Never has the adage “I was a teenager once too, you know” been more tone deaf to the experience of being a teenager than it is today. So much has changed in the past decade-plus, in ways that have altered the DNA of how kids communicate with one another, entertain and distract themselves, stay connected or don’t, relate with family members, acquire information about the world, and plan for their futures, among many other things.

A lot of the changes are welcome, and long past due. The embracing of mental health care among youth, and the national dialogue about it that they have brought forward is unprecedented and noteworthy.

But other changes? Not so much. The explosive growth of social media and its ubiquitous presence in kids’ lives is devastatingly consequential. It robs children and teenagers of their curiosity, creativity, and imagination. Boredom becomes unendurable, as does the silence filling bedrooms at night when not bombarded by the cacophony of You Tube and TikTok. In addition, the pervasiveness and popularity of social media provides fertile soil for a peer culture in which harsh criticism and judgment reign.

What troubles me most, though, is probably what troubles teenagers and their families the most: the lonely sense of disconnectedness that many members feel while in close physical proximity of one another. It’s like Mary Pipher wrote in her book, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families: “being thirsty in the rain.”

 

What does this mean for how we practice therapy with our teenage clients?

Years ago, I was asked by Psychotherapy Networker magazine to comment on a case study in which the counselor/author, Howard Honigsfeld, a school social worker in the South Bronx, talked about the value of what he described as the “homelier” values of therapy — things like compassion, patience, and common sense; in other words, those values or skills that are often overshadowed by high-tech interventions or complicated methodologies. I loved that, and appreciated the gentle pushback against trainings that highlighted acronyms and prescribed techniques and manualized protocols at the expense of warmth and clinical sensibility.

So maybe that’s the place for us to start with these kids: not with manuals or itemized treatment plans or psycho-educational worksheets. Maybe the place to start is with a robust and unpretentious therapeutic relationship characterized by emotional intimacy, candor, respect for the person of the client, and a cultivation of hope and play and thoughtfulness, along with a conversation that has the teen coming back for more.

I believe that’s how we can offer young clients antidotes to their loneliness, disillusionment, complacency, and untethering. It’s how we can model for them the value of relationship repair and empathic accountability regarding the impact of their choices on those around them. It’s where we can demonstrate how apologizing can feel good, explain that being right is a victory in name only, and encourage both the expression and acceptance of small gestures of care.

One more thing we can do: Push back against all the messaging to adolescents that they need to know before college what they want to do for the rest of their lives, robbing them of opportunities to see a bigger and more differentiated world and self before deciding, thus turning post-secondary educational institutions into nothing more than dressed up trade schools.

Fred Rogers, the beloved creator, show runner, and host of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, remains a hero of mine for many reasons, one of which was his commitment to talking about those experiences that make us bigger human beings — moments of connection and wonder, and an openness to that which we may not yet know or understand. His model of empathy and acceptance and kindness is a perfect antidote to the cynicism and guardedness that’s infected large swaths of our citizenry. Maybe his program wasn’t just for children after all.