Dos And Don’ts When Talking To Your Teen

Communicating with our adolescents can be a challenge. At times, it can seem impossible to get them to open up and talk to us. When we’re lucky and they finally do, they can sometimes say the darndest things that are hard for us to hear!

When our child says something that upsets us, we can yell when we’re at our worst, or, when we’re at our best, point out how they are wrong. This often leads to us lecturing them with our unsolicited advice. This way of communicating never works very well. They argue, we react some more, and the discussion often becomes less than satisfying. We walk away feeling badly, realizing that the conversation didn’t go as we intended. We didn’t get the response we wanted, leaving us at square one when they no longer want to open up and talk to us!

So what’s a parent to do?

Sometimes it’s hard to know where you went wrong in the conversation. Becoming aware of the ways in which we react that aren’t helpful, and learning how to better respond, will help you become more supportive of your child when they’re feeling troubled or upset and in need of guidance.

Here are some common things your tween or teen might say and what NOT to say if you want to become a safe place for your child to open up and talk to you.

These examples are taken from a great book that I highly recommend called How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk,” written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It’s filled with cartoons that illustrate common conversations that we have with our adolescents and some basic principles and skills that can be helpful.

See if you recognize any familiar responses in these comments. Notice how you might feel if you, from an adolescent’s perspective, were sharing with a friend and they responded in this manner.

“I don’t know if I want to go to college.”

  • “Don’t be ridiculous. Of course you’re going to college.”
  • “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
  • “I can’t believe you would even say that. Do you want to break your grandparents’ heart?”

“Why do I always have to be the one to take out the garbage?”

  • “Because you never do anything else around here except eat and sleep.”
  • “Why do you always have to be the one to complain?”
  • “How come your brother doesn’t give me a hard time when I ask him for help?”

“We had this long lecture on drugs today from a policeman. What a crock! All he did was try to scare us.”

  • “Scare you? He’s trying to knock some sense into your head.”
  • “If I ever catch you using drugs, you’ll really have something to be scared of.”
  • “The trouble with you kids today is that you think you know everything. Well, let me tell you, you’ve got a lot to learn.”

“I don’t care if I’ve got a fever. No way am I missing that concert!”

  • “That’s what you think. You’re not going anywhere tonight except bed. “
  • “Why would you want to do anything that stupid? You’re still sick.”
  • “It’s not the end of the world. There’ll be plenty of other concerts. Why don’t you play the band’s latest album, close your eyes, and pretend you’re at the concert?”

What to DO So Your Teen Will Talk To You:

  1. Become More Conscious of Both Your Feelings and Your Child’s.

Some of these statements and responses might make us laugh. I can definitely confess to having similar comebacks with my kids. Are you aware of how you are feeling when you react to your child in similar ways? And how your child might be feeling? Might you both be feeling similar senses of fear, confusion, resentment, or disappointment?

In my experience, parents react out of their own discomfort when their child expresses their feelings. It’s normal for parents to want to push away uncomfortable and upsetting feelings that their child has (and that we have too). We want our kids to be happy.

  1. Understand the Cost of Your Response.

When parents respond in these ways it dismisses their child’s feelings, criticizes their thoughts, and questions their judgment. It shuts the child down and adds to their upset rather than helping them to deal with it.

  1. Listen for What Really Might Be Going On.

Begin to listen to the hidden messages that your child might be saying. There is so much more going on inside of them that they are trying to process and figure out. We miss opportunities to really connect with them when we only pay attention to the words they say, rather than being curious about how they are feeling. Listening, seeking to understand, and letting our kids know that they have been heard helps them to know themselves in deeper ways.

  1. Try A New Approach.

Here are some ideas of how you can respond differently:

“I don’t know if I want to go to college.”

  • “Sounds as if you’re having some real doubts about it.” “You’re wondering if college is right for you.”
  • “Know what would be cool? If you could look into a crystal ball and see what your life would be like if you didn’t go to college… or if you did.”

“Why do I always have to be the one to take out the garbage?”

  • “Boy, I hear how much you resent it.”
  • “It’s not your favorite activity. Tomorrow let’s talk about rotating chores. Right now I need your help.”
  • “Wouldn’t it be great if the garbage would take itself out?”

“We had this long lecture on drugs today from a policeman. What a crock! All he did was try to scare us.”

  • “So you think he was exaggerating—trying to frighten kids into staying away from drugs.”
  • “Scare tactics really turn you off.”
  • “Sounds as if you wish adults would give kids straight information and trust them to make responsible decisions.”

“I don’t care if I’ve got a fever. No way am I missing that concert!”

  • “What rotten luck to be sick—on today of all days! You’ve been looking forward to that concert for weeks.”
  • “I know. You had your heart set on going. The problem is, with a fever of 101, you belong in bed.”
  • “Even though you know there will be plenty of other concerts, you sure wish you didn’t have to miss this one.”

5. Focus on Feelings First.

talking to your teenagerThe idea is to try to reflect back and put into words what you think your child might be feeling instead of reacting out of your feelings. You can always check it out by asking them, “Have I got that right?” They will usually correct you and say more.

Listening provides your child with the greatest comfort. It’s your acceptance of your child’s unhappy feelings that will give them the tools to better cope with the situation.

You may ask – when do I get a chance to talk about what I think, believe, or value? There will always be a chance to share that. However, when you listen to your child’s feelings first and seek to understand what they are feeling, the better your chances will be at being heard as their parent.

In summary:

  • Seek to listen first.
  • Withhold your feelings, criticism, or judgment.
  • Reflect back what you think they are feeling or saying.
  • Test it out at home with your child and see what happens.
  • Understand you won’t do it perfectly (none of us do).
  • But also understand that we can get better at it!
  • Let me know how it goes and please share your stories!!

Questions: What conversations do you relate to that were shared? What is one take away that you want to put into practice today?

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