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Talking to teens: a how-to guide Add to ...

"Fine." "Whatever." "Not." Talking to a barely verbal teenager can be an exercise in frustration. But it needn't be, according to U.S. psychologists Barbara Greenberg and Jennifer Powell-Lunder, authors of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent's Guide to Becoming Bilingual. Rule No. 1: Sometimes you've just got to zip it yourself. We spoke to Dr. Powell-Lunder, the program director of an adolescent psychiatric unit at Four Winds Hospital, about how to master that and other intricacies of TSL.

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What is the biggest parental misstep?

One of the worst questions you can ask a kid is 'How was your day at school?' That is the most loaded question, because there could have been a hundred things going on. Don't ask such a general question. You want them to feel like they're not in a court of law, on the stand. I have a tween [she's 11] I ask her to tell me one thing that happened in school. The interesting thing is she doesn't talk about academics. She tells me all about the social stuff. If I asked her about that directly, she wouldn't tell me. So I learn what everyone is doing and who likes who by simply asking that little question.

Much of your advice is about not freaking out when your kid says, 'Whatever.' Not blurting out what you're thinking.

If you're trying to raise the issue of drinking and driving because you just heard a horrible story about some kids at the high school, you go in there, 'Goodness, did you read this article? What do you think about that?' You want to engage them. You want them to offer first. Sometimes you do have to sit down with your teen and say, 'Look, we've got to talk about this.' We're just saying try to find the best opportunity.

You suggest that many conversations get off on the wrong foot because teens expect parents to know what they're thinking.

We call it the ESP factor. When your toddler is about to put his hand on the stove, you catch him. There are times when you know what your child is going to do. The difficulty is as kids get older, they carry with them this assumption that you always know what they're thinking and feeling. That's when you get angry silences. Or they say, 'I told you that!' And you're thinking, 'I know I'm not senile. I know this kid didn't tell me this.'

You also say this happens in the other direction. Parents assume kids understand their rhetoric.

The best example of this is sarcasm. Especially in emotionally heated moments, kids become very concrete [thinkers] I don't know how many kids have walked into my office and told me, 'My mom kicked me out this weekend.' And I'm thinking, 'I know the parents. What are they talking about?' Then I listen to the story and it goes something like this: The teen was doing something that the parent didn't like and the parent got so annoyed and said, 'Fine. You don't like it here? Leave. Go pack your bags.' So the teen packs their bags. Starts walking out the door. The parent says to them, 'Where do you think you're going?' And the teen thinks, 'Huh? You just told me to leave.' Then the parent gets mad at the teen because the parent thinks the teen is being fresh.

There's the issue of the language teens use on the phone and e-mail. To monitor or not monitor?

Our point is not to judge or tell parents what to do. If you are going to do something you need to be upfront and honest. If you're checking your kid's texts when they put down their phone and you read something and, by mistake, you mention it, your kid's going to know what you did. And if it's something disturbing, the focus of the conversation will never be on the disturbing thing. Your child will focus on the fact that you went into their phone. So you just lost that opportunity. The most incredible research that we found was that perceived monitoring is the best intervention ever. You don't even need to monitor them as often as you think.

But you do include a handy list of texts to watch for. KPC (keeping parents clueless) is one thing. But IGHT (I got high tonight) is a heart-stopper.

The reason that's in there is really so that parents are aware that kids are doing this. These are opportunities to have a conversation with your kid. My daughter got an iPod Touch and I made her come up with a set of rules and consequences before I let her have it because she wanted the texting app. And she knows we are checking her texts, and if we see anything that's not appropriate, we're going to talk to her about it.

Negotiating rules and consequences comes up a lot in the book. Isn't asking your teen to make up his own rules like asking the fox to guard the henhouse?

Nine times out of 10, the consequences kids put down are far more serious than anything the parent suggests. Parents end up negotiating down. Kids have such an internal sense of what's right and wrong they'll say things like, 'Oh if I do that I'll be grounded for two weeks.' That's not rational because two weeks is an eternity in a teen's life. Parents look good by saying, 'Let's just make it two days.'

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

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