How does that saying go – “I see your mouth moving, but all I hear is blah, blah, blah, blah…?”
This is often the experience of a teenager when their parents chime in with commentary on anything from grades, to friends, to electronic devices and social media and it is not uncommon for such well-intentioned commentary to trigger backlash that can precipitate WWIII.
Adolescence is a tricky time because teenagers do not want to be told what to do and yet they still want and need parental guidance (though they do not dare admit this to you). It's a seemingly impossible double bind for the parent – how do I help my child who wants my help and yet rejects it (and me!) when I provide it?
The key to successful communication with your teenager is in your intention and timing. I often provide the parents I work with one very important guiding principle to assist their communication efforts with their teenagers: BE CURIOUS about your teenager.
The best way to reach your teenager and have meaningful and effective dialog with them is to be curious about them and ASK QUESTIONS with the intention of getting to know them, not with the intention of investigating them.
Remember, your teenager is a burgeoning adult in the processes of developing a personal identity and making sense of the world and their place in it. They are a mini sponge absorbing cultural messages and contemplating social norms. Their take on reality should make your head tilt with curiosity and inspire you to ask questions about their take on things. Furthermore, they are biologically wired to want to share with you what they are learning so long as they know they will not be judged or shamed for their thoughts and beliefs.
When you ask questions with the intention of learning about the person your teenager is becoming, your teenager will, more often than not, respond to you with a non-defensive willingness (and perhaps even eagerness) to share with you the myriad of thoughts swirling in their head. And they are especially eager to share with you that which they are passionate about.
Furthermore, when you are curious about your teenager, you are creating space for connection and sending a very important message to them - that they are interesting and worth getting to know. When they receive this message from you, they begin to regard themselves this way, which cultivates an internal self-worth and confidence that only serves to facilitate their success throughout life.
You are also helping them create an important communication skill – the skill of asking questions and being curious about others, which creates a communication standard of sharing. A dialog is two people sharing thoughts and feelings about any given topic. When your teenager shares things with you and they feel you are actively listening to and not judging them, they may begin to express their curiosity about you and ask you questions. This can then become an opportunity for you to shape their formative self by sharing your thoughts and feelings - believe it or not, they actually do care what you think, especially about them.
And lets not forget timing. The timing of your conversations with your teenager is key. Research suggests that the best time to talk to your kids is when you are in the car or late at night. Not ideal, I know, but nevertheless, this is the reality, so accept it and capitalize on these moments to connect with your child.
A few tips:
Be curious about your teenager, ask them questions with a tone that reflects an interest in getting to know them.
Don’t judge or shame your teenager if you don’t agree with them. They don’t like this any more than you do.
Actively listen to them. Your teenager does want to talk to you and they need you to listen to them.
Don’t be afraid if your teenager’s thinking seems illogical. Remember there is a learning curve to becoming an adult, and their learning necessitates trial and error – let them error and figure things out, it’s a character building opportunity for them.
KISS – Keep It Short and Simple. That is, when it is your time to talk, don’t over talk, your kids will tune you out and you will lose your audience. Say something meaningful in a succinct way, let it land, and then give it a chance to take root. This takes time.
Be strategic in the timing of your conversations. Any time you are not rushed, in the car, or late at night - these are solid opportunities to connect with your kid.