Rash Behavior Disguises Thoughtfulness of Teens, and Other Secrets of Their Lives
Longtime mental health counselor Jon Mattleman spoke at Braintree High School this week.
Picture the nasty weather this week – a mix of snow, sleet and rain blowing around at high speeds – and imagine that inside the head of a teenager.
"It is really chaotic, it doesn't make sense to them," Jon Mattleman, a mental health counselor, told parents gathered at Braintree High School Wednesday night for "The Secret Life of a Massachusetts Teen," an event put on by the Braintree Alliance for Safe and Healthy Youth.
"Inside they want to share their fears, they want to share their joys and more," Mattleman said.
But often the largest barrier to healthy communication is parents themselves.
One of the secrets Mattleman shared with the group gathered in the auditorium is that teens really do want parents to listen to them, even if they consistently demonstrate the opposite. It is difficult for teens to feel heard and supported if every time they talk about a test or a social problem they are critiqued or the parent tries to fix the issue.
"The best way we can help our kids is just to shut up," Mattleman said. "We have to stop fixing."
Parents often find their best conversations with their kids are in the car, and when they look back at younger years they picture their children listening raptly just before bedtime. Using those clues, Mattleman developed a system where he turns off the lights during serious discussions so that both he and his children can avoid eye contact.
"Talking in the dark is a really wonderful thing," he said.
Teenagers' biggest complaint to Mattleman during therapy sessions is not that they feel restricted by curfews or other boundaries, but instead that they feel disrespected. "That's the end of the game," he said.
Mattleman encouraged the parents in attendance to attach importance to everything – large or small – that their teen says, does and thinks. When it comes to poor decision-making surrounding alcohol drugs and other behavior, Mettleman tells parents that teens do things for a good reason, no matter how bad the outcome.
For instance, one day during high school Mattleman's son came home drunk. Instead of jumping to a punishment, Mattleman said he forced his son to consider his behavior over several hours and discussions. His son ultimately told Mattleman that he drank because he was interested in alcohol, he wanted to impress older students and an empty house was available.
Making teens think about their decisions can be even more important than reacting with a quick punishment, he said. Children know the values of their parents just by living with them for years.
Mattleman's final decision in the case of his son drinking was right along those lines: the young man chose a punishment that involved talking to his dad in the dark for two hours and then attending an AA meeting.
"Our kids have a lot of secrets from us," Mattleman said. "Largely they have secrets from us because they don't like to disappoint us."
Mattleman said he encourages parents to reach out to him with follow-up questions. His website is http://jonmattleman.com.
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