How to Talk So Your Teen Actually Hears You

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We adults are very wise. We have the benefit of hard-earned life lessons and perspective. So how come every time we try to impart some wisdom, our teens and emerging adults shut us down? In my experience from working with parents, usually there are a few things that can be in play. Here are 5 mistakes parents tend to make and how to fix them so your teen or emerging adult actually hears what you’re saying.

Mistake #1: Jumping Into Problem Solving Mode

When our kids come to us with a problem, we usually have at least one great idea of how they can solve it. So, being the helpful people that we are, we jump in with some solutions. But then our kids get mad at us! What gives?

Several things might be going on. Sometimes, in our excitement to solve the problem, we didn’t do a very good job of listening to what our children perceive the problem to be. We have the answers to Problem X, but our teens are worried about Issue Y.

Even if we do really understand the issue at hand, many times, our teens and emerging adults are coming to us for emotional support, not solutions. So when we jump in with action items, they feel unheard, unsupported, and frustrated.

And in other cases, our solutions come with a hint of judgment. We might feel it’s a silly situation they’re stressing over or the mess they’re in is really their fault. While those may be true, pointing that out isn’t going to make your teen or emerging adult want to hear what you have to say.

Solution #1: Actively Listen, Empathize, and Validate

The biggest key to active listening is to remember that the goal is to understand, not to respond. This requires you to be quiet for most of the conversation and drink in what your child is telling you. Ask clarifying questions. Summarize what they’re saying and check for understanding. Sprinkle in empathy and validation, and your child will be happy they came to you with their problem and much more open to what you have to say.

Potential Language to Use:

Actively listen: “Let me see if I’m understanding you correctly. (briefly summarize what they said). Does that sound right?” (And then listen if you weren’t entirely correct!)

Empathize: “Wow, that sounds so hard.”

Validate: “It makes total sense that you’re stressed about that.”

Mistake #2: Giving Unsolicited Advice

The primary developmental goal of adolescence and emerging adulthood is individuating. This is just a fancy word for becoming independent from your parents. Giving unsolicited advice makes our children angry because it pushes against their goal of being their own person and figuring out things for themselves. It can make them feel like a child again, instead of the adult their striving to be.

Solution #2: Ask Permission

By asking permission first, you’re communicating that you respect your child’s burgeoning independence and autonomy. This can be powerful in putting them in a mindset that’s more open to your thoughts. However, it’s not a guarantee your child will enthusiastically embrace what you have to say. If your child says “no thanks”, respect their boundary, as difficult as that may be. This further builds good will. So even though you don’t get to share your wisdom, you’re building a stronger relationship with your teen or emerging adult.

Potential language to use:

When your child has been talking about a problem:  Empathize and validate their experience first. Then try saying, “I think I know what might help. Want to hear my idea?”

When your child hasn’t mentioned the problem, but you know they’re struggling with something: “I read this really fascinating article on XXX. Interested in taking a look?”

Mistake #3: Using Your Adolescence as a Reference

You’ve had the benefit of surviving your adolescence relatively unscathed. So you likely have lots of great stories and advice to share. However, trying to compare your adolescence and  young adulthood to your child’s is a surefire way to get eye rolls and exasperated sighs. Why? Because, even though you may have the benefit of having grown up, you didn’t grow up in the same environment as your kids are.

Just think about it. Your child has grown up with an abundance of technology, social media, increased anxiety, and economic instability. Young people socialize and move through the world differently than they did when you were younger. The norms of friendships, academics, applying for jobs—most everything—has changed drastically since your adolescence and emerging adulthood. By using your adolescence as a reference point (e.g., “When I was a teen/in high school/just graduated college…”), your child sees you as not understanding their reality.

Solution #3: Focus on Your Child’s Reality

Instead of focusing on what worked for you when you were young, try to really understand your child’s world. Be curious. Ask questions. Refrain from making judgments. Be an information gatherer. Once you truly understand the situation, then you’ll be in a better position to try and address the situation. Not only will you actually understand the context, but your child will be more open to hearing what you have to say because you cared enough to hear it from their perspective.

Potential language to use: “Social media didn’t exist when I was in high school. I can’t imagine what it’s like. Can you help me understand?”

Mistake #4: Telling Them What to Do

Even if your child outright asks you, “What should I do?” it’s not always the most helpful to give them an answer. If you tell them to do something they don’t like, they’ll reject the solution and possibly get upset. And if they do take your advice, what if your advice leads to a bad outcome? Then the blame is all on you, even if you genuinely thought it was the right thing to do. You’re in between a rock and a hard place.

Additionally, telling your teen or emerging adult what to do deprives them of opportunities to practice problem-solving and wise decision making. This is the time of their life when they can practice these skills with the safety of having your support. Imagine if they didn’t learn good judgment until they hit the job market? Your kid would be floundering.

Solution #4: Support Them in Making Their Own Decisions

So, instead, put the responsibility back on your child to make their own decision. You can ask them helpful questions to brain storm and support them in weighing the pros and cons. If they’re really struggling with coming up with solutions of their own, try asking questions that will lead them to some ideas that you have. Going through this process is teaching them how to think instead of just learning how to blindly follow advice.

Potential language to use:

If you child hasn’t asked you for a solution: “How would you like to handle this?”

If your child is asking for your advice: “Well, let’s think this through together. What if you tried X? How do you think that would work? What about if you tried Y? Would that help?”

Mistake #5: Don’t Take Things Too Personally

Easier said than done, I know. This is your baby we’re talking about. So, yes, things will be personal. But, as I said earlier, your baby is growing up and learning how to be their own person. That means making their own choices. So, when you suggest something, make sure that’s what it is: a suggestion. Try not to make it sound like a demand or an ultimatum. That will backfire on you and lead to an argument or stone silence.

Okay, so say you make your suggestion in a totally respectful, empathetic way. And your teen or emerging adult still rejects it! The impulse will be to argue and try and convince them that your solution is best. You might even get angry. Or perhaps you get sad because it feels like your child is rejecting you. Try your very best to not take it personally and let it go. Trying to push your agenda after your child has said “no thank you” is not going to help you or the situation.

Solution #5: Respect Your Teen’s Autonomy

You may think your child is making the biggest mistake (and maybe they are). But, as long as there are no concerns about safety, give your teen or emerging adult the space to make their own decisions. Adolescence and emerging adulthood are the developmental phases where your child is learning to be their own person. And that means respecting their burgeoning autonomy. They will live with the consequences, and those natural consequences will teach your child a lesson better than your forcing them to do something ever could.

 

Want to improve your relationship with your teen or emerging adult? Contact Dr. Crystal I. Lee for a free 20 minute consultation to see how she can help.

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