What To Do When They Just Won't Talk (page 2)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.
So, let's just set the stage. Your son or daughter is entering adolescence or may be fairly launched into that exciting, confusing, exhilarating stage of life. You've had a good, strong relationship. You still do. But … you know you want to keep conversations going about relationships, life goals, and sexuality and suddenly, you're talking, they're not. Maybe they're rolling their eyes, looking past you, shrugging their shoulders. Or, maybe they listen when you talk, but they are silent. What's a parent to do????
First of all, don't panic! It is normal for teens to have their silent times, their stormy times, and their close and conversational times. It may not be on your time schedule, but that's normal, too.
Second, remember that you have been communicating with your teens about sexuality and relationships from the moment they came into your life—whether you've ever actually had a formal conversation about those topics or not. They have been listening, observing your behaviors and your values, through your behaviors, from day one. Over time, they simply absorb much about your values and what you consider important from this process. That may, in itself, give you pause, because no one is perfect and you may remember times when your behaviors have been out of alignment with your values. That's okay. Such times provide opportunities for conversation with your teens, times when you both are talking.
But, back to our original premise: they're not talking. That doesn't mean the end of communication … Here are a dozen tips for ways to keep communicating, even when they won't talk to you. The tips all pretty much fall into the category of using "teachable moments." What's a teachable moment? It's an opportunity that you find to say something brief about sexuality that might affirm a value important to you, or provide accurate information, or express the way you feel about a sexual situation. You can also use a teachable moment to invite your daughter or son to respond, if they want to.
All that fits nicely into an acronym, "FIVE," which can help you to remember the important elements of a teachable moment: Feelings, Information, Values, and Encouragement to continue. "FIVE" is also a nice reminder that you can be effective and brief—like well under five minutes!
Here are the tips:
- Remember that you communicate with your daughters and sons all the time about relationships and sexuality, simply by the way you live your life. By the way you treat, appreciate, and touch others. So, communication is happening, even if verbal conversations are not. Don't underestimate the power of your facial expressions and your expressions of affection.
- Ask for information indirectly. For example, ask what "most" kids in school do if they feel pressured to do something. Or, ask what your son or daughter's friends think about the health education curriculum. And, don't assume that you know what your son or daughter thinks, feels, or does as a result of this information that he or she has shared. If the conversation is going well, you could ask what your daughter or son thinks or feels about what the "other" kids are choosing to do/not do. You could ask what is the best thing about the health curriculum. You could ask what the current hero/heroine might say about a situation.
- Ask for help. (Part I) Most people like to be helpful, so ask your daughter or son for help. Perhaps you could say something like, "Can you help me understand a little more about sexually transmitted diseases? I think I saw that on the discussion list for your class and I just read an article in the paper that said something I didn't understand …"
- Use the media. Yes, the media. There are plenty of opportunities to say one quick sentence or two that could be a springboard to a more lengthy discussion, but could just as easily have impact on its own. For instance, you're sitting at the table, having coffee, and your teen is shoveling in the cheerios. You read a "Dear Abby" column that deals with a painful break up and what a hard time the teen is having with this. You can simply say, "This 'Dear Abby' column today sure tackles a tough topic—breaking up and how to do it fairly, in a way that won't be quite so hurtful. I believe it's important to find ways to be kind, even when breaking up…" Or whatever you think is essential to say. Let it go at that. No long lecture. No verbal essay. You might add, "How do your friends handle breaking up?" If you get no response, let it go. And be sure to leave the paper lying around!
Or, maybe you're walking through the TV room and there's a DVD playing. You see a scene that you like. You can say, as you keep moving through the room, "I like the way that guy said straight out what he was feeling, even though he seemed a little worried about what someone would think. I admire that he stood up for himself …" Or, if something you don't like is on, same thing. Keep moving, but say something like, "That sure looks like a set up. He's lying to her. To get her to do something she really doesn't want to do? Doesn't seem like love to me. Seems like pressure."
- Post it. Lots of families have one place in their home that they use as "communication central," where they know to look for notes to each other. When you find a good article, cartoon, advice column, etc., cut it out and post it in your home's communication central. Refer to it once or twice. "Did you see that cartoon? Pretty funny, huh? And, pretty pointed about gender roles …" Encourage everyone in the family to post things here. Make comments about what you find there that you didn't post. "Hey, interesting picture of ___. What do you think we should do about ___?"
- Ask for help. (Part II) Your daughter or son may not be talking to you right now, so you can enlist the help of another adult that you trust and that your daughter or son trusts and likes. Talk with this adult—could be your brother or sister, the youth clergy, a dear friend—about what you are asking, and what you want her/him to do about confidentiality of information. What has worked well for some people is that the "other" adult tells the teen that the adult will keep everything confidential except if the adult hears something that indicates the teen may be endangering her/his life or that of another person. The adult and the teen should clearly define the behaviors each regards as "endangering." And, in those circumstances, the adult will ask the teen to talk to her/his parents, and if the teen can't or won't, the adult will.
Don't try to limit this relationship just to issues about sexuality or relationships, by the way. Every young person needs trustworthy adults in addition to parents who can significantly and safely contribute to their growth and development. So, maybe they could start out by going to a movie together (or, having dinner, tossing a ball around, going for a walk through the neighborhood, and/or talking on the phone once a week). In other words, let the relationship develop naturally. Sometimes the conversation may be about sexuality and relationships, sometimes not. But, the trust will be building and you'll know there's another adult available to your daughter or son.
- Write it down or record it. Send E-mail if your teen has her/his own address. One young person I know was in a phase of being totally unable to have a civil conversation with her father. It confused them both, and hurt them both. The father, to his credit, began leaving cassette tapes for his daughter, just five minutes or less of how he was feeling, how he missed her, why he was saying the things he was. She occasionally responded, more often verbally to him, than on a tape. Still he left them. And over the years they have both come to realize how essential it was that they found some way to stay connected. You could also leave letters or notes.
- "Take prisoners." Well, not literally. But, some parents have told me that the best conversations they have with their teens occur when they make a special time for just the two of them to go out for a meal or when an opportunity for a meal just crops up, like on the way home from some place. As one parent put it, "My son never walked away from food, no matter what he had to 'endure' to get it. Plus we're less stressed when it's just the two of us." Other parents say they have good opportunities when they're driving somewhere in the car together because at least one of them has to have their eyes on the road. If the subject is uncomfortable, they don't even have to have eye contact!
- Don't let their silence silence you. Teens typically want to know what their parents and caregivers think about sexuality, sexual behaviors, and relationships. They want to know what values are important to you. You are the adult in this situation. It is your role to initiate conversations, even when it is difficult; to keep trying again and again and again; to find ways to stay connected even as you honor your teen's journey towards independence.
- Be prepared. Know what you are willing to talk about and what you're not willing to talk about in your own history. Know which question or subject will give you the most anxiety. Think about what you'll say when the subject comes up and think about why you'll say that. Know which value question feels most unsettling to you and do some discovery about why. Then, rehearse how you want to be able to respond when any subject that is sensitive for you comes up. Actually say the words out loud, to yourself, maybe while driving; maybe in the shower. Say them to the mirror.
- Be honest. Say what you believe, what you value. Say what you're not sure about. Say what you don't know. If you say you want to think about it and will get back to your teen, make sure you do. If you forget to say something, go back and say some more. Keep it short. Keep it light. Use open ended questions to encourage conversation if there's one to be had. Use some self deprecating humor, always with you as the subject. Say something like, "I know I'm really out of it here, but …" or, "Even though you think I was born before sex was invented, I still want you to know that I believe …" Keep sarcasm and put downs out of the conversations.
- Always remember that it's not a matter of whether your teens will have conversations about sexuality. They will. It's simply a matter of whether you'll be a significant part of these conversations that happen—even if, sometimes, you're the only one talking.
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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