Somewhere around 7th grade, our sweet kiddos who’ve always initiated excited conversations about life’s every event, and seen us as the authority on the universe’s wonders, often start to communicate in dismissive grunts, monosyllabic words and act like they’re tolerating a discussion with us as if it’s a teeth cleaning. Maintaining connection and two-way dialogue through teen years is crucial as their lives get more complicated, and choices become more serious and risky. We need to understand their worlds to help guide them healthily through all the tough and scary stuff “out there.” But they’re not likely to make this easy on us. It’s going to require some serious Communication Jedi* skills.
Know that despite the dismissiveness and venom we sometimes get from our teenagers, they want more than anything to be connected to us, and for us to know who they really are. But as one teen said to me “Parents just go about it so wrong so often.” So, I bring you some basic communication essentials I’ve learned from the thousands of middle and high school students I’ve been honored to work with (and the three I’ve raised) over the past two decades.
FIRST...A FOUNDATIONAL PIECE OF INTEL
At the foundation of all of our interactions with our teens needs to be an understanding of what's going on in their noggins. The survival defense system in our brains (amygdala) is extra reactive during adolescence, so it's important to constantly keep in mind that anything registering as a “threat” can cause a natural and quick flip into fight, flight or freeze mode.
What this looks like in our Adolescents:
Fight: Arguing, defensiveness, exploding
Flight: Hiding, avoiding, withdrawing
Freeze: Shutting down, faking compliance
All of the above reactions will get in the way of our having a productive dialogue with our kids, so maneuvering around them is going to be central to our 10 Teen Communication Jedi* Skills. Here are the first 5 Basics.
1. RESPECTING TIME & PLACE
The basic skill: We recognize and respect that our kids are easily overwhelmed, embarrassed, and uncomfortable by being conscientious of when and where we talk to them about more sensitive topics.
Why & How: Count your blessings if you have that rare tween/teen that wants to jump up on your bed and have heart-to-hearts about meaty life issues. Here are tips for the rest of us whose kids are squirmy with face-to-face deep talks and “cringy” topics.
Keep it short & simple - Weaving and under-5-minute conversation into everyday functioning can make things more digestible and realistic to their attention spans and bandwidth versus “a big epic talk.” It also helps set a norm that this is just what we do as a family...we talk without fear or taboo about life’s tough stuff as we encounter it.
Talk while doing - Seize non-threatening side-by-side activity moments (cooking, gardening, hiking, car rides, shooting hoops, etc.) as opportunities to open up valuable conversation. Some kids will be more receptive to talk about tougher topics when they're not actually looking you in the eye. Being physical has also been shown to loosen up thought and communication pathways in the brain.
Keep it private - According to our adolescents’ hyper-sensitive “embarrass-o-meters,” everyone is watching, listening, and caring about what’s being said to and about them. Embarrassing our kids will leave them feeling disrespected and lose us trust points quickly, so reserve “personal” (by their definition) discussions for private spaces.
Avoid already crunchy moments - Avoid striking up a conversation when you or your child are already overwhelmed, tired, “hangry,” emotionally escalated, or hurried and distracted.
2. OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS & STATEMENTS
The basic skill: Open-ended questions typically begin with “How,” “What,” and “When,” to invite more discussion than those your kiddo can shut down with simple “yes” or “no” answers. Open-ended statements can be invitations like "Tell me about..." or "Say more about..." or reflections like "It sounds/seems like..."
Why & how:
Closed Questions Open-Ended Questions/Statements
“Did you have fun at the party?” “How was the party?” "Tell me more about the party."
“Do you agree with that?” “What do you think about that?”
“Are you ok?” “What’s going on with you today?” "You seem upset."
If this doesn’t open into an actual conversation and starts to feel like you're conducting an inquisition, just let it go. Whether they’re opening up with words in return or not, just the fact that you’re asking questions demonstrates to your kid that you not only legitimately care about their internal and external worlds, but are open to talking about it all with them. This sinks in way more than you realize and makes it all the more likely that they will come to you when they really need to talk about a situation they’re confused or concerned about.
3. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN
The basic skill: Stop talking so much, or thinking about what you're going to say, and truly LISTEN. Go ahead and drop your wisdom, real-life experience, thoughts, and feelings - they can be engaging, powerful, entertaining, and part of what keeps your kid coming back for more. Just make sure you leave even more room for your child to express their own.
Why & how: As important as making sure your teens know your opinions, values, and wisdom, is you knowing what they are experiencing, wondering, deciding, and feeling on a daily basis. If you skillfully ask your open-ended questions in a way that actually elicits a response from your child, and then follow it with a TedX talk about how they should think and feel, you’re not only going to deter them from continuing to include you in their worlds but also miss a rich opportunity to really know them. If you’re talking more than 50% of the time, it’s not a discussion; you’re lecturing. Check yourself on the urge to try to “score points” by showing how much you know, making it more about you, or proving to your child you’re right and s/he's wrong. Stay rooted in genuine curiosity and a desire to understand them.
4. CHECK YOUR TONE (Verbal & Non-verbal)
The basic skill: Consider how your voice and body language are going to be interpreted through your teen’s filter. Check anything that’s going to register as sarcasm, condescension, or an “attack.”
Why & how: Research backs up what you already know - that teens tend to misinterpret facial expressions and tones of voice as being aggressive, even when they’re not intended to be. So, if you want two-way dialogue, be extra conscientious of “toning it down.” This also means hands on hips, finger-pointing/wagging, and moving into their space. Stating our emotions can help avoid miscommunication. “I’m NOT angry at you - I’m worried for you.”
5. I STATEMENTS
The basic skill: Express your opinions and phrase your reactions with a focus on what you think, feel, observe, want, expect versus accusing, assuming, judging, making them wrong or
any other communication that might register as an assault on your child’s end. You still get to express your opinion, you just refrain from putting theirs down in the process.
Why & how: “You” language will register as an attack and put your kids on the defensive. Statements don’t have to start with “I” in a stiff formula - the key is to stay focused on your experience.
You language: I Language:
“You’re totally wrong about that.” “I disagree with you on that because…”
“You were being really disrespectful...” “I felt really disrespected when....”
*Jedi is a trademarked term by Lucasfilms. When this post goes viral and leads to money getting thrown at me, I shall re-title it to avoid being sued.