After 15 years as a high school teacher at urban schools, I realized adults widely misunderstand that teenagers do not want to talk to them. In fact, most crave finding an adult they can trust and have serious conversations about issues like sex, drugs, and death. G was a sophomore who was going blind from a rare degenerative disease and one day sought my guidance about a sexual orgy he accidentally got in involved in. Was it wrong? Would God send him to hell? Why was he now so anxious after?
Because I was an openly gay teacher, students every semester would come out to me, asking what the “gay scene” was like, or how to deal with a homophobic family. Sometimes, students would seek counsel about an unplanned pregnancy, about abortion. In one instance, a student sought counsel about her violent thoughts, and eventually checked herself into a psychiatric ward. Five separate times, students in my class were murdered and I accompanied my classes through mourning.
Unlike many pediatricians, a teacher has a lot of time with these young adults: daily, sometimes over years. Students often admit they spend more time with their teachers than their parents. I can’t give you that time, but here are some general tips.
Attitude promoting trust
My guiding attitude toward teens was that they were my equals. I would “do unto them as I would have them do unto me.” Not less, but also not more – because sometimes “more” can cloak condescension. When I was a student, I trusted teachers who shared their fears and mistakes, not performing under a confessional spotlight, but to establish commonality, to flatten hierarchy. I also trusted those who could set boundaries and wield authority compassionately. Because sometimes I needed a firm hand. And so, as an adult I tried to give this to my students as well.
Although my students and I were equals, our situations are different. That is true with gender, race, and class, and it is also true with adults versus teens. The first step toward treating someone authentically as an equal when in a position of authority is to understand the unique stressors of their life. That means asking questions and listening to what they need.
Stressors in a teen’s life
A typical high school junior or senior goes to work 8-10 hours a day. Unpaid. They sit for hours at a small desk in a small room with sometimes 34 others. Most of the time they cannot eat or use their phone. If they need to pee, they need to ask permission. They have to ask permission to speak. And then when they go home, they sit at a small desk again for homework. They often do not even have their own room. They also have to ask for permission to buy something for themselves, for money, for a ride anywhere. Their values are often compromised so they won’t get kicked out of a house or a class. The life of a teen is not at all “carefree” but largely prescribed and with little control.
When I think about my youth and how little freedom, privacy, and control I had compared with now, it softens my attitude to even the rudest student. (Isn’t rudeness often a sign of resistance against an oppressive system?) But, some may say, these teens do not have to worry about bills. But if I think back honestly to my teen years, would I trade the responsibilities I have now for those supposed carefree years? Carefree is not how most teens describe their lives but a nostalgic rosy retrospection adults assign. Almost all teens I taught would rather work to gain some control over their lives. Which is why so many work 4-5 hours after school on top of homework, giving up their weekends, and binding themselves to a “carefree” 60- to 80-hour work week.
Talking about drugs, sex, and mental health
It’s a good idea to first disarm teens of their fear of judgment or punishment, saying things like: “It’s normal to experiment with drugs, even hard ones.” The most successful, respected adults you see now have, so it’s not a reflection of who you are. Tell me what you’re worried about and it’ll be just between us.
After rapport is established, follow-up questions that elicit and affirm their feelings and thoughts can encourage more revelations: Do you think you have a problem? Why? How do you get your drugs and I’m curious only because finding that out can help us understand risks and solutions. What made you start? And keep on using?
Again, first disarm their fears: You can talk to me freely and confidently about sex: What you do, who you do it with, how you do it, and how often – I know that people are very different in their sexual interests and activities.
It is also good to set up clear boundaries. I had instances where students had romantic interest in me and would use these conversations as overtures. If you feel like your patient may be interested in you, then be explicit about boundaries: I’m a doctor who can point you to resources or offer treatments related to any sexual practice and its consequences, but that is all I am. Anything else is illegal and would end our patient-doctor relationship. (I would also immediately document the interaction and tell it to a witness.)
I never escalated incidences like this because I understood that most teens are naturally curious and often not taught about sexual boundaries, so I tried to make these encounters “teachable moments,” not punitive ones. Many teens are more aware of health consequences, like STDs or pregnancy, than psychological ones. So, it’s useful to ask: When you have sex outside your relationship, how does that make you feel? Does sex with multiple partners make you anxious or guilty afterwards? I like to use straightforward language and normalize taboo sexual practices with an even tone to allow teens to speak truthfully.
First, disarm and normalize: It is very common for people to have depression or thoughts of suicide. Most of the adults around you probably have and so have I (if that is true). Have you experienced this? Older teens often crave an intelligent open discussion about depression and suicide. If they look particularly distressed, I also tell them that I, and countless others, found strategies to deal with these thoughts. For most older teens, talking about causes of mental health issues and treatments is a breath of fresh air. This is especially true for teens from urban communities who have dealt precociously with death and violence, minority communities where mental health is often stigmatized, and young males whose machismo code can prevent them from acknowledging their feelings.
Some follow-up questions: Where do you think these thoughts come from? And if they don’t know: It’s perfectly normal for there to be no reason. The important thing is that they don’t last too long and that you know that. And if they do, then I can provide you resources and potential treatments.
Treating teens as equals by understanding their situation allows understanding and compassion for their stressors. This motivates an inquisitive and collaborative patient-centric approach that allows a sharing of sensitive topics like drugs, sex, and mental health.
Dr. Nguyen is a resident in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
*This story was updated on Nov. 3, 2022.