Knowing how to engage in constructive dialogue with your teenager is one of the most important skills a parent can possess, but it is also one of the most challenging things to pull off well. Generally speaking, teens are not always eager to participate in a “serious” conversation with their parent(s). Nevertheless, by understanding how to effectively talk with your kids you can decrease the occurrence of destructive conflict and increase the likelihood of sending the message to your child that they have been heard and that they are valued and respected.
Your teens face important issues every day. Their ability to make good decisions about drugs and alcohol, sex, friendships and school performance is significantly enhanced by open, honest and direct communication about these issues with you. The stakes are high – one bad decision can literally affect a teenager for the rest of his or her life. When you have constructive dialogue with your teen you are also modeling for them the tools they can rely upon when encountering their own difficult conversations with peers, supervisors, spouses and, someday, their own teenager.
“I don’t know how to start the conversation.” “I don’t seem to have the time.” “I’m afraid we will get into a confrontation.” “My teen doesn’t want to talk to me.” These are reasons parents often give for why they don’t initiate conversations with their teens. Although you can’t predict the outcome of your attempt to talk, it doesn’t have to be as difficult or negative as you think it might be. Start off by asking your son or daughter open-ended questions, like, “What do you like most about your friends?” or “What do you think about teens using drugs and alcohol?”
If you don’t get much of a response, don’t force the issue. Use the opportunity to begin sharing your own thoughts and opinions. As you do, keep a couple of things in mind:
Do your best not to lecture
-Don’t expect your teen to agree with your opinions
-Keep your emotions in check and under control
-Resist the temptation to debate or argue the issue
-Don’t force your teen to listen to you
Share personal stories
Some parents are reluctant to share their own teenage experiences because they’re afraid that admitting their own mistakes will be like giving permission to their teen to make their own. It is important that your teen know that you can relate to what they’re going through and that your experiences taught you valuable life lessons that may help them to avoid the same mistakes.
Listen at least twice as much as you talk
Just because you’re talking does not mean that your teen is listening. In fact, if you dominate the conversation your teen is likely to minimize the value of what you’re saying or tune you out altogether. Ask your open-ended questions or make your point and then just listen. Teens often open up when they sense they will not be judged, criticized or lectured. Listening with undivided attention will help foster trust and respect between you.
Learn how to avoid, or disengage from, a destructive conflict
Timing is critical to being able to talk without getting into a destructive conflict. Consider waiting if one or both of you are tired, angry, emotionally sensitive or hungry. Make sure you have enough time to discuss the issue in depth. Be aware of your surroundings – don’t try to discuss private issues if others may be within listening range. Once you’re talking, some good “rules of engagement” are:
–Keep your own emotions in check
-Be willing to call a “time-out” and continue the discussion at an appropriate time
-Stay on one issue at a time
-Agree whenever possible
-Try to see the issue from your teen’s perspective
-Attack the issue, not your son or daughter
-Keep the volume and tone of your voice at a reasonable level
When you’re talking, pause often and wait for their feedback. Resist the temptation to repeat yourself (don’t beat a dead horse). Teens often repeat their point in hopes that they will change their parent’s mind. Parents often repeat themselves because they are not convinced that the message has gotten through. When you both have had a chance to state your opinions and rationale, thoughtfully make your decision and end the discussion. If your teen persists in arguing, you may need to initiate some appropriate discipline. The goal is to end your conversation with a clear decision, reasonable expectations and mutual understanding.
Always put the relationship first!
As challenging as the teen years can be, keep in mind that it is a season that eventually will pass. Communication is the key to surviving this time and maintaining a good relationship. In order to keep the lines of communication open:
Take the initiative to mend the relationship after a conflict
-Admit your feelings, disappointment, anger, hurt, etc.
-Admit when you’re wrong and apologize
-Be willing to forgive
-NEVER GIVE UP!
Your responsibility as a parent is to guide your child through the mine field of the teen years so he or she can grow to be a healthy, responsible, productive adult. In this “battle,” remember that your child isn’t the enemy, but the prize. Be sure you’re fighting strategically – and for the right reasons!
Live, Work and Relate Well!
Dr. Linaman is a psychologist and executive coach providing counseling and professional development services to individuals, couples, work teams and organizations.