Cracking the Teenager Code: Three Ways to Get Your Kids to Talk to You
If you’re a parent, you’re about halfway through the school year, one you no longer see as new, or a blank slate, but one that is likely leaving you tired, frustrated, and perplexed. Why won’t my daughter talk to me about what’s going on with her friends? Why does my son lie to me about not having homework, and why is my previous “A” student now making “C’s”? These are questions that keep parents up at night, that turn their brown hair to gray. Parenting is tough, and parenting teens through school is even tougher.
But there are ways to communicate with your kids, ways to run your home and family life, and ways to be involved in school that are appropriate, healthy, and constructive. My book Teenagers 101 talks about this from my perspective, that of a 20-year veteran high school teacher who has taught thousands of teenagers and raised two of my own. This column, which will appear each month in this magazine, will offer tidbits from my book to help you navigate the waters of raising teenagers who, with your guidance, will become responsible, respectful, and independent.
Much of my discussion in this column will focus on teens taking responsibility for their choices and the ensuing consequences. That includes paying attention in class, completing homework on their own, managing their individual schedules, learning life skills, and displaying a Christian attitude of respect and loving logic.
This month, we’ll focus on the basic foundation of these behaviors: fostering open communication between parents and kids that is calm and productive.
This begins with 3 basic steps.
1. Don’t overreact – As Christian parents, we tend to feel that if we attend church as a family, pray together, and ground our kids in the Word, they will resist temptations and stand apart from their peers. Certainly, growing up in a Christian household has a profound effect on kids. But keep in mind – they’re still kids, and no matter how important you believe yourself to be in their lives, their peers are more important. Acceptance is a basic need for all humans, and teens will do almost anything to fit in with their peers. When this happens, it is crucial that you remain calm and understanding, that you listen with an open mind and heart, and that you react in a way that will keep your kids talking to you. I’ve had some difficult conversations with my kids – in fact, lots of them – and I knew I succeeded in my role as parent when they came back for more. Even in their 20s, they call me with their problems, and while they may be afraid to tell me about a huge mistake or choice they made, they do, because they know I’ll still love them and talk them through it without judging them or “flipping out.”
2. Like or at least find good qualities in their friends and significant others – Yes, this is sometimes very hard to do. But the second you tell your kids not to talk to or hang out with another kid, you will send them running straight into that relationship. It is in teens’ natures to break away from parents and think for themselves, and while you may view this as rebellion, they view it as necessary to their independence. It’s perfectly fine to show concern about a friend, but focus on the friend’s actions and behaviors as concrete examples of your concern, versus attacking the individual. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that kid – he seems wild,” say, “I didn’t like that he stayed out past his parents’ curfew. Why do you think he did that?” Then listen. Which leads us to number 3.
3. Really listen to your kids – Probably the single biggest complaint I hear from teens about their parents is that they just don’t listen. They preach, they lecture, they talk, talk, talk (remember, this is the teen perspective), but they don’t hear their kids. As adults, we feel we have wisdom and experience to offer our children. This is true, but when we take a didactic approach to sharing advice, our kids shut down, because we are talking at them rather than to them. It’s much more constructive to ask strategic questions of your kids that get them talking so you can really get inside their heads. When they ask for advice, by all means give it, but don’t assume they always want it. Sometimes, they just want to share their thoughts, vent their frustrations, or find validation from the people they love most. Be those people, because when you are, the lines of communication will open up, and so will a whole new world of mutual respect and love.
Dr. Rebecca Deurlein is the author of Teenagers 101: What a top teacher wishes you knew about helping your kid succeed (Amazon, Barnes & Noble). She is a mom of two who has a doctorate in education and 20 years’ experience as a teacher of thousands of teens. Rebecca lives in Sugar Land, TX, and works at Fort Bend Christian Academy. She has her own freelance writing business, and her blog, A Teacher’s Guide to Understanding Teenagers, can be found at rebeccadeurlein.wordpress.com. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter. For public speaking events or more information, go to rebeccadeurlein.com.