your teen shift out of sadness.

Help your teen learn to give themselves a break

When an activity or event is overwhelming for your teen, best practice is to encourage them to take a break to calm down, then return to the activity when they are feeling more equipped and ready to tackle it.

It's important to note that breaks like this should be PLANNED and TEMPORARY and that too long of a break results in straight avoiding a stressful situation and that will only serve to make it more difficult in the end!

Help your teen come up with a list of activities or events that stress them out or overwhelm them. Knowing in advance what is going to be difficult will help you partner together to devise a "Cope Ahead Plan." Maybe you teen has difficulty with math homework, or maybe it's getting to school in the morning. Identify the trigger situations that cause distress so you can put a solid coping plan in place.

Be Mindful

Help your teen identify what thoughts, emotions and body sensations arise when they feel overwhelmed.

You may ask them...

"What goes through your head when this happens?"

"What differences do you notice in your body when you're feeling stressed?" (This could be tension, changes in heart rate or breathing patterns.)

"What emotions come up for you? Do you feel sad? Angry? Anxious?"

When you can identify the warning signs of stress you can head it off before it gets to the point of crisis and it gives your teen a clear indicator of when to actually use coping skills.

Come up with a solid list of ways to cope

Help your teen choose at least 5 activities to engage in when stress hits. This could be ways to distract them from the difficult feelings until they lessen, such as...

+ Journaling
+Listening to music
+Talking to a friend about something else +Taking a walk

It's important to have these activities chosen in advance and for your teen to have a list of them somewhere they can easily access so that when they are upset, they know exactly what to do. It can be difficult to make decisions or come up with a plan when emotions are swirling, so it's important to BE PROACTIVE.


Make a plan to return to the situation

Remember, coping skills are planned and temporary, so you need to decide when your teen feels ready to return to the situation too. This again should be something that is planned in advance when your teen is calm.

Ask them...

"What would let you know you were calm enough to return to the situation again?"

"How would your thoughts/feelings/body sensations be better or different?"

"What are the signs that you would notice that would let you know you were feeling calm enough to try again?"

Find a language for talking about mood intensity

Sometimes using a number system of 0 being completely calm and 10 being the most upset can help you and your teen decide on a good time to return to the activity as well as when it's time to take a break.

Some helpful ways to track moods include using a family journal, having your teen record a number daily on the calendar, or doing a daily text or spoken check in at the same time each day.