Communicating with Your Teen
Raising a teenager in this day and age is a scary proposition. But if you have someone between the ages of 13 and 19 living in your house, you don't really have a choice. We all want our kids to like us. We know they love us, but liking us is another thing entirely. We want them to talk to us – and to actually listen when we talk to them. So how can you make this happen?
How can you have a good relationship with your teenager? What's the secret? Many parents get so caught up in making sure their teen is on the right path and doing the right thing that they forget to connect by spending quality time with them. Nothing takes the place of getting involved and interested in your child's life. We often think of quality time for very young children, but this term still applies when they are teenagers.
"Teens today need more quality as well as quantity time," says Dr. Larry Jenson, Ph.D., who has taught parenting development courses and workshops for more than 34 years. "Many experts document this need, but it seems that many believe that since teens are more self sufficient they require less maintenance, supervision or monitoring. Not so. In fact the best predictor of positive outcomes for teens raised in high-risk neighborhoods is maternal supervision."
Peg*, mother of 15-year-old Chessy, finds time to spend with her daughter. "It's very important to her," Chessy says. "She likes it when we can go to dinner, just the two of us, or lunch or shopping. We usually try to seize the opportunity when my younger one has a sleepover. Sometimes we'll go see a PG-13 movie that's not appropriate for her younger sister."
Kathy*, mother of 17-year-old Brandon and 15-year-old Tiffany, makes sure all her kids have time alone with her. "Once a month, I separately take each of my three kids and let them pick what they want to do, and we go do it," Kathy says. "We have a ball doing this! It gives you time with each one of them and you really get to know them a lot better. We also do things together as a family quite a bit."
Really Listen to Them
We've heard this statement a thousand times – listen to your kids. When they are teens this is more important than ever.
"Always pay really close attention to what your teens are saying to you, even if they are acting out when they are talking, and look them straight in the eyes and let them know you care about what they are saying," Kathy says.
"Listen when your kids talk," Peg says. "They always seem to want to talk to you the minute you sit down with the newspaper for five minutes to yourself. But put the paper down and listen. It's an honor and privilege that they want to share with you."
With our hectic schedules, finding the time to sit down and talk for some families can be difficult. Dinnertime is a wonderful place to start. Try to have at least one – if not more – sit-down family dinners per week. Be prepared, however, for an important conversation to start at the most unlikely of times.
"You never know when those important conversational moments are going to crop up," says Lisa*, mother of 13-year-old Zach. "They never happen when I want them to, but they do happen and you have to be ready to make the most of them without jumping up and down and making a big deal out of it."
But what if we don't like what they're saying? As a parent it can be hard to really listen when all you want to do is tell them your opinion about something with which you don't agree.
"You need to work hard to be nonjudgmental," Dr. Jenson says. "Certainly, as a parent, you want to respond in an honest, helping and counseling manner, but maybe it would be better to wait or at least delay your response. At least wait until they are finished communicating what they want to say. Then agree with all that is agreeable, but say something like, 'There are some things you said that are troubling to me,' 'I don't understand,' or 'Let me think about what you said,' and 'We will continue this conversation later.'"
But Do They Really Listen to Us?
OK, so at least once a week you sit down at the dinner table with your kid and really listen to her, but does she really listen to you? Most teenagers do not take advice – especially advice they don't agree with – very well. But as a parent, we are obligated to protect our children and to steer them in the right direction. How can we get them to listen to us?
"If a parent listens first the teen will in turn be more likely to listen," Dr. Jenson says. "Second, make yourself useful or needed. Parents have a lot to offer but teens need to know this. Third, use humor wherever possible and begin by making the conversations pleasant."
Lisa says she and her teenager seem to be at a really tricky stage right now, and no matter what advice she gives, it's not right. "He thinks we're nagging," Lisa says. "That's very frustrating. If he comes to us first and asks for help, then he is more likely to listen to us and take into account what we say. If we offer it unsolicited, most of the time it seems he's either humoring us or else he kind of tunes out. That glazed-eye look starts to happen, especially if the advice goes on for more than a couple minutes and it begins to turn into a lecture."
Margie*, mother of 13-year-old Kristen, found a place where her daughter actually listens to her – the car. "We spend a lot of time commuting, and I've found talking in the car to be quite effective," Marge says. "It's not like she can get mad, run to her room and slam the door. And in its own weird way, [it's] quite conducive to intimacy."
Set a Good Example
Setting a good example for your child is also important. Why should they listen to you if you do not practice what you preach?
"You can't very well expect your children to listen to any of your advice unless you yourself live it," says Karen*, mother of Jason, 19, and Clayton 13. "Follow the rules – if you don't, why would your children? Do you slide through stop signs when driving? Do you ever ask your children to say you are not home for a phone call when you are actually right there? Do you give back the extra change if the cashier makes a mistake or keep silent and keep the money? No one is perfect, but the more we as adults try to practice what we preach, the more apt our children are to listen to us."
What if your child just doesn't want to open up to you? When should you be concerned? When could this be a sign of something more serious?
"Certainly there are quiet, less talkative people, but in a family setting people should be talking," Dr. Jenson. "I would try to re-establish the relationship in a way that there is a lot more interaction and involvement with each other. Don't just let the teen withdraw to another world of friends, school or entertainment."
"Just keep talking and listening," says Peg. "Sometimes your child won't have something to say, but one day, [he'll] open up and tell you everything. You just have to be patient and let it come when [he's] ready. And let [him] know you're waiting."
* Last name withheld to protect privacy.