Most parents recognize the frustration they feel when their teenager looks at them blankly when a parent attempts to communicate with him or her. As children grow, they become less dependent on their parents and experiment with independence. Because adolescence and the teen years are fraught with a bombardment of choices, mistakes are made and children, we hope, learn from their mistakes.
Some of these mistakes, however, can have life-changing results and we need to communicate well in order to give our children information that encourages them to make safe and healthy choices and talk to us when they have concerns.
Good communication between you and your teenager is essential toward developing a healthy relationship. As we develop friendships and become adults, we soon learn that lecturing, yelling, mocking and half listening to someone else does not improve the relationship between us.
As parents, why do we so commonly respond to our children with these behaviors? Communicating in healthy and positive ways is not always that easy with a moody, angry or unhappy teenager. It always begins with your providing or recognizing an opportunity for listening. Sometimes kids just need an invitation.
Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., says, “… a teenager’s readiness to talk in a seriously self-disclosing way depends on happenstance, emotion, and mood coming into some mysterious internal alignment that sets the stage for momentary openness to occur – all factors that she doesn’t usually control. ‘I don’t feel like talking now’ is often not a lame excuse, but a psychologically valid explanation.”
In order to stay connected to our children and know what they care about and are concerned about, we need to be ready for that “momentary openness.”
Many parenting experts believe there are several essential key behaviors to productive listening. Some call this “active listening.” Active listening does not include solving their problems, giving advice, judging them, dismissing their fears and concerns, lecturing or interrogating them. Active listening includes:
Being available. That means listening to your child even when it is not convenient for you. When you say, “We’ll talk later.” that remarkable openness is closed. “Later” may not come and the opportunity is lost.
Avoiding distractions. Being available means your full attention. Turn off the TV and computer, stop washing the dishes or fixing the car, put down whatever is distracting you and focus on your child. Don’t interrupt them with questions or judgments or think about what you want to say in return.
Allow the conversation to be one-sided and listen. Move close and ask clarifying questions only when they provide an opportunity.
Make eye contact. It is disturbing to speak to someone who does not make eye contact. When we care about someone else, it is revealed in how we look at them. Eye contact shows that you care, that you’re there to listen. Attentive body language- sitting close, arms open, legs uncrossed and eyes focused – show that you care.
Ask questions. Using open-ended questions reveals to the teen that you are listening. Clarifying questions such as “Can you give me an example,” “Am I correct in hearing that you’re saying …” and the therapist’s standby, “How did that make you feel?” neither judge nor mock the child and allow you and your teenager to share in a meaningful conversation. This opens the door for your child to keep talking.
Be careful. Recognize honesty and vulnerability. Choose a safe place to have these discussions and be prepared and willing to accept opinions and answers that you weren’t expecting or didn’t want to hear. Don’t catastrophize or minimize your teenager’s emotions. Their worlds are smaller than yours and how they feel about someone one day may be very different as to how they feel the next day.
Youth participating in Kauai Teen Court are routinely asked what they believe is the most disappointing behavior they receive from adults. It is always the same answer: no respect. There can be no real communication without respect for each other. The next most common answer is lack of trust.
Another question asked of youth in Kauai Teen Court is “What are your accomplishments at home or school that you are most proud of?” This question is the one question most often left blank. Teenagers are emotionally vulnerable and many resist advertising their accomplishments for fear of ridicule.
Lacking a developed sense of self-confidence, many are careful to keep their talents to themselves. Also, according to Chris Hudson of Understanding Teenagers, “Teens are usually very aware of their own shortcomings and failures …” and “are less able to see what they do well.”
“When teenagers feel they are really being listened to they are more likely to communicate their thoughts and feelings.” Using words like “don’t, never, always and stop” shut down conversation. Listen to them with empathy and concern, not interference and criticism.
You are their closest adult sounding-board and listening to them with empathy, commitment and interest allows them to develop the ability to solve their own problems by talking things out and ultimately gaining self-confidence in their own decisions.
Parenting experts have found that “most parents feel after arguments with their teenagers that they should have taken a less critical approach.” If we can be available, avoid distractions, use attentive body language, ask non-judgmental and open-ended questions and be sensitive to our teenager’s emotional vulnerability, arguments with them may be few and far between.
Esther Solomon is with Hale ’Opio Kauai, which convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Esther Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org For more information about Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i, please go to www.haleopio.org