Communicating to Connect

Ever been in a conversation with someone and walk away feeling frustrated and wondering how you could possibly view the same incident so very differently? I see this often when working with couples and families and in my own life. It is so easy to get tripped up on a word or phrase and completely miss the real message your loved one is trying to share.

Communicating to connect takes some intentional relearning of our speaking & listening skills. Rather than communicating to defend or prove your point as the end goal, imagine how powerful conversations could be if you listened with connection as the ultimate success? Connecting communication fosters healthy attachment, intimacy, trust, and builds stronger relationships. Here are a few guidelines that can move you toward connecting communication:

For the Speaker: Use I-messages. Speak from your experience, feelings, and thoughts. Share “I feel (feeling word) because (event).” rather than “you always…”. Make sure to use feeling words (sad, excited, disrespected, hurt, happy, mad, etc.) to describe your experience. Sometimes we say “I feel that you are…” which is using the I statement format but ultimately is not sharing your experience or feelings. Try to speak concisely so the listener can follow and reflect well.

For the Listener: Your job is a tough one, so get centered, calm, and prepared to listen. If you start to feel anything that gets in the way of listening well, call a time-out until you can listen fully. Mirror and reflect what your loved one is saying, like “You are feeling disappointed that I haven’t listened to you. You are frustrated that I missed what you are saying and you are feeling unheard.” Use lead in phrases like “What I hear you saying is..”. Check in to make sure you are getting the message right after reflecting with a simple phrase like, “Did I get that right?” Once you know you are hearing the message correctly, offer validation and empathy. Empathy & validation looks like “It makes sense to me that you feel that way because ____.” You can offer empathy & validation whether or not you agree with their perspective. Remember connecting communication is about hearing & seeing one another, not about proving why your perspective is superior.

Communicating to connect is hard work and can yield great results. Start practicing as a listener and notice how your conversations change!

Caring for Your Struggling Teen


Prevalence rates of teen depression and anxiety have risen significantly in recent years. While the causes of the rise remains speculative, many parents are left unsure how to help their struggling teen.

First of all, know the signs of teen depression. If you are concerned that your teen may be struggling, try talking to them about your concerns at a time when you are both available and calm. Be open & curious about your teen’s experience, and share your concern from a place of love. Getting your teen to open up about their inner world can feel like pulling teeth, I get it. Your teen may not want to talk with you about their feelings, but be sure they are connected to some safe adult who they can share with - perhaps a professional therapist, teacher, school counselor, youth leader, mentor, family member, etc.

As I work with teens struggling with depression and anxiety, I’ve come across a few common pitfalls that well meaning parents tend to fall into. Here are a few responses to avoid that are not helpful:

  • “Be positive!” Many teens I work with report feeling pressured to put on a smiling face, to be positive, to have a good attitude, etc. when around their parents in an effort to overcome their depression. Depression is not a choice nor a lack of resiliency. Treatment may involve examining thought patterns, but this best left to a professional. Teens I work with that feel pressured to put on a smiling face and be positive often end up hiding their depression from family, not healing it.
  • “Snap out of it!” - Some parents will try to help their teen with depression by telling them to simply stop feeling that way. This may come across in subtle interactions, frustration from the parents about symptoms, threatening “If you don’t…. then…”, or even the teen getting in trouble for their depression. Remember that depression is not a choice. If it was, most people would choose to feel differently in a heartbeat.
  • “This will pass.” - While this is true, depressive episodes do not last forever, it can feel dismissive or minimizing to your teen’s experience in the moment. I’ve noticed that many parents seem to be more comfortable with the idea of situational or circumstantial depression rather than the possibility of chemical or enduring depression. Let your professional team work with your teen to determine the root of depression and instead aim to understand what it feels like for your child right now.
  • Ignoring it - Depression can be deadly if untreated and typically will need treatment to get better. If you see the signs or have concerns, please do not ignore it. Talk with your child.

Here’s what many of my teen clients report they do want from their parents:

  • Understanding - First and foremost, my clients talk about wanting their parents to trust their experience and try to understand where they are coming from, even if their parent doesn’t get it completely. Avoid responding with “I see, but…” and instead say things like “Thanks for sharing, can you tell me more about what that’s like for you?”
  • Responsiveness - If your child comes to you expressing their concern about depression, anxiety, or another mental health concern, work with them to get help promptly. It takes a great deal of courage to have that conversation, and acting promptly to get your teen help conveys that you hear them, care for them, and are taking them seriously.
  • Ask how you can support them - Rather than assuming you know how to help or what your child needs, ask what you can do to support their healing and what you have been doing that may be unhelpful. Be receptive and open hearted to feedback. Some teens may want you to ask how they’re doing, others want to have space, some may want you to help them notice when they are spiraling, others feel annoyed by that. Negotiate together how you can honor their needs and still be involved in their healing.

If you are concerned about your teen and want to get them in for treatment, or need some coaching about how to care for them well, reach out today.

Building Resilience in Your Child

Watching your child endure disappointment, heartbreak, and setbacks is heart-wrenching. Perhaps watching them make mistakes, knowing disappointment is right around the corner, is even more challenging! Whether they are 5 or 25 years old, it can be tempting to step in to protect your child from pain. The extreme of this is what we call helicopter parents: hovering over their kids, intervening for them, making decisions for them, fighting their battles, and protecting them from consequences. While it can be tempting to fight those battles for your child, the best way to develop resilience in your child is to allow them to endure small hurts and disappointments. Children who rarely experience small hurts, boundaries, or consequences will struggle when bigger struggles inevitably cross their paths. As your children survive bumps along the way, they learn to tolerate distress, grow, and make better decisions in the future.

Part of your job as a parent is to equip your child to be a healthy, happy, and successful adult. One day your child will have to navigate conflict in their relationships, personal struggles, difficult coworkers, and financial choices all on their own. Moving out of the house does not magically bring about these life skills, they are learned and practiced at home throughout childhood. As parents, you can create safe boundaries within which your child can practice (and fail!) navigating those difficulties. Giving your child the freedom to make those decisions and deal with the consequences of their actions can be a huge learning opportunity and confidence builder.

Try to identify small, age-appropriate tasks that your child can learn to navigate on their own. For example, it may be appropriate to talk with your elementary aged child’s teacher about school concerns, but middle and high school aged kids can learn to talk to their teachers about homework and grade concerns by themselves. It is important that these tasks are small and the consequences are ones that your child can endure. Remember, it is also your job to protect your child from harm!

Whatever the issue, help your child brainstorm solutions, create a plan together, and help your child to execute that plan on their own. It is important that your child learn that their choices are connected to their consequences. Maybe it is the parent’s job to make their child’s lunch, but the child’s responsibility to remember to bring it with them. If they forget their lunch, they may have to skip lunch that day. Perhaps you and your middle school aged child make a plan to tackle a big project with you checking in daily -if your child chooses to procrastinate to the last minute, he or she may get a poor grade or be sleepy at school from staying up late to finish.

As your child grows they will be able to brainstorm, plan, and execute more and more on their own. Along the way, ask your child “What are you feeling? What do you need? How can I help you?” As your child learns to tolerate small setbacks, they will be better prepared to handle bigger disappointments down the road.

How to Listen so your Kids will Open Up

Just as children navigate new developmental stages, so parents must learn to relate to their children differently in each stage. This can be extremely difficult, especially when your sweet little one who used to share everything with you is navigating the adolescent years and suddenly wants nothing to do with mom and dad. Many parents are curious about how to better relate to their child so that they are willing to open up and share about their life.

Remember, your adolescent is learning how to become more independent, and will inevitably start to push a bit further away from the family. This is normal, and good! Your relationship will change as they learn to become more independent, to develop more intimate friendships, and form their identity. As a parent, you will likely not be your teenager's go to processing buddy, and information may become more limited. With that in mind, here are a few tips in how to cultivate a space where your teen will continue to share with you.

1. Get curious (but not too curious). Casually ask about your child's day, what was great and difficult about their day, what they love right now, what they may need. Let them teach you about the teenage landscape. Remember that teenagers become suspicious and often shut down when they feel they are being interviewed or interrogated. If your teen starts to shut down, ask them "It seems like you don't want to talk right now. I may be asking too many questions, is that right? Maybe we can talk more later."

2. Create a family culture where it is safe to share deeply. If the adults are not modeling how to share about feelings, talk about difficulties, or share joys, teenagers will not magically start talking about their deepest struggles and pains. Work on creating a family culture where everyone can feel safe to share (or not share) as they need. Around the dinner table make a habit of sharing your highs and lows from the day, put a feelings word list up on your kitchen, and practice using feeling words to help give your kids the language to talk about their internal world. When appropriate, share your own struggles that are still in process, not merely ones that have already been figured out.

3. Reflect back. Rather than jumping in with a solution to a struggle, learn to reflect back what your child is saying. Aim to reflect both content and the emotion behind it. If your child shares about a tricky friend situation, you may say "Wow, this conflict with your friends is messy, and you're feeling confused as to what to do." If your child seems irritable in the midst of a big project, you may say "You seem pretty stressed about this presentation," rather than "Why did you procrastinate to the last minute?" Reflective listening communicates care about your child's day and internal world, while respecting their desire to solve their challenges on their own.

4. Ask for feedback. Children and teens are rarely given a voice to make decisions or speak up for themselves. They are often spoken for, preached at, or have decisions made for them. If your child is consistently shutting down in conversations at home, notice it with them and ask what they may need instead. For example, "Tommy I notice that when I ask about your day, you give me one word answers. I really care about you and want to know how you're doing. What could I do differently that would help?" This could be as simple as giving the child 30 minutes of down time after school before asking about their day or planning for homework. Ask when they feel heard, what kinds of things you can do to support them, how you can respect their privacy and independence while staying involved in their life. They may surprise you with their answers!

5. Get in the car. Any parent that has driven carpool can attest to the world of information that opens up when your kids share with their friends in the car. It's as if the children completely forget that an adult is present, and the parent gets a sneak peak into their child's world. If you hear something in the car that your child hasn't shared with you, don't use this against them as a secret weapon. Instead, follow up with a gentle question later when friends aren't around. Teenagers in particular may be intimidated by face to face conversations with adults. They are often more comfortable when sitting parallel, just like what happens in the car. If your child tends to open up more in the car, take them with you for an errand, put your phones away, and let them fill the silence. Car rides are great times to ask open ended questions.

If you are really struggling to maintain a positive relationship with your teen, don't be afraid to reach out for help!

Girls & Sex

I recently read Peggy Orenstein’s book Girls & Sex then attended a workshop she hosted for Bay Area parents about the changing landscape of adolescent female sexuality. (Side note: This is exactly the type of hot pink, bold front cover books that therapists read on airplanes and in coffee shops that turn heads.) Professionally and personally, I have spent a lot of time with young women navigating the pressures, challenges, expectations, and relationships of the high school and college years.

With young girls I know personally, I see the type of selfies & photos that are posted online, and that photos that show more skin tend to get more likes & more comments. The same behavior is modeled from celebrities and marketed as some freedom of sexual expression. Peggy argues that this self-objectification does not reclaim power for females, it merely trades the appearance of sexiness for money, fame, or approval. It continues the idea that worth is received from the outside in, rather than than inside out. The sexual economy of the digital age is changing faster than we can catch up in conversations at home. What we see online is a symptom of a greater problem, the divorce between looking sexy versus experiencing sexuality.

Girls & Sex is a must read for parents of both girls & boys who live at home. Peggy reveals the ineffectiveness of our current sex education, both at home and in schools. Our system has woefully failed our young women in awareness of their own bodies, empowering them to voice their needs and desires, and preparing them for pleasure in relationships rather than focusing only on avoiding pain & risks. Without information, kids are turning to pornography as a sex education of sorts.

Peggy tackles the big issues like the effects of pornography, lacking definition of virginity, slut and prude shaming, the exponential rise in casual oral sex (female to male), young women becoming spectators rather than present to sexual experience, sexting, the problem of sexual assault, and the notion of hook-up culture. Peggy argues for intimate justice, the idea of reciprocal, mutually satisfying, joy filled, respectful and responsible sexual experiences.

In order to empower our young women for joy, equality, and agency in their sexuality, conversations must start at home -- and the earlier the better. Girls & Sex was at times an overwhelming read, but an essential pulse on the current landscape of female sexuality. Pick up your own copy today & discuss it with other parents and your own children.

For a teaser of some of Peggy’s work, read “Parents need to talk to their daughters about the joys of sex, not just the dangers”, an article posted in the Washington Post.