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How to Talk to a Teenager

How to Talk to a Teenager

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Updated on Jan 22, 2008

Life with a teenager can be tough. We parents have raised them, loved them passionately, and known their every talent and quirk since they took their first breath. Now, they’re proposing to learn to live independent lives, and that proposal has complex and ever-changing clauses: the need to try things on their own, the need to race home and be babied again, the need to make mistakes, and the need to be protected as they accumulate the experience to stabilize their wobbly judgment.

Teens are in a tight spot in our society right now. They’re told what to do and what to learn, and expected to apply themselves day and night to their education. But we show them few attractive opportunities for applying their knowledge and skills to useful work, or important decision-making. Internally, their brains are engaged in the absorbing task of pruning neural circuits, streamlining their intelligence in preparation for life as an adult.  But we give them little slack time in which to allow that transformation to take place. They’re absorbing all that it means to awaken sexually, to learn and gain mastery of their newly mature body. And they have relationships they care deeply about, with friends whose issues now go far deeper than skinned knees or broken Barbie dolls.

What’s a parent to do in this new and confusing territory, in order to love and guide his or her teen offspring well? How does a parent promote connection at this stage of parenting?

Your teen may not show it, but he needs a close, warm connection with you, his parent, as much as he did when he was a toddler! It’s closeness--a feeling that his parents understand him, and that he can depend on their love--that gives a teen the best chance of honing good judgment as he navigates the maze of hazards before him. Extensive research shows that it’s this sense of closeness with a parent that best predicts good outcomes for teens. Not the schools they go to. Not the amount of economic resources they have. Not their culture or the size of their family. A sense of connection.

The foundation step is to learn to listen. Most of us aren’t really good at listening, especially when the topic is a hot one. We want to be heard!  

But our teens are the ones who are forming crucial judgment. And nothing develops their minds better than experience, preceded and followed by the support of a good listener. A listener offers warmth, confidence in the intelligence of the other, and space to explore new things and new thoughts.

This is a tall order for a parent. For instance, when a child absolutely does not want to go on the family vacation because of a social event he’s set his heart on, and he’s temptingly close to being able to stay home independently, what’s a parent to do? How is a parent to decide?

Your first step is to hear your teen out, and save your decision, and your response, for another time. If you’re handling the situation above, for instance, propose that you say “No,” and ask how he would feel. Then, sit tight for the barrage of feelings:  anger, mistrust, hostility, or rage. It’s important that you let him speak his mind, however heated his feelings may be. If things go well, he’ll be able to cry, or tremble with rage, without being careful of your feelings.

This is what his emotional system is designed to do. Feelings that are ugly on the inside create miles of separation between parents and children. When you listen, without immediate advice or judgment, you allow that emotional charge to ground itself, like lightning: there’s lots of heat and energy, but the upshot is that his roiling emotional tension has a chance to release.

For your teen, it’s a relief to have his parent, the person he most wants to love him, hang in while his emotions take over. When he feels he can’t give you this full-color picture of his emotional life, he can’t go to you for help. He can’t let your love in to the places where he struggles. These emotional episodes lessen the mental work he has to do during the other more rational hours of each day. If he has someone to listen to him, his mind will be freer to function. It’s less dedicated to the management of feelings, and he can do more and better thinking until that emotional load piles up again.

Listening allows for a better meeting of the minds afterward, but it’s easy to get riled up yourself. We don’t want our teens to feel upset. We don’t want them to hate us. We don’t want to feel unappreciated. So when we’re trying to listen it’s easy for their upsets to zap our perspective. We go quickly from wanting to listen to wanting to attack, defend ourselves, lay down the law, or walk out on this exhausting job of parenting.

The parents I know who’ve stayed the most creative, the most resilient, and the most interested in the challenges their teens have presented are those who have set up consistent family listening times. They learn to take long turns listening. Then, and only then do they talk and allow their own feelings to roll with a listener. These listening exchanges can be anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour turns for each partner, and they do a world of good!

What most parents find is that when they have someone to listen to their fears, witness their exhaustion, and understand all the unseen efforts they make every day, their lives with their teens go much better. They often find that their own experience as teens has left them with fears and worries that don’t fit their present situation. Their listener helps them diffuse these emotional land mines from the past, so they can better see when their worries are connected to present issues, and when they’re connected to things that happened a long time ago.

We love our teenagers. We want them to thrive. And we deserve to thrive as we parent them. Listening builds closeness. For parents, exchanging listening dependably relieves the stresses of the present and the emotional aftermath of the past. It’s such a gentle, available, and powerful tool for unearthing caring, refreshing parent energy, and communicating respect to teens at the times when love and limits become most tangled.

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