Are you connecting with your teenager or growing farther apart every day? Here are three things you can do to communicate and connect on a deeper level.
So, what do you and your teen talk about? My guess is that you discuss such items as academics, work, behaviors, privileges, sports involvement, picking the right friends, choosing the right clothes, performing chores, and obeying the rules of the house.
Now, take a minute and think about what else you talk about. Pretty short list, isn’t it?
Most of what we talk about is what they’re doing or need to do, not about what they’re thinking or what their passions and goals are in life. This imbalance can create the impression that your relationships with your teen is determined by their actions and how they perform, versus your desire to really know them.
The point is this… talking to your teenager does not necessarily mean you’re communicating. In fact, too much talk can cover up what really needs to be said. Sometimes the most important connection with your teen can happen with very few words. 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 in an endless stream of superficial words, demands, and lecturing? I encourage you to stop the chatter, look for what’s under the surface, and connect with your teen in a more meaningful way.
- Communicate By Asking Questions
The power of a parent asking questions is amazing. Everyone knows that when you are asked your opinion, you feel valued. I’m talking about “What do you think?” questions, not “What did you do?” questions. When asked in a non-condemning and non-prying way, these questions can convey a sense of value and relationship that is unparalleled by any other act of kindness. The movement toward a teen by asking them what they think lets them know you have an interest in them and that you value their opinion.
Talking to your teenager does not necessarily mean you are communicating. In fact, too much talk can cover up what really needs to be said.
So, ask your teen lots of questions. Not ones that make them uncomfortable, but the kind of questions that make them think about things. Find out how they would do something, where they would go, and why they think a certain way. Talk about controversial subjects as you would to a friend or co-worker for whom you have extreme respect. Never belittle their opinions about things. After all, did you know everything when you were a teen?
If parents don’t ask questions, they could be missing serious hidden situations in the life of their teen. Wise parents understand that anything can happen today, so they maintain an open line of communication with their teen to prevent things from getting out of hand if it does happen. Foolish parents never give it any thought, so they never ask questions. The most common comment I hear from the parents of hundreds of struggling teens is this: “I never knew this could happen to my child.” Let me assure you from years and years of experience that anything can happen to anyone at any time.
Engaging with your teen through the power of caring inquiry is crucial, but you must also learn to keep your mouth shut long enough to hear your teen’s answer. If you know something is wrong, be sure to inquire past their first “Nothing’s wrong” answer. And when the real answer comes out, regardless of how bad or shocking it is, don’t respond with anger or disappointment. Just listen. Establishing a line of communication is far more important at this point than scolding or getting your “I told you so” point across.
Sometimes just by asking questions you empower teens to apply the values you have taught them to their own current situation. Your questions might also encourage your teen to ask questions of you. And if she does start asking questions, she might be inviting you to a dark and shameful corner of her world. I always tell parents to ask questions, because I know it works.
- Communicate Respect in Times of Conflict
Maintaining an attitude of respect is key. It is basically putting your child first and showing them respect, even as you demand the same of them. This affects your tone and demeanor, since you wouldn’t yell at, belittle, or talk down to someone you respect. Show grace and respect in the way you communicate to your teen and they’ll learn to do the same with you.
In times of conflict, my goal for every difficult and sometimes heated discussion is this: At the end of the argument, I want there to be an opportunity for us to hug one another, even if I didn’t change my mind nor lessened the consequences. That’s the goal. Even if we can’t agree, I still remain in charge, and we can at least agree to disagree because it was all talked out.
Being respectful has nothing to do with how right you are and how wrong they are. It has nothing to do with the discipline you may need to apply to their behavior. It has everything to do with maintaining the right approach whenever you talk to your teen, and thereby maintaining your relationship. Sometimes when you need to address an issue, I again recommend asking a question. Asking a thoughtful question can help engage their thinking process and the system of beliefs you’ve taught them. You may be surprised to find they come to the right conclusion all on their own when they are shown respect in this way.
III. Communicate by Listening More, Speaking Less
Not talking is one action. Listening is another action. Just because you’re not talking doesn’t mean you’re listening. God gave us two ears and one mouth because He wanted us to listen twice as much as we talk (okay, not really, but it gets the point across). You may hear what your teen is saying, but are you really listening without trying to correct him or get him to answer the correct way?
Most of the time, your teen says things to you or to others not to communicate valuable information, but simply to process life. She doesn’t need a response or a judgment, she doesn’t need an opinion or a solution, and she probably isn’t really asking for anything. She just needs a listening ear. So take time to listen – slowly.
A Sunday school teacher once asked the ten-year-olds in her class, “What’s wrong with grown-ups?” A boy responded, “Grown-ups never really listen because they already know what they’re going to answer.”
If this sounds like you, it may be time to admit that listening is not something you do well. Polishing up your listening skills is never a bad idea. Good listening habits can easily get tossed aside in the business of life. But the way you listen to your child goes a long way in determining his willingness to share his deep concerns with you. And if you ever want him to listen to you, then you had better teach him how to listen by your example. Practice listening to your child. Position yourself at his eye level, and make lots of eye contact. And don’t worry about your answers.
She doesn’t need a response or a judgment, she doesn’t need an opinion or a solution, and she probably isn’t really asking for anything. She just needs a listening ear.
All teens want to do is talk and have someone listen to them. If a teen shares what is on her heart, and that is missed by a parent more concerned about the delivery of the message than the heart of the communication, that teen will eventually quit sharing. If your teen is in the shutdown mode, there is a reason. And the reason may be that you aren’t listening to what’s being said anyway.
Most kids want to say, “My parents listened to me, and they heard me and they valued me.” For your kid to say that, I’d say you are moving toward perfection. If you are willing to just listen, you might touch the heart of your teen and convey a sense of value. Don’t worry about your answer, just focus on listening as your teen shares their heart.
If you’ve been a bad listener, keep working at it, and share your desire to be a better listener. Find opportunities for your teen to talk, even it seems a bit forced at first. Eventually, with diligence on your part, your teen will again learn to trust their dreams, thoughts and questions with you.
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.