Does anyone really have the answer to this question? I recently read a student’s self help book on how to talk to your parents. The advice was to approach them on payday if you want good results. I wonder if any of us has really considered the best approach for our own teens. As a mom of adolescents myself, I can assure you I am constantly puzzled by moods, gestures and teen jargon. I do take note and watch for clues on how to approach for the best result…if there is such a thing.
In my office, the parents and teens who report the worst problems on the subject are likely the ones that try the hardest. It’s the parents who probe for problems at bedtime and on the car ride home who are most perplexed by their teen’s apparent disturbances. As a counselor, I have to draw some correlations. First, if you always ask “what is wrong”, what do you think you are going to hear from your teen? They are conditioned to pay attention to the challenging parts of their day so they can deliver the ‘bad’ news to their parents in the evening. Secondly, parents who regularly probe for positive information seem to be the parents who can accurately point out both their adolescent’s strengths and weaknesses. Lastly, parents who always throw out the basic, “How was your day?” comment, usually get back one-word answers. Using open-ended, positive questions generally works best. The more random and specific the questions, the more likely you will be to receive a real response. For example, “How was lunch today?” versus “The weather was great today. Did you and Johnny sit outside for lunch? Who else likes eating outside?” Repeated daily questions like, “How was math class?” aren’t going to get you very far. If you don’t know where to start with math, email your teacher and ask the teacher for some prompts. Mr. Kelly may tell you they are working on x, your kid likes so and so, and their class discussions have been on the subject of x lately. All of these are specific points you can use for conversation with your teen.
Consider the time of day and location. I wish I could tell you all teens prefer talking at a specific time. We just know this isn’t true. Some kids hop in the car and need to decompress a couple of hours before speaking. Some kids hop in the car and want to talk all the way home. I know one of my kids often prefers to talk to me on the phone while I am driving home rather than talking to me when I walk in the door. As adults, we have our own preferences on when we want to be approached. Consider time of day, days of the week and location. Is it easier to broach a subject on Sunday night or Friday morning? Is it easier to talk when the teen is in bed and calm at night or in the car on the way to school? You may have to actually ASK them in order to identify preferences. Ironically, this is a good conversation about how adults recognize best approaches with each other. If you ask them to identify their preferences, maybe you can also state your own. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll use this tactic again with a friend, teacher or someone else. When a teen comes into my office with a complaint, one of the first things I ask is, “How do you want to approach Susie or Ms Smith?” We discuss what to say, when to say it and where to say it.
The oddest and most truth serum type of conversations with my own kids have been in my hot tub, on vacations and during fitness activities. Why? I’m guessing positive sensory stimulation works wonders. Hot water, different vacation visual opportunities and stress reducing endorphins during exercise open some positive pathways in the brain. Simply stated, people forget routine and are more malleable when they are experiencing themselves as feeling good. This is your open door time. If you have hot topics like moving, divorce and college, when do you think you can get their attention the most?
One last tip: time is important. Most teens have a short attention span for parents. If you get five solid minutes and they talk with gusto, then you have succeeded. If you talk in circles for thirty minutes, maybe you need a new plan. Sometimes I actually prescribe this homework for volatile relationships: agree to talk at 6:15 daily for 5 minutes. Anything important should be saved up for this time and not discussed any other time of the day. Ironically, some relief comes to both parties because they know they can ‘endure’ five minutes. Teens love this because they know they won’t get a ‘lecture.’
Through our Gateway family, we can help make a difference in this world…because together we are the witnesses of these fabulously wonderful, tenacious and simply complex individuals.
Julie Nicodemus, mom to adolescents, counselor to teens, MFT and a bunch of other alphabet soup: MA, LPC,CART
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