Lately I was in a conversation where plenty of information was transferred, lips were moving, my ears were working, but there really wasn’t a connection. I asked a young teenager in our Heartlight residential counseling program how she was doing. It was a simple question in passing, and I expected a simple answer. Instead, the young lady proceeded to tell me everything about herself, everything she ever did, everything she ever accomplished, everywhere she had ever traveled and every talent she had.
She reported how she could play the guitar, the cello, the violin, the piano, the harp, the drums, the trumpet, the bass guitar, the flute, the clarinet, and the tuba. She told me about all the things she likes to do, and all the things she doesn’t like to do. She talked about how she is a swimmer, a gymnast, a dancer, an equestrian, a pianist, a volleyball queen, and a lacrosse player.
She “shared” how she was homecoming queen, the “most likely to succeed” in her class, winter ball queen, spring fling queen, and strawberry festival queen. She told me what she wanted to be, and what she did not want to be. She told me all her hopes and dreams, and all her disappointments and failures in one breathless dissertation.
You get the picture, right? All I did was ask her how she was doing! She responded like a chatty doll on steroids, an energy bunny with a mouth instead of a drum — one that kept on going, never stopping to hear a response or to ask me anything.
I quickly realized that this one-way “conversation” was a desperate cover-up of what was going on inside her. She wanted me to know she is worth something and she plead her case based on her accomplishments.
I was saddened because I could see that this young lady really wanted to participate in a meaningful discussion, but the more she talked about herself and her achievements, the more she hid what was really on her mind. She did well at talking, but failed completely at connecting and communicating. It was like a one-way sales pitch without the closer.
When she took a breath, I finally got a chance to wedge in a better question that might open a real dialogue. Her demeanor completely changed when I asked, “What’s been the most difficult thing that has happened in your life?” Her chattering stopped, her eyes whelped up with tears, and she replied, “When my Dad died and I felt all alone.”
Suddenly, there was silence. I stood looking at her for a few seconds and instead of trying to come up with the right words to say, I just gave her a hug. She wanted to talk, but I encouraged her, “Hey, hey, hey… you don’t need to say anything.” Her mother, also standing by, began to talk in an attempt to ease the awkwardness of the situation. I quietly motioned and said to her mom,”Shhhhh… we’re communicating.”
Finally, a real connection was made. Finally, we could talk about the most important things in her life — her real self, not just her accomplishments.
The point is this… talking with or to your teenager does not necessarily mean you’re communicating. In fact, too much talk can actually cover up what really needs to be said. Sometimes the most important connection with your teen can happen with very few words.
When was the last time your teenage son or daughter asked your opinion? Does your child listen to you and discuss life’s significant issues and difficulties? In other words, do you have meaningful, two-way dialogues, or does most of your communication tend to be one way?
I’ve found that the best way to build better communication with your teen is to find an activity you can participate in together and do so with all your might. Then, talk less yourself, so you don’t get in the way of what they may have to say.
Conversation naturally comes out of having fun together. This is especially true for boys, who seem to process life while they are involved in an activity of some sort. Talking less during these activity times may be difficult for you, but when it comes to getting teenagers to open up, you can’t shut up too much.
Our Heartlight counselors sometimes shoot pool, go for a walk, or play video games with kids during their counseling sessions, and that is when the kids really open up. The application for your home is plain enough. If hunting is your child’s interest, go hunting. If riding horses is considered fun, then go horseback riding together. You may not learn how to skateboard, but you can build a ramp and run the video camera while your child does his thing.
The point is, if you participate in some activity with your teen that he or she really enjoys, you’ll find more opportunities to communicate while you are doing it together.
By the way, be sure to prevent distractions during your activity time. Don’t bring other friends or siblings along. Don’t allow your teen to bring a radio or iPod, and be sure to shut off your Blackberry. And by all means, don’t announce the activity is for the purpose of having a talk. Just leave the space open and available while you are with them, to see what happens next. Then zip your lip, be quiet, and practice listening.
Your silence allows your child to fill the conversational void. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but that’s the point. In their discomfort, they’ll do the talking and say things they may not have said otherwise. So, if you quit talking, you will begin to gain some ground in connecting your child’s thinking.
Your teen may never have a long discussion with you; it may always be the instant message version. But listen carefully, because what is said will probably be short and you’ll have to read between the lines and ask a few quick questions to clarify what they meant. This signifies that you are really listening and wanting to understand them.
What you say or how much you say is not even really that important. The important thing is to build an atmosphere where your child feels safe to share their thoughts and feelings.
The times a teenager will really listen to you are few and far between. But they’ll listen you more if you take time to listen to them.
Building good communication with your teen can start by participating in an activity your teen enjoys doing, and then using that time as an opportunity for you to listen, not talk.
Are you looking for ways to really connect with your teen’s deepest hopes, concerns and fears; or is the mode of communication between the two of you an endless stream of superficial words? I encourage you to stop the chatter, look for issues that need to dealt with under the surface, and connect with your teen in a truly meaningful way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.