Today more than ever we have to be savvy and intentional when trying to connect with our teens. The competition for their attention is overcrowded with screens, videos, social media, and tons of other superficial connections. Which gives us an opportunity to meet them where they are and cultivate real, meaningful connections. This can’t be faked or forced upon them, they must be met in an unassuming non-judgmental way and they must actually be heard.
I remember clearly a parent fail with my middle school son that really got my attention and forced me to get creative to reopen the lines of communication and get my son to take a chance at opening up again. He jumped in the car after a day at school and I asked the usual, “How was your day”? I got an unusually excited and wordy answer about how someone pulled the fire alarm and got in big trouble but they all missed a good portion of a class period so it was cool and funny etc.
Immediately I blew it with a pointed question coupled with a good dose of shock and shame about this bad behavior. “That is terrible, you would never do something like that would you, the police could have been called”, etc. Quickly I noticed that my excited, talkative 8thgrader was deflated, frustrated, and silent. The silence was loud, I had blown it!
Don’t get me wrong, the things I had said were true and the lessons to be learned from this story and the dangers of this behavior were vast but the timing was terrible and the lessons were no longer available to be taught or heard.
If I could have replayed that moment in the car it would have sounded something like this… “Wow, that sounds like a lot of excitement!” Or some other non-judgmental, short response followed by lots of listening or other questions that would provoke more talk like, “then what happened?” etc.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, here’s the trick. Wait a day or so and when you are alone again (maybe in the car) say something like, ”Remember the other day when you were telling me the story about the kid and the fire alarm thing? I’ve been thinking about that. Can you see yourself ever doing something like that if you were dared or for a prank?” Then wait for it…You’ll probably get an answer like “NO WAY! He is in so much trouble” (your child learned the lesson on his own) or even if you get an ”I don’t know what I would do”, here’s where you get to weigh in as the consultant parent (the one who actually gets heard sometimes by their teen). “I would hate to see you put yourself in a position to get in trouble for doing something that seems like no big deal but could get you in a lot of trouble. I remember hearing about a kid in another school losing a scholarship to college for doing something similar. I know you are a smart kid and make good choices but everyone makes mistakes so I hope that the kid is given a chance to make better decisions in the future.” Whatever it is you want to convey, think about it from a consultant position and use this opportunity to show your teen you are a safe place for them to tell the truth and share their lives.
Here are a few tips for getting your teen to talk:
Ask the right kind of questions
- Stick to open-ended questions
- Opinion questions like (What do you think you would do in that situation) give you a chance to show you value their opinion so they will want to hear yours
Avoid interrupting them once they start speaking
- Let them talk! Even if you are dying to correct them or set them straight, this isn’t the time, just Let them talk!
Avoid lecturing (it doesn’t work anyway)
- If you could be wagging your finger and it matches your words, just stop, teens aren’t listening when we are shaming them
Find the right time and setting
- In the car is often a great place to talk
- On vacation when they are disconnected from their world
- Make dinner time rituals for talking, include the whole family
Don’t be reactive or too emotional
- Even when what you’re hearing is causing your head to spin, don’t show it. Wait and revisit if necessary but don’t stop the talking
Talk about what interests them
- Be willing to engage with them on any subject they will talk about if we want them to engage on the subjects you need to discuss
Really listen and hear
- Keep eye contact, nod your head, give them cues that you are interested
- Ask follow-up questions that show you are paying attention
Be available and ready when they are ready
- If you are watching tv or working and they need to talk, if at all possible stop what you are doing and let them know they are more important
- Don’t rush them or tell them to “get to the point” etc.
- Encourage all of the boring and unimportant details, often you learn a lot about the position of their hearts in the details
- Remember the best conversations are often organic and impromptu
Allow them to have their feelings and honor them
- Avoid telling them that what they are feeling isn’t that big of a deal or that it won’t matter in 6 months or you only feel that way because you are 14, there’s no reason to be sad about this, etc.
- Say something like “It seems obvious to me that you are really sad and I heard you say how angry you are. I can imagine how much this hurts”.
Talking with teens isn’t always easy but making the effort is always worth it! If you would like more information on how to talk to your teen or help with your relationship with your teen, please email me or call me at Redeemed Life Counseling, LLC and we will get connected with one of our counselors right away
By Michelle Fitzhugh, MA, LPC, EMDR
Office (940) 222-8552 Cell (940) 395-9262
Teen Social Anxiety