Catholic counselor gives advice for connecting with teens


For 30 years, Roy Petitfils has been hearing teenagers say how much they want a meaningful relationship with their parents.

When they don’t get that, they start substituting other things, many of them destructive.

“Your relationship with your teen is the whole ballgame,” Mr. Petitfils, an internationally-recognized expert in understanding and raising teens, told about 200 adults Oct. 24. “Not this school, not the teachers, not Trump, not Clinton — not anyone. You’re relationship as parent, grandparent or guardian is the ballgame.”

With energy, insight and self-effacing humor, he challenged parents to spend time and energy connecting with their sons and daughters, in the deliberate absence of technological distractions.

He cited some of the factors that make raising teens difficult in the current age: 24/7 access to social media; peer-pressure and self-image issues; videogames and gaming culture; unrealistic expectations for success; alcohol and drugs; stress and loneliness; the breakdown of the traditional family; toxic public discourse and a fear-infected society.

He said teens long for a strong bond with parents or adult guardians, but providing that is often more work than most parents realize.

“Three things: We need to work at understanding, reaching and influencing the young people in our life,” he said.

Too often, adults “go straight for the jugular” and try to influence teens before working to understand and reach them.

“That is a mistake,” he said. “We cannot reach people when we do not understand.”

Teens often clam up when their parents ask such open-ended questions as, “how was your day?”

Mr. Petitfils suggested asking them to rank their day on a scale of 1 to 10.

“If they say it was a 5, ask them why it wasn’t an 8,” he said. “That might get them talking. Then maybe ask why it wasn’t a 2.”

By showing genuine interest and concern, adults leave the door open for teens to talk to them later about whatever might be bothering them. 

“When’s the best time to talk to teens? Whenever teens want to talk!” he said.


Centered on truth

Mr. Petitfils was born into poverty. His single mom worked four jobs to pay partial tuition for him at a Catholic school because she knew it was the only way for him to escape that poverty.

As a teen, he used food to “medicate” the pains of loneliness and anger he felt as a result of her working so much.

He weighed 535 pounds by the time he graduated from high school.

He got a job in a foundry, where he met people who listened to him and helped him get his life back on track.

Later, after spending five years in the seminary and then teaching religion and serving as a campus minister, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in counseling.

He felt driven to show that the language of spirituality and religion could be blended with that of the social sciences.

“There’s one truth,” he said. “We’re all looking for it, and we’re all going to take a different path to it. But I see no real disagreement between social sciences and spirituality.”

He’s now in private practice, counseling mostly adolescents. He and his wife Mindi have two young sons, Max and Ben.

He has posted 87 free podcasts on his website and makes frequent livestreams on Facebook. 

He has written several books including his latest, What Teens Want You to Know But Won’t Tell You.

His next book, Helping Teens With Stress Anxiety and Depression: A Guide for Catholic Parents and Educators and Ministers, is scheduled to be released in February.


Stress and emotions

Mr. Petitfils pointed out that the teen brain is a unique creation, with the portion that processes emotion fully developing several years before the part that handles executive decision-making catches up.

That’s why “you will never enjoy something as intensely as you did when you were a teenager,” he said. “Your brain does not have the capacity to produce the amount of dopamine that the adolescent brain does. Nor does it have the hair-trigger.”

This disparity can leave adolescents particularly vulnerable to generalized anxiety, insecurity and depression.

Especially in boys, the anxiety expresses itself through aggression and even bullying.

In some cases, it can lead to physical ailments and even to thoughts of suicide.

Furthermore, because of all the growth and changes happening inside their brains and bodies, adolescents are more susceptible to addiction to substances such as alcohol and marijuana when they’re exposed to it, he said.

He called to mind an axiom about the development of brain cells: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

“For most young people today, (the neurons in their brain) are firing on the technology and machines,” he said. “This tends to make them very tech-savvy but very inefficient when it comes to one-on-one interaction.”

For that reason, teens need their parents to help them learn how to relate and communicate in person, without a smart phone in sight.

“The social skills they learn from us are as important as the math they’re learning in school,” he said.

He urged parents and teachers to promote in children and teens a Christian understanding of success. For too many adolescents, a secular view of success leads to unachievable expectations and tons of stress.


“Shut up and listen”

Mr. Petitfils vigorously discouraged what’s come to be known as “lawnmower parenting” — methodically “mowing down” obstacles so children don’t have to deal with them.

He said refusing to let young people fail and experience the consequences of failing deprives them of opportunities to move toward adulthood.

“As parents, why do we want to remove from our kids the struggles that made us the great parents we are?” he said. “Don’t deprive your kid of the pain that comes from navigating obstacles that we benefitted from.”

High school is the perfect time for parents to pull back and help teens figure out how to fix a problem, rather than fixing it for them.

“Sometimes you need to just shut up and listen,” he said. “The energy you spend understanding the problem will most likely help them find a solution.”

This approach requires patience, humility and a lot of understanding.

“Seeing their experiences from the outside looking in, we may not be able to accurately discern how difficult it is for them,” he said.

Trauma and struggle are in eye of the beholder, and loneliness is epidemic when meaningful human interaction is scarce.

“We have to empathize,” he said. “Use the words: ‘Help me understand.’ When we do that and mean  it, they will feel less alone.”

That requires putting down the electronics and listening with the goal of understanding, rather than listening to “fix.”

“The smartphone does not soothe anxiety,” he said. “Eye-to-eye contact does.”

He recommended pursuing common interests and passions to share with their teens.

“Be yourself,” he said. “Use your own language. If they say something and you don’t know what it means, ask them. Teens love to teach. Be their student.”

He advised asking for permission to discuss difficult topics.

“This goes a long way in showing them you respect their boundaries,” he said.

A believer in short, frequent bursts of communication, he recommended saying “50 percent less than you want to say” in any conversation.

“If you carry and egg timer and set it for 5 minutes, they’ll be willing to have those short conversations with you when you ask,” he said.


“Affirm and encourage”

He told the adults to be vulnerable and be ready to speak about some of their own failures and mistakes and how they learned from them.

“Avoid being judgmental,” he said. “Affirm and encourage. Say things like, ‘Would it be all right if I make an observation?’ Ask but don’t critique.”

He said offering specific affirmations to teens can help their self-esteem. Arbitrary compliments do not.

Young people benefit from rules and consequences for behavior, but these expectations should be less like a contract than a covenant.

Parents should make clear what their teens can expect from them, especially, “I will be there to support you.”

This kind of connection with adults gives teens the incentive to do better in all areas of their lives.

“No matter where we are in life, we do better when we’re more connected,” he said.


Everyday concerns

Father Stephen Jones, president of Helias Catholic, thanked the parents for attending the talk.

“The issues we heard about tonight are very relevant in our community,” he said. “These are things that we teachers and administrators deal with every single day.

“We want to do our best to partner with you who are the parents of these young people so we help them stay on the road to becoming the healthy responsible people that God created them to be.”

Earlier in the day, Mr. Petitfils addressed teachers from Helias Catholic and spoke at an assembly of junior high students from St. Joseph Cathedral, Immaculate Conception and St. Peter Interparish schools in Jefferson City, St. Martin School in St. Martins and St. Francis Xavier School in Taos.

Julie Gramlich, youth minister at the Cathedral parish, which sponsored the junior high assembly, wants students to remember especially two points Mr. Petitfils made: “Without that relationship with Jesus, we can do nothing”; and “No one is perfect. God calls us to love each other as we are.”