Sue Scheff: Getting Teens Talking

I speak with parents frequently and the most common problems I hear is the lack of communication with their teenagers today. Connect with Kids has a great article to help you break through this communication barrier with some great tips and ideas in dealing with your teens.

"You can push too much and that’ll shut the child down. So it’s a fine balance: Be available, be a good listener, and also know when you do need to push in case they’re into some things that they shouldn’t be.”

– Gloria Meaux, Ph.D., psychologist

How much do teenagers tell their parents?

“I hardly share anything with my parents,” says 16-year-old Derek Kelley.

“I share very little with my parents,” says 18-year-old Tyler Wichelhaus.

And Jessie Donaghy gives an example of a question she hates: “How was your day?”

“When you’ve had a horrible day, you just feel like people at school are mad at you,” she says. “Your classes went horribly, you failed a test. It can almost be an insult without them knowing it, because it just seems insensitive.”

Experts say parents are better served asking about something specific: school projects coming up, weekend plans with a friend, or a test that the child may be worried about

“The specific questions, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you want them to communicate back to you than some general question that you could ask a stranger on the street,” says Dr. Meaux.

“Sometimes she’ll be like ‘so how is that situation going with this person’ and I’ll just burst out crying,” says Jessie.

Experts say it starts by being easy to talk to. “You’re sort of the approachable parent, that you listen more than you talk, and listening is the hard thing,” says Dr. Meaux.

And once they truly believe you’re listening, experts say they’ll open up more.

“The more talking they’ll do because they’ll be open,” says Licensed Clinical Social Worker Freddie Wilson. “[They’ll be more open if they feel] you’re open to hearing what I’m saying rather than talking and giving them solutions and solving their problems for them. They want someone to hear them.”

And knowing when your child really needs your ear comes from getting to know your child.

“I’ll look at her and I’ll say ‘You look like you’re down, did something happen?’ Yea. Was it so and so? Yea,” explains Mrs. Donaghy.

“It helps to know that she cares and that she’s actually wanting to know about things,” says Jessie.

Tips for Parents

While the teenage years can be a very frustrating time for parents and teenagers alike, no secret formula exists for talking to teens. But the Harvard School of Public Health’s Parenting Project, which conducted extensive research on parenting teens, found that “significant agreement” exists among experts regarding important basic principles for opening the communication lines.

The project’s most recent report highlights the basics of raising and communicating with your teenagers and includes a list of strategies for each. In the report, Dr. Rae Simpson says parents need to “love and connect” with their teen.

“Teens need parents to develop and maintain a relationship with them that offers support and acceptance,” Dr. Simpson writes, “while accommodating and affirming the teen’s increasing maturity.”

According to the report, you can connect with your teen by following these suggestions:

Watch for moments when you feel and can express genuine affection, respect and appreciation for your teen.
Acknowledge the good times made possible by your teen’s personality and growth.

Expect increased criticism and debate and strengthen your skills for discussing those ideas and disagreements in ways that respect both your teen’s opinions and your own.

Spend time just listening to your teen’s thoughts and feelings about his or her fears, concerns, interests, ideas, perspectives, activities, jobs, schoolwork and relationships.

Treat each teen as a unique individual distinct from siblings, stereotypes, his or her past or your own past.
Appreciate and acknowledge each teen’s new areas of interest, skills, strengths and accomplishments, as well as the positive aspects of adolescence generally, such as its passion, vitality, humor and deepening intellectual thought.

Provide meaningful roles for your teen in the family, ones that are genuinely useful and important to the family’s well being.

Spend time together one-on-one and as a family, continuing some familiar family routines, while also taking advantage of ways in which new activities, such as community volunteering, can offer alternative ways to connect.

By respecting and loving your teenager, you open the lines of communication and build a supportive and trusting environment so that your child feels comfortable opening up to you.

Dr. Simpson offers this key message to parents: “Most things about [your teen’s] world are changing. Don’t let your love be one of them.”

Research has shown that while teenagers want their freedom, they also appreciate their parents showing concern for them and being interested in their daily activities. Experts have listed guidelines for parents to set for their teenagers while still allowing them room to grow.

Monitor what your teen watches on television.
Monitor what your teen does on the Internet.
Put restrictions on the music your teen purchases.
Know where your teen spends his or her time after school and on the weekends.
Expect to be told the truth by your teen about where he or she is going.
Be “very aware” of your teen’s academic performance.
Impose a curfew.
Eat dinner with your teen six or seven nights a week.
Turn off the television during family meals.
Assign your teen regular chores.
By setting some or all of these rules, you will be in control and have a working knowledge of your teen’s activities, while still allowing them to make their own choices and decisions.

Bonus Families
Families are Talking
The Media Project
Focus on the Family

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