Learning to Talk (and Listen) to Your Teenager
“…don’t worry that your teenager is not always listening – worry that he or she is always watching.”
Scary though, right? Our teenagers are primed and ready to learn from us, even when we may not want them to at every moment (hey – even parents have not-so-shining moments). With the recent addition of a foreign exchange student that brings the teenage total in my house to 3, and that number can easily and exponentially multiply when friends come over to watch the game or just hang out together.
With all of these teenage moments fluttering through my house and the responsibility I know I have to keep trying a little more each day to be better for them, I’ve been reaching for all of the help I can get. This is what led me to Raising Your Teenager – 5 Crucial Skills for Moms and Dads, by Dr. Roger McIntire. Five isn’t such a high number. This seems doable, right?
The 5 Skills Parents Need to Parent Teens
In his book, Dr. McIntire assembles a list of 5 skills that parents need in order to successfully parent teens through those turbulent years.
- Know how to talk with your teen.
- Know the family “games”. These are the family negotiations and maneuvering that can make or break the roles in family relationships.
- Steer through the minefield of bad habits. Parents of teens are consistently on the lookout for bad habits – too much TV time, poor eating habits, dangerous choices with friends, etc. and it is important to learn the early warning signs.
- Teach school strategies. School is an enormous portion of life for typical teens, and when parents work with their teens as partners and give them tools to succeed, the benefits are lifelong lasting.
- Coach about time, money, and happiness. As parents we need to make sure we teach our kids about time management, money management, and the real attributes of a happy life.
Somehow the number 5 suddenly seems much larger when I think about it applied to these concepts. The first skill alone, talking with teens, is probably one of the most challenging things for parents to do effectively – I know it has been a learning process for me. One lonely number doesn’t seem like enough for such a large and important goal. But here goes nothing – I’ve been trying the steps McIntire encourages parents to use (some of which are common sense reminders), and I do see the effectiveness. It just takes work and patience.
The First Step – Talking with Teens
Even if you’re speaking the same language when it comes to phonetics, teens often seem to hold their own cultural language. For this reason McIntire suggests several strategies for communicating effectively with teens.
Manage body behavior. Why are you looking at me like that? I’ve heard that more than once from my kids, and I’ve realized that I really need to work more on my physical reaction to their words. Without even realizing it I can give a slight scrunch of my nose or furrow of even 3 eyebrow hairs which immediately puts my children on the defensive. Keep eye contact, unfold those arms, and relax the eyebrows.
Slow the pace of your conversation. When we go on and on we dominate the conversations and decrease the opportunities for our kids to contribute to the conversation. Instead they feel like they have a small window of time to speak, and it becomes like a dart game for them – throwing words that sometimes feel like sharp-tipped darts.
Don’t try to win the conversation. I love this piece of advice. If we stop looking at conversations with our teens as battles that have to be won, we change the tone and bring out more true conversation.
Give it time. Our lives our busy, but our conversations with our kids shouldn’t be rushed. They sense the need for us to hurry up and get our point across (leaving them little room for contribution). If the kids bring up a conversation topic that I know in my heart of hearts will take more time than the 3 minutes we have left before company walks through the door, I begin the conversation by telling them that what they have to say is important to me and I want to be able to have a good conversation about it, so some of it might have to “be continued”.
There are other great tips for talking with teens throughout McIntire’s book, and he goes on to further discuss ways to develop all 5 skill areas that parents need. He reminds parents that we aren’t going to like everything our teens say and do, but it doesn’t mean we need to keep those mild and really inconsequential moments at the forefront of our relationships. Perhaps his overall, practical approach is best summed up by his words regarding parenting strategies.
”The best parental strategy will include praising the good, ignoring the tolerable, and reacting with logical, mild, and repeatable consequences to the intolerable.”