I’m used to talking to parents, whether in my articles or in my sessions with them, about how to help their teenagers make stressful adjustments we’ve all had to make at some point in our lives. What qualifies us to teach our teens is that we’ve been through it before and have gained wisdom from lived experience. But what about the things we haven’t figured out yet?
When we talk to our kids about stress, we often focus on familiar subjects like academic pressure or social challenges. But one of the top sources of stress for today’s teens is the constant stream of troubling news about what’s happening in our world. Whether it’s climate change, global conflict, or the widening gap between rich and poor, our kids are looking at a world that’s not reinforcing our hopeful messages to them about their futures. What can we do to prepare our kids for life in a world that seems like it’s at least a little bleaker than the world we grew up in?
It’s tempting to avoid certain subjects and try to take the edge off of difficult conversations with comforting platitudes. You might even feel angry when your teen brings up a thorny topic at an inopportune moment like a family gathering. But if we refuse to talk to our kids about real issues in an authentic way, we deprive them of the benefits of talking things out. By speaking honestly with teens about tough social and political issues, we send the message that their concerns and emotions are valid and that there is hope even when we can’t find a solution right away.
You might be willing to talk to your child about their worries but might not know how or where to begin. The truth is there’s no wrong place to begin: even an awkward conversation is better than none at all. Your attempt to talk about something you find difficult will show to your teen that you care both about them and the world. But there are ways to do it well. Following these five simple principles can give you an edge the next time something tough comes up.
1. Tell the Truth
What does it mean to tell the truth when we’re not sure what the truth is? The first step is being honest about what we don’t know. Not only is “I don’t know” the right and honest answer a lot of the time, there are many times it’s actually the best answer to your teen’s question.
If your kid asks about a complicated social problem we haven’t yet solved, you’re not on the hook as a parent to figure out how to achieve world peace or save the rainforest so you have something nice to say to your kid. Sure, it’s scary for our kids when they realize we don’t have the solutions, but they’re going to figure out that we don’t anyway, and when they do, our refusal to even talk about the things we fear only makes those things scarier.
One way to assuage anxiety about issues no one’s figured out yet is to talk about the people who are actively trying to figure them out and any progress they’ve made. Bonus points if you’re one of those people and can talk about what you’re doing about an issue at work, school, or home.
2. Acknowledge the Negative
The same principle applies when you do know an answer, but that answer is disturbing. It’s a good practice not to tell younger kids unsettling truths because they don’t have the cognitive or emotional skills to process them. But teens do have those skills. In fact, what they’re doing a lot of the time when they lock themselves in their rooms is trying to find ways to come to terms with difficult feelings and thoughts—not just about their social lives, but also about the world at large.
In the same way it helps us to talk to other adults when we hear something terrible on the news, it will help your teen to talk about it instead of just ruminating in their room. And here’s where your adult wisdom comes in: if there’s something you do or believe that helps you when you’re scared or sad, tell your teen about it. Maybe you think about the brave or kind acts others are doing to try to make a difference, like people who rescue wildlife from fires or distribute coats to homeless people who are cold. And maybe you find prayer, meditation, or even just going for a walk helpful. Share these tips with your teen!
We all like to stay positive when we can, but our resistance to negativity can backfire and become a source of emotional struggle. When we’re confronting something negative, trying to act like it doesn’t exist only intensifies our tension and anxiety. Admitting to your teen that frankly, some things suck right now can be a huge relief for both of you.
3. Listen to What Your Kid Has to Say
I don’t know about you, but when I was a teen, I was bursting with ideas about how to save the world. When kids get old enough to ponder big questions, they start coming up with their own answers, too. Their intuitive and spontaneous ideas are often the same things we’ve tried that haven’t worked. Sometimes, though, they’re genius! Potential solutions for ocean pollution include an ocean cleanup machine invented by a 17-year-old and a solution using “magnetic liquid”devised by an 18-year-old.
Your teen doesn’t have to invent a genius world-saving solution for it to be worth your while to listen to their ideas. Simply giving them a place and time to express themselves can help them process issues emotionally and feel like they matter. Refusing to listen or to talk about tough topics can make teens feel passive and helpless, while talking and listening to them empowers them. Sending the message that their thoughts are important encourages them not to give up when they feel overwhelmed.
What if your kid isn’t coming up with solutions but is telling you that they feel hopeless? First, listen for warning signs that they are depressed, in which case you may need to enlist professional help from a therapist. If they’re just venting, don’t shut them down—but do remind them of reasons for hope. It’s inauthentic to pretend there’s no problem, but it’s not fake to acknowledge that humanity has overcome seemingly hopeless circumstances before.
4. Problem-Solve Together
Another thing we can do for our teens when we don’t have the answers is model the problem-solving process for them. Of course, when your kid has a personal problem, you help them come up with solutions. You can do the same for bigger problems—even if you don’t figure them out, you can shift the atmosphere by transforming a problem into a puzzle. Turn a tense conversation into a fun night of creativity by breaking out the pens and markers and sketching out solutions with your kid.
Maybe markers aren’t your thing. You can still brainstorm and talk things out. Discuss articles you’ve read about others’ ideas for how to fix large-scale issues. Talk about whether you think the ideas will work. If you don’t think the ideas will work, suggest alternatives. If you do think the people you’re reading about are on to something, talk about ways you can support the work they’re doing, including spreading awareness about it.
The truth is, as much as we resist difficult subjects in our culture, we’re not so great at covering positive work by social innovators, either. But it’s out there. Engage in some internet research and you might be surprised by what you find. You and your kid might uncover a hopeful new development that puts the issue in a new light.
5. Instill Hope
While a lot of things are different for our teens than they were for us, the world isn’t as different as it seems. We all grew up with social and political problems that weren’t easy to figure out. Whether it was the struggle for civil rights, terrorism, or the threat of nuclear warfare, we all grew up fearing big disasters and learning that our parents didn’t have the answers, either. For all the things we still haven’t fixed, though, there are so many things that are better now.
As much as it might seem like adolescents don’t want to look to us for inspiration, they often do. Knowing that their parents got through something like what they’re dealing with right now helps them feel connected to something bigger than themselves. Tell them about things you heard or saw in the news growing up that worried you and then tell them how things did improve.
You might know a sibling, parent, or friend who has an even better story. Maybe they ducked under their desks for nuclear bomb drills, sat at a segregated lunch counter, or helped clear a polluted river. Invite them over or go for a visit! It’s one thing to read about something in a textbook, another to hear someone you know talk about how it felt to be there and to take part.
Your kid will naturally imagine themselves in a similar situation as they listen to others’ stories. They may feel inspired! Support them if they want to engage in community service or do something else to help. Taking action counteracts feelings of helplessness and can make us feel better while also helping others in our communities.
It can be overwhelming when your kid comes to you with a problem you can’t fix. But it can also be a teachable moment. By listening to what they have to say, acknowledging difficult truths, and modeling the problem-solving process, you can give your teen hope—as well as tools to help them deal with their anxiety, anger, or sadness.
By talking about issues people have resolved in the past, you can show your child that there are ways to solve even the most complex and difficult social problems. By talking about the work people are doing right now to make the world better, you can inspire them with a vision of the future where they can join in with others to make a difference. When we listen and engage with them, we validate our teens’ thoughts and feelings and empower them not to feel helpless.
If you feel like you’ve gotten stuck in a negative cycle with a teenager who’s angry about complex issues, you may need a little more help. A counselor or therapist can set up a family session to help you work on your communication or can meet with your teen individually to help them process their emotions. The most important thing is to hold on to hope—things do get better as we work on our problems, both personally and in the wider world.