I often say that our kids came in to this world as “themselves,” full of opinions. Now as teens, they seem to have as many questions as conclusions. Amidst the great coming-of-age swirl, kids begin to test and take ownership of what they believe. It’s hard to say what wears on a parent more—talkative experts or monosyllabic drones. Too much conflict or silence corrodes communication. Consider these seven ways to connect with your teen…
1. When a teen talks, listen well.
Parents frustrate kids by jumping to conclusions. Reflect back first. A little neutral feedback (non-judgmental) conveys that what your teen is trying (and often failing) to express really matters. The way you listen will encourage or diminish their openness. Rephrase what you heard. Let them clarify.
2. Stay inflammable.
Emotional reactions trigger power struggles–a battle of wills. Avoid a vicious circle of defensiveness through self control. “Reasoning” with teens comes across like the old bumper sticker: “Be reasonable. Do it my way.” Often kids intentionally spark a debate over who is in charge. If they can get you arguing about that, they have successfully changed the subject! Make it your business when things heat up to stay inflammable.
3. Develop a courteous tone of voice.
A condescending tone can strip a teen of his power, but not without diminishing dignity. Ask yourself whether you want the golden egg or the whole goose–the behavior or the heart?” Call them to the high road through your own respectful tone. Your tone can shame them into submission rather than helping them own healthy choices.
4. Don’t judge feelings.
It is important to distinguish between feelings and attitudes. People can control their attitudes, not always feelings. While our attitudes can affect our feelings, we all need space to feel. Objecting to feelings drives a wedge. Validating the feeling first earns the right to confront an attitude.
When dealing with teens, it is tempting to think, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Issues get addressed only when they come up–in the heat of the moment. This approach attempts to teach without a teachable moment. Instead, anticipate, discuss, even disagree by bringing up touchy subjects off the battlefield.
6. Permit the expression of ideas.
Identity formation can seem adversarial. Teens are exploring, testing, or concluding. They often use opinions to challenge boundaries. When a parent’s value is in their crosshairs, it feels personal. Don’t equate the rejection of a boundary as a rejection of you. If you don’t yield ground during such moments, they will take a stronger position–becoming polarized. Teens need boundaries, but they also space and freedom to internalize values. Give them freedom to choose and let consequences enforce limits rather than words. Win-lose arguments can lead them to make a poor choice just so it will be their choice.
7. Hold family conferences.
Make it fun, serve dessert, get to the point. When kids learn from you that freedom increases with trust, they will be more open to time together. Healthy, trusting relationships are fed by a consistent stream of communication, not just quality time. Keep little things from becoming big things through preventative maintenance. The only other option is damage control.