Communicating With Teens
Pose this question to your teenagers and the response you’re likely to get is silence.
The second we as parents say we want to “talk to them,” our teenager’s assumption is that we want to talk to them about their feelings, lecture them about something they’ve done wrong, or speak to them about something uncomfortable (like sex, drugs or alcohol use). They don’t want to talk about any of these things.
Yet kids can be chatty Kathy’s if you catch them at the right moment, and therein lies the key to talking to teenagers.
Timing Is Everything
As parents, you want and need to talk to your kids about all the items mentioned above, but if you can wait for the right opening, you’ll have more success.
When are the times your kids like to talk? For most kids, it’s not when they walk in the door, home from school or activities. They are tired, hungry, and cranky. It’s like poking a sleeping bear if you try to start a conversation. Speaking of sleep, most teenagers can’t get enough of it and are not pleasant human beings when they first get up in the morning. When a teenager wakes up also isn’t the right time to initiate any serious conversations.
But how about if you are driving in the car? Or making dinner? Or watching a television show together? Or getting ready for bed? There are natural times during the day when our kids are more receptive to having a conversation. Be observant, discover when those times are for your kids, and make yourself available at those times.
Of course, sometimes an important conversation simply can’t wait. In this case, at least give your teen a head’s up that there is something you need to speak with them about and let them know what the topic is ahead of time. Teenagers don’t like to be ambushed. Give them time to prepare. And make sure they are well fed. Hungry bears are even more dangerous than sleeping ones.
Spend Time Together
You won’t find any natural openings to talk to your teen if you aren’t spending time together. Your time together doesn’t have to be during any type of special outing, but it could be. Some parents specifically schedule one-on-one time with their kids to do something their child enjoys. It might be a shopping trip, watching a movie or theater performance together, attending a sporting event, or taking a walk or run together. If you can start this routine when the kids are younger, they will be more apt to keep up with it when they are teenagers.
Look for Opportunities
Also, become familiar with some of the things that interest your teen. You may be irritated by the fact that your teen plays on the computer all the time but carve out some to sit down and at least learn a little bit about the game. You might be surprised – perhaps your son or daughter is building virtual rollercoasters or even running a city online.
Look for opportunities during routine, day-to-day activities to spend time with your teen as well. Share regular meals together as a family, clean the house together, or do chores together around the yard. Find other common interests with your teen such as books, games, or television shows.
However you manage to carve out time with your teenager, make it count by listening more than you talk.
There’s a lot you want to tell your teen. You want to tell them how the real world works. You want to tell them what to do to stay safe in a dangerous world. You want to keep them from making the same mistakes you made.
Lecturing your teen to convey this information isn’t going to work. As soon as you launch into a lecture, your teen tunes you out. And to be fair, isn’t that what you did to your own parents?
Teenagers are at a stage in their life when they are physically able to exert their independence, and they are gaining new adult privileges like driving, but their adult brains are not yet fully developed.
Advanced brain imaging
shows that teenagers still process information in the back of their brain first. The back of the brain is the emotional part of their brain and the part of the brain that doesn’t perceive long-term consequences. The front of their brain is the area that is responsible for decision-making, planning, and self-control. The chemical signals from the front of the brain aren’t getting to the back of a teenager’s brain fast enough yet, so the emotional part of their brain reacts first.
When you start lecturing your teen, the back of their brain takes over, and they get frustrated and emotional and tune you out. If you get emotional too or your body language becomes tense and upset, that only fuels your teen’s back-brain response and makes the situation worse.
However, you can help your teen build the connection between the front and back of their brain by listening more than you lecture, and then responding calmly and rationally to what you hear them say.
Validate your teen’s feelings and show them respect, even if you are frustrated by the fact that they don’t seem to understand what you are saying. Don’t interrupt your teen. Let them say everything they need to say. And don’t take anything your teen says personally. Remember, their brain seriously may not get it yet.
Remember Talk Can Be Cheap
Finally, remember that sometimes talk is cheap. Even if you are struggling to talk to your teen, your teen is watching, observing, and learning from everything you do. You are a role model for your teen, and you can convey many of the lessons you want your teenager to learn by walking the walk, rather than talking the talk.