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Supporting Teens Through Times of Crisis

My guest this week is Max Ziegenhagen. Max is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist here in Colorado Springs. His practice combines the disciplines of trauma and family therapy and much of his work focuses on teens and their families. This content is taken from our Instagram Live conversation and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Brooke: Max I wanted to talk with you today about teens because you work with a lot of teens, but also because this pandemic is such a hard time for them. Developmentally, this is a time in life when kids are social and when they are figuring out who they are. They figure out who they are by being around other kids and spending time in social circles. To have that removed is really difficult for them. So I want to talk a little bit about some of the ways parents can help their kids and how parents can help themselves in this unprecedented situation.

Max: I liked that you started off with the idea that socializing and interacting are a huge part of life as a teenager. Adolescence is when we make those primary connections that provide a foundation for the relationships we will have for the rest of our lives. As I am talking with a lot of teenagers right now, they are telling me that the whole experience of loneliness right now is very hard. They may have online platforms to connect for school and some social interactions, but it's not the same as being together. There is a difference and I think a lot of teenagers are really feeling that right now.

Brooke: Yeah, and that loneliness is showing up in behavior and not necessarily in emotional language, because not all teens have the emotional language to express what this feels like for them.

Let's get to our first question. It’s one I’ve heard a lot about and I think it's really heartbreaking.

Q: My senior is missing her prom and graduation. How can I help her make some meaning from all of this and process difficult emotions?

Max: That's a really important question because it is coming up a lot right now. Most people recognize how important these rites of passage really are for us and for our teenagers. As a culture we haven't had a lot within the last two decades that is what we would call “grief worthy.” I think 9/11 was a pretty significant crisis but having a crisis like this where we are stuck at home, where we aren't participating the same way, is a very, very new thing for all of us, even for us as parents.

I think it’s important to provide your teenager with some language to address what it's like to suffer or to grieve. In our culture and as individuals we are not good grievers. We don't really have an active process anymore for what it looks like to grieve something. We either talk about it for a moment and then try to push past it, or we put those feelings somewhere else and try to be fine or happy. What's going on right now isn't fine or happy. It's really sad, right?

Brooke: I agree and so giving them language and mourning with them is important. I think we need to create ritual around that grief. Regardless of what happens later, whether this is postponed and you get to have a prom or graduation, I think it's really important that we as parents and as a community find a way to create ritual around the thing that these teens have lost

Max: We've had rituals of grief all through our cultural history, such as wearing black for a year. We don't really have that anymore. One of the things that can be helpful is recognizing the fact that your teen’s desire for belonging and community and socialization reflect actual needs that are not being met. We need to understand how hard this is for a lot of high school seniors and teens. Not everybody feels it the same way, but everybody is experiencing it on their own, in their own space right now. That isolation is part of the grief. Normally, if something big happened we would get together with friends and talk about it. Now, a lot of that connection is either being done technologically, or it's not being done at all. Just giving them an opportunity to talk through their experience is vital,

Q: I was hoping to connect more with my teen now that we're all home, but she just stays in her room and on her screen and I feel disappointed and frustrated. What should I expect from her right now?

Max: It is a good question and one that I get frequently. When we are honest with ourselves we know that underneath the frustration there is some other emotion. This is a silly example, but if I were to kick somebody in the shin right now, they would probably get pretty frustrated with me. But they would be frustrated because they were hurt. They might also be sad that this “nice therapeutic individual” just attacked them, or afraid that I'm going to do it again. But anger or frustration or irritability is never the first emotion.

So sometimes we as parents have an opportunity to model to our teens what it looks like to interact with emotion. They may be distancing themselves in the same way that you're getting irritated. Sometimes when our expectations are left unmet it's in large part because those expectations were never truly communicated. We might be frustrated by our unmet expectations but we never just went to our teen to ask them “Hey, when would be a good time to spend some time together?” or “What could we do together that you would enjoy?” It starts with at least asking the question and seeking to connect.

Brooke: Being direct is vulnerable, right? Because there is the chance that your teen might say. “No, I'm not interested” or “I don't want to do that." And that might hurt. So sometimes it feels safer to hold onto the assumption that this interaction should happen. Then you don't have to really put yourself out there. But, connection and intimacy, what this parent is asking for, comes when we expose ourselves. It comes when we are vulnerable. That is a really important thing to remember. If we have a need we have to learn how to express that need.

Max: And maybe my teenager is nonverbally expressing their own need in their isolation. Maybe they want to feel more comfortable and they find comfort in their own space. Maybe they want to feel less stressed, or they want to deal with their own experience in their own way. Perhaps they don’t want to be controlled or forced into interaction. There is a vulnerability on the parent’s end to step into that. Because there may be a feeling of slight rejection that we have to work with in order to get to a more connected place.

Q: I'm having a really hard time getting my teen to socially distance. How do I help them understand the importance of what they are being asked to do? What is a reasonable expectation for my teen?

Max: Great question. I think the only way to help a teen acclimate to something is to first understand it from their perspective. Social distancing feels like a punishment. It is the loss of something that really matters. For some people it could be compared to the the loss of being able to eat. There is a real need that is left unmet.

I was driving to my parents house the other day to go on a social-distancing walk and I passed a school. I noticed that there were a couple of teenagers parked in their cars, about eight feet apart, with their trunks open. They were sitting there talking and interacting but they found a way to manage it. If we're going to attempt to manage our children's behavior, to help them acclimate to a new normal, we have to understand why It's hard in the first place.

Brooke: Yeah, I think I think it also goes to that idea that we were talking about at the very beginning. This is developmentally driven and appropriate for them to want to connect socially. And so if we think about developmental stages in life, it's like asking a toddler whose about to walk, not to walk and making them sit down. It's uncomfortable and painful and frustrating. So, we can help them understand the “why” but we can also try to find creative and meaningful ways to help them connect and meet their need for social interaction.

Max: I think that part is vital. If I were to come into your office and say “Brooke, you cannot do things this way” without engaging with you to find some sort of creative solution, then you are probably not going to respond very well. We have to be able to interact and come into their world to some degree. If they are really having a hard time not being able to socialize what would it look like to step into that with them and to find some solution?

Brooke: Right, so that they don't feel like they have to find a sneaky or unsafe way to feel connected. It is possible to find a way that is collaborative with parents and teens.

Max: And at the very least we can meet that base level need of comfort and understanding.

Brooke: Right. The message we send as parents should always be “I see you and I understand you”.

Q: How can show up emotionally for my teen when my emotions are all over the place and I feel anxious and uncertain?

Max: I think a lot of the time, especially in our culture, we carry this idea that we have to function at a certain capacity all the time. We may feel that the only way we can really help our teenager through their emotional experiences is to have ours totally managed.

But for a many teenagers one of the most productive experiences is recognizing that their parents have real emotions; to know that their parent also falls apart, also struggles, and is a real human being. A lot of the times these teenagers are holding themselves to completely unreasonable standards that are perpetuated by social media or even unintentionally perpetuated in our own houses to suggest that everything is fine.

The good news is that you don’t have to be fine as a parent to meet your child where they are at. Bringing your own emotion into the conversation can be a point in which you could both engage each other and get to a point where you feel more comfortable and more honest with how you feel. I think it’s ultimately about creating a relationship of mutual support as opposed to feeling like you need to conquer life on your own.

Brooke: I agree. I think it's the idea that we as parents do have feelings. We do feel overwhelmed and we do feel anxious and just because we're a couple decades older doesn't mean we never feel that anymore. I also think it is important to model how to feel our emotions. We can say things like “I am feeling sad and this is how I'm trying to deal with it”. “These are the things I'm trying to do to help manage my fear.”. “I wonder if doing the same would help you?”

Max: For us as adults it's also appropriate to recognize when you could use some additional help. A lot of us have not been given the language to deal with our emotional distress in a healthy way. Either we put our emotion away, or maybe eventually we explode because we waited too long to deal with a problem. I think reaching out for help and knowing when that's appropriate is important.

Q: How do we know it is time to seek outside help?

Max: I think it’s a hard question to answer but I always start at the place where someone feels stuck. If you're trying to fix it on your own and you're not moving forward. I think that is the best place to start.

Here’s an example. When I first moved to Colorado I met a friend who was excellent woodworker and he offered to allow me to use his wood-working space in his garage to build a table. I had no idea what I was doing. But I figured if they gave me the blueprints and the tools I should be able to manage it. What I found out within the first 30 minutes of standing awkwardly looking at tools and not knowing what to do was that I didn't actually know how to do it. I felt stuck. I felt like I should know, but it didn't, so I went by his house and said “Hey, I think I'm going to need more help on this then when I originally thought.” It was wonderful to have his expertise throughout the process, kind of coaching and guiding me. I still got to do a lot of the building, but it also wasn't mine to do on my own. I think that's where I was. When I started to feel stuck I asked for help.

Brooke: That is great advice for all of us. Thank you so much for talking with me today Max! I really appreciate it and look forward to more of these conversations in the future.

During Colorado's shelter in place Max is offering two FREE 30-minute Telehealth counseling sessions for anybody who is just starting counseling for the first time. After that 30-minute sessions will be offered at a half-rate.

You can find out more information at

or by calling 719-313-5846719 -

313 - 5846

Max Ziegenhagen, MA, LMFT

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