An individual and most certainly, many teenagers may have problems expressing him or herself clearly. Getting a teenager to communicate clearly and deeply can be very frustrating. “I don’t know what he/she is thinking or feeling? All I get is… nothing!” Facilitating clear expression of feelings and thoughts can be very difficult with many people. A major root of dysfunctional relationships is the poor communication between any two or more people- whether that is between a teenager and parent, student and teacher, or between two partners. There are four requirements for self-expression; an individual must be:
- Connected to Own Feelings/Process
To express oneself, an individual must be able to be introspective. The ability to look into oneself and contemplate and savor ones experiences, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable for some individuals, especially insecure teenagers. Intense life experiences, especially trauma that demand high sensitivity and vigilance to moment-to-moment dangers may not have allowed for much introspection. Adolescence with its many demands can be extremely stressful for some youth. Note and react can become the survival habit of such an individual.
Introspection also may not have been fostered and even may have been discouraged for some individuals. American adolescent culture, especially for boys (not just Nike) may glorify and avoid introspection with the slogan, “Just do it.” When working with an impulsive teenager, one may realize that the assertions, “Whatever” or “Screw it!” or “F—k it!” are almost inevitably followed by a poor choice. The “Whatever!” game so to speak can be a practically purposeful non-consideration of relevant concerns because of some compelling or compulsive desire for the problematic behavior. It may be for example, really wanting to stay out late with friends so considering that he/she may be too exhausted to get up to go to school tomorrow is avoided. “What about school tomorrow?” “Whatever!” Or, being dared to do something exciting and risky. “Is that a good idea? Looks dangerous.” “Screw it!” Each of these expressions asserts an avoidance of self-examination about why one might want or be tempted. There is no deeper examination of the context and the consequences of potential actions- including how much trouble one can get into. There may be other experiences or cultural models that may further minimize introspection.
If anyone is able to be introspective and contemplate his/her processes, he/she may begin to gain insight about his/her thinking, feelings, habits, aversions, needs, and so forth. Adults actively try to promote such development in their children and teenagers- sometimes with their active resistance! Insight also depends on developmental maturity and wisdom acquired from others (but what others?!). Stressful or traumatic experiences however tend to blunt or stall intellectual, emotional, and psychological development. In addition, family or cultural expectations or religious dogma may foster or hinder development of insight. In some situations, fostering understanding and insight is considered essential to healthy development. Explaining the rationale, logic, or process of decisions and behavior helps the individual learn principles to apply to new experiences and challenges. This proves to be a functional and adaptive process for changing and evolving relationships and community demands.
Teenagers struggle with transitioning from being dependent children becoming supposedly independent adults in few short years. Established relationships are adapted if not lost to meet evolving demands and needs. What worked before may not work as a teenager, reaching puberty, becoming sexual, and trying out new roles. Moreover, in certain families, communities, and societies, the individual is directed to and focused instead on conforming to established behaviors. The “right” or correct choice is the decision or behavior pre-determined by cultural edict, or whether it draws punishment or not from family or community members. Teenage peers can ironically be particularly harsh about what is deemed “cool” behavior. Following the peer or group directives may be useful only to the extent whether the choice or action does or does not comply with established standards or gets one into trouble. A conservative approach is intended to maintain and perpetuate consistency within the family, community, or society that is assumed to be in of itself to be consistent. However, even minimal insight can become problematic if there are changes and new demands. Joining together as a couple, in a job, or any group is an inherent change with new demands where the previous “right” or correct choices of the prior culture may prove ineffective. This may not just be transitioning from a family model to some teen set of expectations, but also from shifting from one teen peer group to another teen peer group.
Introspection hopefully leads to insight about and furthermore, to connection to ones feelings. Since a healthy relationship depends on sharing feelings and vulnerability, inability to understand and own ones feelings precludes a deeper intimacy. A teenager can also be extremely emotional to the extent that he or she gets flooded or overwhelmed (imagine that? emotional teenagers?!). The lack of insight may cause such a teenager to be “over connected” to his or her feelings, and become highly reactive without the ability to judiciously channel emotional energy productively. Insight about temperamental, trauma, and/or cultural contributions to emotional intensity can lead to adaptations for more productive expression of feelings. Introspection, insight, and emotional self-connection may be expressed when and if the teenager has acquired the means and skills for articulation. The experience and practice of articulating feelings is supported or discouraged by the family and/or peers.
Say It… Show It
The effectiveness of communication development may not be from teaching skills, but be from an adult providing articulation examples and models for the teenager. One may be introspective, have insight, and be emotionally self-connected but have trouble articulating it verbally and/or non-verbally. Communication nonverbally with facial expression and body language and behavior may not have been received or interpreted accurately by another person. Verbal expression, which may not have been familiar or well-practiced by some individuals, often becomes essential to convey intention and meaning of nonverbal communication. Modeling is most beneficial by helping teenagers learn the verbal “language” of intimacy and relationships. Or conversely, by teaching the nonverbal “language” of intimacy and relationships. So the first answer to how to get your teenager to express him/herself with depth and emotion is YOU do it first! Adults who are able to be introspective and thus, become insightful about themselves show their teenagers how to do it! And create the possibility of seeing and experiencing it working for better relationships and intimacy. Once again, one is reminded that good relationships are mutual and reciprocal. More with the next blog on facilitating self-expression.