There’s an old saying that goes something like this, “When opportunity knocks, answer the door.” Never has that been as true as when trying to talk to a teen. Figuring out how to engage with their teens is one of the most frequently identified needs when families come to family counseling.
Sometimes, trying to talk to a teen or even a pre-teen can feel like talking to a closed door. On occasion, they are talking a mile a minute and telling you every detail of their day and every thought racing through their heads. More often, they are silent or worse, seeming to ignore you on purpose. Sometimes it’s as though we aren’t even speaking the same language. It’s enough to frustrate any parent to the brink of insanity.
Not surprisingly, teens often feel the same way. They generally want to talk to their parents but don’t always have the words or know how to approach. Or they think they are communicating but parents “just don’t understand” or aren’t hearing them. Now, they don’t sit up nights worrying over and pondering this issue. It’s one of those dynamics that just kind of happens between parent and child as part of the growth process.
Most kids want to talk to their parents but in their way. There’s an interesting lesson in working with people that therapists-in-training learn early on: meet people where they are and not where you expect them to be. In the case of kids and teens, it means engaging them in the ways that they know how to engage in now and not necessarily the way they should be engaging. The should may not even be in their skill set yet. With patience and guidance, it will come. Now, this isn’t a license to be ugly and disrespectful. That is a whole different set of issues that requires a different approach. What we’re talking about here is helping kids and parents to facilitate communication and learn that there is safety and pleasure in communicating, that interactions don’t always have to be disciplinary or “about something.” Sometimes exchanges can just be for the sake of sharing. That is a powerful foundation to build on.
As a parent, meeting them where they are can be a hard thing to do especially when all your kid wants to do is tell you about his latest score on his favorite video game. It can also be frustrating finding the opportunity to engage. They don’t often walk into a room and say, “talk to me now.” The good news is that opportunities to engage them come every day and if you are on the lookout for them, you’ll see them everywhere. How you respond sets the tone for how that communication will develop.
Listen Between the Lines
When your teen shares something, ANYTHING, take a moment to really listen to what he or she is saying. It might be a passing comment about a favorite song (listen). It might be a remark about a friend (listen). Seemingly benign comments are sometimes like testing the water. It might really be just be about the song. Other times, the song might be the stepping-stone to something more important. Just listen.
The crucial thing here is that your teen is knocking on your door! In this moment, you are the person he or she wants to engage. How you react (verbally and nonverbally) sends powerful messages about whether you’re interested, if they can trust you with their feelings and the likelihood that they will come to you with the important things. Sometimes, the song is telling you about the important thing. Listen.
Feelings are some of the hardest things to share and that’s true for kids as well as grown-ups. Feelings are highly personal and sharing them makes us vulnerable to others. That can be a scary place to be. Feelings are not right or wrong. They are what they are and they don’t always make sense.
When your teen shares how they are feeling, even if it is in a passing comment, the important thing is validation. How you respond sends the message of whether it is safe to share feelings with you. In other words, can they say how they feel without judgment or being told why they are wrong for feeling the way they do? The answers will determine the likelihood of them sharing with you in the future.
You may not agree with or understand why your teen feels a certain way. That’s OK. The important thing here is to simply acknowledge his or her feelings. Even if you don’t understand why they feel as they do, a simple “I hear you” goes a long way with a teen. It’s OK to feel differently and it’s OK to say so. It’s all in the delivery. Acknowledging feelings without judgment communicates support and respect. The chances of them knocking again increase.
Earn and Keep Their Trust
Two of the most important things for teens are trust and respect. They are sometimes very black-and-white in their beliefs about these qualities. It requires a good deal of trust for a teen to share sometimes very personal things. When your teen tells you something in confidence, whether it is major or minor, it is important to respect the trust he or she has placed in you and not share the information with others. Each time trust is placed in you, your reliability increases making it more likely that your teen will come to you again. Violating this trust almost guarantees that it will be a long time before they share something again.
Sometimes kids share things that to an adult are seemingly benign. To the teen, though, it may be the most embarrassing thing ever. If you aren’t sure, it is OK to ask what his or her preferences are. Kids are pretty reasonable with these things if they know you are trying to respect them. For example, he might be OK with you telling his Dad but not his aunt and six cousins. Better still, maybe he might want to tell Dad himself. If your child requests confidentiality, provide it if at all possible.
There are certainly times when kids share something where maintaining their confidentiality is not possible. If the information is such that it really does require a breach of confidentiality, then it is important to communicate that to your teen so that you all can determine why and how that might need to happen. This is where that good communication foundation will really pay off. If your teen knows that you can be trusted and that you have their best interest at heart, they are much more likely to work through the situation with you. Will they be happy? Not a chance. What they will know is that you are not disrespecting them or betraying them. For teens, that difference means everything.
Be Their Parent
It is sometimes really easy for the line between parent and child to become blurred. Your teen is coming to you looking for support, validation and maybe guidance. They want to hang out with you! It feels good! You start thinking, “Could we be friends?” This is dangerous parenting ground. This is the place where you have to remember that you are a parent and not a friend.
Of course, it’s fine to have that friendly closeness with your child, but you also have to maintain that place where you set boundaries, limits and consequences as the parent. Think about it this way: Friends usually join us in our adventures. We have fun with them but we also tend to get into some trouble with them. Friends don’t decide our rules or our consequences. Friends don’t ground us or take away our phones. Cross this line as a parent and you may find yourself in a battle with a very confused teen because friends don’t do that. Their friend betrayed them. Then what? Your credibility as a friend is gone and all of a sudden you’ve gone parent on them. That is a no-win for either of you. You can be friendly and still be the parent. And here’s an added incentive: In general, friends tend to come and go over time. The parent-child bond is forever. Which role do you want?
Keep It Cool
When your teen comes to you, especially with something big, it is important to stay calm and in control. It has been estimated that about 55% of communication is nonverbal. Even more than your words, your body language signals to them whether or not it’s okay to continue engaging with you. If your teen thinks you are about to melt down or go off, it’s almost guaranteed the conversation will be over before it starts. Especially in times of crisis, your teen is looking for guidance, support and maybe even an assurance of safety or protection.
If you find yourself here, breathe and focus. Not only will it help you remain in control, it is also a perfect teachable moment for your teen. He or she will see you modeling good self-calming and self-control helping him/her to remain in control. If you’re feeling kind of freaked out by what you’re hearing, it’s okay to say so. It’s also important to communicate that you are in control and that you can be relied upon to support and guide them during a time of need. You are your teen’s safe harbor, that soft place to land. Your calm presence will help your teen to remain calm.
Teens are awesome and dynamic and sometimes incredibly frustrating. They are in a most challenging place developmentally and learning how to navigate their world successfully and independently. That challenge can sometimes lead to some confusing and frustrating circumstances. But underneath all of that teenage angst and bravado, teens aren’t really that much different than you and I. We all want to know that someone is listening and won’t judge us, freak out on us or betray us. We just want to be heard and respected. You never know when your teen will allow you a glimpse into their world. Be ready when opportunity knocks.
As a therapist-coach, Dr. Ferrara specializes in personal and lifestyle coaching with special interest in Stress Management and Weight Loss/Fitness. She is an ACE-certified Health Coach and a licensed mental health clinician (LPC & LMFT). Her practice is currently limited to personal and wellness coaching.
Dr. Ferrara is a workshop presenter, blogger and author. She is available for speaking engagements as her schedule permits. To read more and for information about speaking availability, please contact Dr. Ferrara at her website.
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