Every parent knows it’s important to have good communication with their teen – actual conversations with plenty of back and forth. The problem, of course, is that most teenagers don’t like to talk to their parents. And many potentially rich interactions get derailed before they even start. Usually, we’re at fault. We can’t just let them talk. There are far too many important life lessons to impart.
It might go something like this:
“Mom, Serena said that she’s not sure if she’s going to have sex with JB, and then she said ...”
“Theresa, honey, you know that just because Serena is sexually active, you don’t have to feel that you need to keep up with her. You know that, right?”
“Mom, I’m not planning to have sex with anybody. I was just trying to tell you about Serena. Jeez!”
At which point Theresa decides that she no longer feels like talking to her mother and leaves the room.
Jacques and his father are riding in the car. Out of the blue Jacques starts talking.
“I’ve been thinking. I don’t know, maybe I’m going to become an airplane pilot. Or maybe I’ll work at Burger Barn and always live at home with you and Mom. Or maybe …”
“You know, Jacques, you’re going to have to start thinking seriously about what you want to do. You’re going to be out of high school in a couple years.”
“What is his problem?,” Jacques says to himself. “I was trying to tell him what I’m thinking about, but all he wants to do is to give me another lecture.”
Jacques and his father sit without speaking for the rest of the drive.
Our comments, worries, warnings, lessons, corrections – they seem crucial. We want to guide our kids down the best possible path. And if we hear something from them that seems to beg for our important guidance, how can we not give it? But often the only thing our advice accomplishes is to kill the conversation.
When they talk freely, it is like a tiny flame that we should try to keep alive, fanning it gently to keep it going. When they were little kids we couldn’t stop them talking, but not much skill is required to get a second grader to tell you about his day. “… and they had the chicken nuggets again for lunch and one of mine fell on the floor and …” But with adolescence, they develop an allergy to parents that makes them hypersensitive to any comments, especially when they are allowing themselves to open up.
The solution seems so simple. All you have to do is shut up. Stick to innocuous comments like, “You think so?” Or “Really?” Or repeat a brief version of what they just said: “Sounds like Serena’s not sure what to do.” But abstain from advising and correcting. It doesn’t always have to be a teachable moment.
Kids repeatedly say the same thing to me.
“I can’t talk to my parents because I can’t get two sentences out and they have to start giving me a lecture. That’s why I never talk to them. They never listen.”
When kids start talking about what’s going on in their life and what they think, we catch a glimpse of the real them as a person in the world. It’s a treasure to be sure. But they seem so vulnerable – so vulnerable to misguided thoughts or behaviours that could hurt them. And the more they talk and we don’t say anything, the more we feel that something needs to be said. It’s very hard to hold back the lectures.
If you genuinely feel you must comment, the best strategy is to wait until a separate time, or at least until the conversation tapers off. But interrupting them carries the risk that they will immediately clam up.
How do you stop yourself? It is hard – our responses are often so heartfelt and automatic. But it can be done. First of all, notice how frequently your well-meaning comments can end conversations before they get started. Then try a little mantra. Every so often, say to yourself, “I need to notice how I have to put in my two cents whenever Serena says anything. I want to do that less often.” It can help. Listening is a skill, one that isn’t always so easy to learn. But learning is possible and it does yield good results.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Just Shut Up . E-mail him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org