We’ve all been in situations where we have felt uncomfortable or unsafe with being ourselves around certain people. Thaddeus Heffner, MMFT (Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy), suggests that for the teenager who struggles with unwanted SSA, this feeling of being unsafe can be compounded simply by being careless with what we say.
When working with teenagers, Thaddeus Heffner already understands that there is a level of trust that must be established and expanded upon. To do so, says Thaddeus Heffner, takes time and effort, as well as a continued mind of thoughtfulness.
In building a safe place for teenagers who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction (SSA), Thaddeus Heffner suggests that teens need salient men and women. Young people who struggle with homosexuality need interaction with strong, loving, and generous adults.
Thaddeus Heffner says it is important to keep in mind the “Four A’s”: Acceptance, Approval, Affirmation, Affection. “Coming from a place of shame and defensive detachment,” states Thaddeus Heffner, “the teenage SSA struggler is hungry for the four A’s.”
According to Thaddeus Heffner, they need to be pulled into the crowd and loved right where they are. “Healthy forms of affection can go a long way – an appropriate hug, a firm squeeze on the shoulder, etc.” adds Thaddeus Heffner. “However, always be aware if a teenager seems uncomfortable with healthy affection, and be sure to be respectful of that.” Thaddeus Heffner goes on to explain that as adults, we need to “listen with your whole self” – eyes, ears, body language and heart. Thaddeus Heffner suggests looking a teen in the eyes when you listen or respond to them.
“It is not uncommon for something you say to be “misperceived” and then the teenager might feel shame (which you never intended) and they most likely will not tell you,” explains Thaddeus Heffner. “So if you sense that this might be happening, or if they begin to respond differently after a discussion (quiet, avoiding, etc), Thaddeus Heffner also suggests that it is good to clarify with them, “What did you hear me say?” According to Thaddeus Heffner, doing so might clear up any possible misperception on their part, while encouraging them to “share with you whenever they feel shame or emotion come up over something you might have said or done.” In this way, says Thaddeus Heffner, they begin to understand their own misperceptions.
Thaddeus Heffner also suggests that it is important to “Hold Space” for the teenager. This means having the “ego-strength” to let them be angry, sad, fearful, frustrated, etc. and not take it personally. According to Thaddeus Heffner, allowing the teenage SSA struggler to be authentic, right where they are at and just as they are in the moment, is extremely affirming and counteracts shame by sending the message “You are worthy, just as you are in this moment.” Or, “you don’t have to do anything to make me like you or accept you any more than I do right now.”
While Thaddeus Heffner frequently makes suggestions as to what adults can do to be a safe place for teenagers who struggle with unwanted SSA, there is one thing Thaddeus Heffner suggests that adults should never do around anybody, let alone teenagers. “Absolutely NO gay remarks or jokes!” Thaddeus Heffner also points out that this should be communicated to all of the youth as well. Thaddeus Heffner says that if a teenager, secretly struggling, hears his youth leaders or peers joking about what he struggles with, the atmosphere immediately becomes unsafe and they may never reach out for help or care.” Thaddeus Heffner explains that the message of “I am unworthy” becomes underscored and fortified that much more with every joke.
According to Thaddeus Heffner, unwanted same-sex attraction or not, when applied, these simple suggestions can make all the difference when building safety and trust in relationships with teenagers.
Thaddeus Heffner, MMFT, continues to create a “safe place” in his Brentwood, Tennessee office, as he holds space for teenagers who struggle with unwanted SSA. For more information please visit http://thaddeusheffner.com.