- Posted by Marie Kelly
- On September 20, 2016
- auckland, blog, kidz therapy, new zealand, parenting, teenagers, therapy
Dr Amrit Kaur
Teenagers are hard! It’s often so clear to parents how much they don’t know, and how massive their potential is for messing up important life changing choices. Who they spend time with, how much they study, what course they do in university and what drugs they decide to experiment with: they all have consequences beyond what your teen can anticipate.
But anyone who has spent five minutes with a teen realises that simply talking to the teenager, let alone imparting your lifetime of hard-won wisdom, isn’t always an easy prospect. It’s important to get a conversation (any conversation) going right with them before you can fix what’s wrong in their thinking.
The following is some advice on relating to teens that seems to hit the mark as far as fostering the right communication climate is concerned.
- Ask the right questions
So many parents complain that their teenagers just don’t talk to them. All talk is valuable talk, and sometimes you just need to get them talking so you can understand and relate better when there are tougher conversations to be had. For example, “how’s life?” may just get a shrug or an “OK”. But I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t like talking about themselves (even if they say they don’t!), so use that to your advantage by keeping it light and specific, while tailoring to their interests. Try “I saw you playing that videogame and it looked like it really tests coordination. What level are you at? What’s the hardest part?”. Keeping the conversation going is half the battle won, and you can do this by asking the right questions. Once you’ve done enough of this sort of talking, it becomes easier to say something like “I loved the way your date came to the door to say hello. What was he like on the date?”
You’ve got lucky and your usually room-enclosed teen is opening up hesitantly about a conflict with a friend. Resist all urge to provide advice. Use the old therapist’s trick of listening quietly, but then paraphrasing or repeating the last couple of words of the child’s sentence. If your child says, “She never pays attention to what I say”. You say something to the effect of “You feel she doesn’t listen to you”. If your child says “I try so hard.” You nod and say “You put a lot of effort in”.Simply repeating and paraphrasing provides validation that what they are saying is important, that you’re really listening, and that you get their point of view. If they consistently feel that they get a truly listening ear, it’s much more likely that they’ll come to you when things are hard.But what do you do when it’s clear their thinking is flawed, or there is a mistake to be corrected?
- Easy does it
Validate the heck out of their feelings first. If it comes out that your child yelled at a teacher, try: “Oh gosh it must be frustrating to have a teacher whose so tough on homework. I can see why you felt like yelling at her today.”After a moment or two of this, watch for a softening in your child. You will see it in his or her face when she no longer has to prove to you how “unjust” the teacher was. Once you get your softening, you’re in the listening zone and potentially teaching zone. You might want to venture forth a little “I wonder how you feel about having yelled at her. Did she react badly?” Be tentative but supportive. You’ve raised your child right, and it’s likely that they’ll be able to reflect on the wisdom of their actions once they know you’re not judging them for it from the get go and starting a lecture.
If the teens’ back goes back up, go back to. “What a difficult teacher. I wonder why teachers act like that sometimes,” and leave it for another time. The conversation can be revisited in a day or two when the topic stings a little less and they are more likely to talk cos you haven’t put them on the defensive.
- Talking without looking
If the above seems to hard, remember that many parents say that their best parenting moments happening in the car on the way to sports, or on the way back from a trip to the mall. There’s something about not having to look at each other that makes it easier to talk. Try asking your teen about his day and how things are with his friends while in the car.
- Man up
If you really want your teen to feel comfortable talking about difficult topics, use the above techniques, but also be sure to never crumble. Don’t look uncomfortable when your daughter tells you she got her period or she has feelings for a girlfriend – which means not changing the topic, not walking away, and not even shifting your weight in panic. Validate and reflect back their feelings. Teens are hyper sensitive to body language, so practice the poker face if you have to. “Dad looked like he was going to die – He soooo didn’t know what to say!” is not the way you want your teenager to describe a conversation with you.
- Don’t point out every inconsistencyTeens are confused creatures. They think they know, but they clearly don’t always. “I don’t have a problem” very soon gives way to “I have all the problems and you just don’t understand”, and you’re left either scratching your head, or yelling at them. Sometimes not pointing out inconsistencies in their stories is a good idea. For no other reason that they probably don’t realise immediately or before that point that they are being inconsistent. Saying it aloud might be enough for them to realise it, without you having to confront the inconsistently. Sometimes it’s more respectful to keep mum, protect them from embarrassment and help your kid feel safe in communicating with you. Its safety in talking that’s the most important when you are starting to re-establish contact. The correcting can come easier later once the relationship is strong. When the mood has softened, it might be possible to say “You said the other day that you have all the problems. Which feels the worst right now?”.
- Resist the urge to preach
If your teen daughter says to you, “everybody hates me!”, Janet Edgette, an author of a book on teen parenting, advises that you “nibble at the edges of her way of thinking without preaching” and get rid of the latent power struggles. So while a frustrated parent might choose to correct by saying “No, you don’t hate everybody. You don’t hate me. You don’t hate your mom. You don’t hate your therapist.” The teen is left thinking, “What’s the point in expressing how you feel if someone’s right there to tell you you’re wrong?”
Try instead to say “I think I have days when I hate everybody, too” or “What was your day like that you ended up feeling like you hate everybody?” or “How long does your ‘I hate everybody’ mood usually last?” These questions would have the effect of normalizing what she felt instead of turning it into something “bad” or abnormal and shutting down the conversation.While these are good ways to keep the conversation flowing, the truth remains that no parent of a teen has ever had it easy, and I’d be interested to hear from you what you do to help them navigate difficult situations and big choices.
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