Making Space for Teenagers to Talk
We've all heard the groans from parents of teens - how hard it is to parent a teen; how they make our lives difficult; how we just have to "grin and bear it" during this stage of development. Being a parent of a teen is different from being the parent of an infant, preschooler, or elementary school-age child. We have to learn different skills as a parent.
Teens can be interesting, intelligent, funny, and affectionate. But they are facing some major challenges in their lives that may affect how much we see of those positive qualities. These changes include:
- Rapidly changing bodies
- Often increasing pressures in terms of school work and participation in a variety of activities
- Facing constant pressure to know what they want to do after high school (who knows that at 16 or 17?)
- New and changing relationships with friends and significant others
They continue to need our love, closeness, appreciation, and interest in their lives especially during the often times turbulent teenage years. While they may not openly show it, our teenagers want us in their lives and need our support and caring to help figure out these many new challenges they are facing.
One of the best things we can do is be available when our teens want to talk.
These times may be inconvenient and may occasionally mean staying up late at night or hanging out for long periods before they will start to talk. Staying up late with a teen communicates that we are sometimes willing to do things her way. Hanging out for awhile allows a teen to remember we care and are connected. Connection helps open up the way for conversation.
Plopping yourself down on your son's bed with your own book and listening to his music may at first elicit an exasperated "Oh Mom!" but after asking some questions about his favorite musical artists, he may start to open up. Or it may mean watching TV or playing video games together. This is not the time to ask probing questions, but just to listen, be around, and let him decide when and if he wants to talk.
Some parents of teens find that car rides are a good time for this. Not being face-to-face sometimes allows the talking to come. Conversations often start with more trivial content and move to more serious. Notice the moments that seem to be most conducive to talking and periodically try to quietly re-create these kinds of times.
Many of us complain that our teens don't respect us, but we often don't model respect towards them.
When there is something that we must discuss with our teen that really can't wait, don't spring it on them—set up a time to talk. "I really need to talk to you about how we are going to handle scheduling use of the car. Can you talk tomorrow at 6?"
You may sometimes be the target of your teen's frustrations.
When teens (and younger children) feel comfortable, they may start off by focusing their frustrations on you. It is worth trying to listen through this, not argue, and remember that they are reaching for you because they trust you and need some help. You typically will be closer on the other side of the talk.
When our teens do open up, we need to give them space to think for themselves.
They aren't going to do everything the way we did it, nor the way we think they should. We didn't do that with our parents either. We can listen and support and set limits. We can ask for their thoughts and opinions and not always assume we know more.
Think of being the parent of a teen as a new, exciting challenge to figure out. Try listening more than talking and telling. Our teens care about us and whether they articulate it or not, they want us close.
For further reading, one of the classic parenting books on keeping children talking is "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.
- Parenting Teens Online is a great resource for parents
- KidsHealth offers a parent's guide to surviving the teen years
- By parents for parents writes about a new year's resolution to be a better parent
- Partnership for a Drug Free America shares how to get your teen to open up and talk to you more (and text a little less)