Talking with Teens– Try using authentic open-minded empathetic curiosity.


Quick Summary: For a teenager, the brain development is at a stage where they are generally dichotomous thinkers (black and white thinking – you are right or you are wrong – no middle ground). The thinking patterns of this developmental stage can make teens difficult to converse with when there is a disagreement. I find four interaction strategies to be of paramount importance in such an instance. I use authenticity, open-mindedness, empathy, and curiosity – With sincerity, I ask clarifying question that have the sole intention of better understanding the teen’s individual opinion and feelings; at the same time I avoid trying to get the teen to arrive at a universal ‘truth’.

To answer the question regarding the elephant in the room the answer is – YES, there are many adults that are still stuck in using primarily dichotomous thinking, the difference is that most adults are at a stage of brain development that would allow them utilize more open-minded thinking patterns.

Part of normal development for humans is to go through different stages of brain development, which are all characterized by fairly universal thinking patterns depending on a person’s age. In the beginning of life we all think that we are quite literally the center of the world – we then become teens and start categorizing the world using dichotomous thinking (I like that person or I don’t like that person) – By the time a human is in their senior years many have reached a point of acceptance with the concept that any instance can be good and bad – its all relative, and interdependent (there is no good without bad – “I am good and bad at the same time”).

The most common dichotomies that I’ve heard expressed (and that I expressed myself in my teenage years – and admittedly after as well:)) are the following: I am either independent or I am not independent (and they generally want to believe that they are independent), If a rule is valid than it should apply to everyone the same (“I should not be in trouble for drinking because you drink too”), I am right or I am wrong, If I am right (about any part of the argument) than you are wrong, and If you misspeak or are incorrect about any part of the argument then you are wrong.

So what do you do when you are in involved in a conflict with a teen (he/she got caught engaging in unsafe behavior – or they disagree with a rule or a task that you assigned to them)?

Try Authentic Open-minded Empathetic Curiosity

Reasons for:

Authentic – This pertains to the empathy and open-mindedness that you will present. You can’t fake it – so choose the time for your interaction wisely – such as when you feel like you are in control of your emotions. Try reminding yourself that your brain functions differently and look at the interaction as a unique chance to better understand the teen’s dichotomous thinking stage that you went through yourself in your teens.

Open-minded – If you approach the interaction with the belief that what the teen has to say is absolutely valid in some way or another then you will encourage the teen to express him/her self with greater depth and with less guarded emotions. Emotions are very important – If a teen believes that you are honestly listening (not being defensive) and that you are not openly threatening their independence – then the positive emotions that they hold for you will have a better opportunity to impact their decisions. (Remember the dichotomous thinking – “if you don’t listen to me – I don’t listen to you.”)

Empathetic – Try walking in their shoes and to honestly try and feel what they are going through. It can be hard being a teen and sometimes, if you listen empathetically, you might see that though their story line is unsafe and somewhat irrational – it does make a bit of sense given the way that they think.

-ex. “mom I had to get in the car with Dave even though he had been drinking cause if I didn’t he would have gone off with some other girl and besides, the police were coming and they always give out tickets to the kids that are left behind.” Now it might not be possible for you to accept that the teen was with a drunk driver, but it is possible for you to feel the teens fear around getting a tickets and to feel the teen’s insecurity about how she relates to the boy in the story.

Often the empathy you give will impact the empathy you will receive – so remaining empathetic increases the likelihood that the teen will feel your feelings concerning the decision that was made.

Curious – Though teens might be dichotomous thinkers they are neither stupid nor are they totally irrational. If you, as the adult, lecture too much they will often turn their focus on finding a fault in your logic (“but what if… no that is not true it was 10:00 and not 10:15 when I got home…”etc). If you approach the interaction with curiosity you will give the teen the opportunity to find the faults in their own logic… In my experience when a teen concludes by his or her self that they were wrong, the lesson is infinitely more valuable then when an adult tells them that they were wrong.


The most important aspect of this intervention: If this method increases the teen’s likelihood of simply talking with you then you have already done excellent work. The more that a teen engages with his/ her family the less likely they are to engage in many unsafe behaviors.

In in addition to these four interaction strategies I use emotional regulation and my understanding of the difference between knowledge and understanding (these methods will be in a future blog).

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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