So that title might sound harsh. You’re thinking, “Oh, so now it’s MY fault that my teenager doesn’t talk to me? When I try so hard?”
Let me say, I’m not blaming you. Hopefully, I’m going to enlighten you. Knowledge is power, right? If you can realize some of the things you’re doing that are accidentally off-putting to your child, you’ll be better able to connect with him or her.
Here’s a scenario I see all the time: I talk to a parent who tells me their teen is impossible to talk to, good luck with that, and then I meet with the teen alone and the conversation flows. And it’s not because I’m doing something mystical or magical. It’s often because of things I’m NOT doing.
Read on for the top five list:1) I’m not doing anything other than talking to them. Meaning: I’m not folding laundry or making dinner; I’m not listening with half an ear.
And believe me, I know that laundry and dinner have to get done and made, and you can’t give your child complete focus all the time. But for at least one period of time every day (it can be as little as ten minutes), be entirely tuned into your child.
2) I’m not telling them the “right” way to do things.
Now, I know it can be tempting to give advice. You have a certain outcome in mind for your teenager, and when he or she deviates from that, it can be frustrating. You’re thinking, “I know how this story ends, just do it my way from the outset.”
But if you’re often giving advice and/or lecturing, you’re circumventing a natural learning process. You’re also sending the message that you don’t trust your teenager, or his/her way of seeing the world.
3) Mostly, I’m not commenting; I’m asking questions. And not questions that I already know the answer to, or where I’m trying to get them to give a certain answer I’ll find pleasing.
It’s amazing how far genuine curiosity gets you. People–not just teens, but everyone–like to feel interesting.
This can’t just be accomplished by a general, “How was your day?” It’s about really tuning in and actually finding your child interesting. What do you really want to know about him or her? (And not just because you want to make sure your teen is making good choices, but because you want to know your teen. There’s a very real and substantive difference.)
4) I don’t interrupt, even when I can guess where something is going.
Sometimes parents tell me that they really want their teenager to talk to them, and then when I talk to the teen, I’m told, “My mom always shuts me down.” What that means is, the teen starts to talk and the parents seem impatient to get to the important stuff. With a teenager, the important stuff is embedded within what might sound like idle chatter. You have to really listen (see #1 and #3–sensing a theme here?)
5) I don’t tell them that I’m the parent, and they just have to do as I say.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: You’re not the parent, you’re the therapist, and where do you get off being so high and mighty in this post, anyway? And my answer to that is: I know you’ve got a way tougher job than I do. So I’m just trying to make some suggestions to make the job easier.
And I also know that sometimes parents can say and do the things I’m suggesting, and their kids still won’t take it the way they take it from me as a therapist. Oftentimes, teenagers seem biologically (or maybe hormonally) programmed to find their parents maximally annoying, no matter what.
But that’s not all the time. So it’s important to look at your own behaviors as a parent and think what might be eliciting that annoyance. A chief complaint I hear from teenagers is that their parents order them around, or have unreasonably high expectations, or give extremely long consequences (like grounding for a month.)
As a parent, of course you need to have standards, and you need to discipline your child. But you can do that and still have empathy. You can say, “I get why this might not make sense to you, let me explain myself.” Or better yet, you can say, “I feel like I have to do this. How does it feel to you?”
You can ask your kids for feedback on how you’re doing as a parent. You can show that you care what they think and feel. Then you can incorporate that into how you do things in the future. An open dialogue doesn’t undermine your authority. It actually enhances it.
Teen talking to her mother image available from Shutterstock.