How To Talk To A Teenager
Use Opportunities in their Context.
Typical conversations with a teenager
“How was your day?”
“What did you do at school today?”
Riveting conversation for sure. We all want our children to be successful. Things would be so much easier if during the teen years we just did not have to talk to them.
Our goal is to raise children who are ready to leave our house and survive in the world on their own. How do we do this? One key aspect is effective communication.
Your teenager’s job is to prepare themself to leave — to pull away and to be able to survive in the world on their own. This creates tension between parent and child. It makes communication much more difficult. This tension is illustrated in the title of one of my favorite parenting books called Get Out of My Life but Could you First Drive Cheryl and I to the Mall.
Discussions about sex
Parent-Child discussions about sex often break down because adults fail to accept one key concept. When our kids are young we tell them what our family believes. We explain what is right and what is wrong. As children age, they incorporate everything they learned from us and develop their own belief system. Their belief system is what guides their decisions. OUR opinions matter but THEIR opinion matters more. Here is the key concept:
The thoughts in THEIR heads guide their decisions.
As a parent we should be more focused on what your teenager thinks about sex and less focused on what want to tell them. What was once a monologue of one directional communication must evolve into a dialogue. Communicate often but as a conversation. Don’t give a lecture.
Speak less, Listen More
Opportunities for meaningful Parent-Teen dialogue pop up every day. You want to be ready when one arises. Imagine you are listening to a song or watching a movie. Something you find inappropriate comes up. Don’t tell your teen how awful the lyrics are. Don’t judge. Engage instead. Ask you teen what the song means. Ask what they like about it. Ask them to tell you what the TV show is about. If they answer, ask another question.
Be genuinely interested. Keep asking and allow the conversation to develop. Resist the urge to give your opinion. Seek to understand theirs. Notice as soon as you make a statement of judgment the conversation will end. They teen will shut down. Your goal is to keep the conversation going. Speak less, listen more when you are talking to teenagers.
Use opportunities in their context
When my son’s friends are at my house I always ask them lots of questions. Your child may hold out, but the friends will spill the beans if you get a conversation going. One day the topic of birth control came up. I was fascinated how much they knew. Their information was terribly inaccurate, but I was impressed they actually knew what the methods were. When I asked how they knew this they informed me they learned it from Big Mouth. It’s the Beavis and Butt-Head of 2019. It’s a show with inappropriate humor extremely popular with junior school boys. Watching the show with them opened up endless potential conversations — opportunities in context. Hit the pause button and ask them lots of questions.
Another example for younger children is the TV show Fuller House. My 9 and 11 year old’s don’t get the thinly veiled sexual innuendo jokes, but I certainly do. In each episode there are opportunities to bring up various subjects and have a productive dialogue with your child.
Music is their language
Music is a child’s language. Music presents a great opportunity for meaningful conversation. Next time you are in the car playing UberParent let them choose the music. Turn the volume down and ask them a question about the song. What did you think about what she just sang?”
Resist the urge to tell them your opinion.
Let them talk it out. Ask probing questions to go deeper. For example, here is the chorus from Milley Cyrus Wrecking Ball
“I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was break me
Yeah, you wreck me”
Inevitable eye rolling
I know when you ask a teenager “What do you think she means by wrecking ball?” They will roll their eyes at you. That’s expected. Ask again. This time the answer is going to be, “I don’t know.” Don’t stop there. Ask a follow-up question… and another….and another…..be persistent. Be interested in the answer. Listen intently. You will learn more about your child. Overtime your relationship will grow. The lifelong conversation between a parent and child will ultimately create the thoughts in their heads that guide their decisions.
Blog Author: Dr. Jeff Livingston