Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Studies show us that despite all the risky options swirling around our tweens and teens, the strength of our relationship with them can be one of the strongest factors influencing them to make healthy decisions through it all. Broken down further, this entails, one, our kids feeling like we truly know, respect and care about them, and, two, our ability to have ongoing two-way dialogue through their adolescence about all that scary stuff “out there.” We’ve got to be unwaveringly committed to knowing, understanding, and being able to talk with them about their internal and external worlds. Including when they make it really hard for us. This is why having a repertoire of artful Communication Jedi* Skills is key. Luckily for us, teens have been talking to me for 18 years about how they wished their parents communicated with them!
In Teen Communication Jedi* Skills: PART 1 I broke down the “Foundational Five:” Respecting Time and Space, Open-ended Questions and Statements, Listening, Checking (verbal and non-verbal) Tone, and I Statements. Let’s deep dive a level further with our next five skills.
The basic skill: Acknowledge your kiddo’s thoughts and feelings as valid before communicating yours.
Why & how: Every day I hear how kids feel regularly feel dismissed, condescended to and invalidated by us adults, and thus walk into interactions with us ready to get defensive (fight) or just check out as we talk at them (flight, freeze). There’s awesome power in simply acknowledging that you hear what your child is saying and that whatever question, opinion, or feeling they have is valid. Letting them know you hear, understand (or are trying to) doesn’t mean you have to agree. When you disagree, then you follow it with an I statement. Often their shocking statements are just meant to challenge us to see if we’re truly going to let them become their own people and if we’re truly safe people to bring tough and confusing stuff to. We want to prove it’s a resounding “yes” on both fronts.
“That’s an interesting point.”
“That makes sense to me.”
"I understand this is hard for you."
“I can see why you’d feel that way. I feel really differently about it because..."
The basic skill: Reflect back the paraphrased bare essence of not just what your teen is saying to you, but how you’re hearing and seeing them feeling about it - i.e: “You sound upset about that.” Don't just repeat it back - that's weird and annoying.
Why & How:
Our kids expect a lot of our communication to consist of directives and persuasiveness based on our own underlying agendas. Throwing down a reflection lets them know we're genuinely listening to, and caring about them. We're not just tuning in to what they’re telling us, but also to what’s “between the lines” that they may not have words for, and attempting to empathize with them. This is just taking validation to a deeper level.
“That sounds like a tough situation.”
“Seems like you were really confused about what to do.”
“Sounds like the party wasn't all you hoped it would be."
8. THE ALMIGHTY AND vs the BIG OLE BUT
The basic skill: When expressing a difference of opinion or an apology to your adolescent, refrain from your urge to follow it with a “but” and instead use an AND or a period and pause. As subtle as this is, the AND (spoken or not) serves as the glue between your opinion/experience and theirs, allowing room for both to coexist.
Why & How:
As my own son had to remind me, following a validating statement with a BUT, “is like erasing what you just said”...and thus our kids’ sense of being understood and respected.
“I hear that you don’t think vaping is a big deal. It makes sense to me why you would think that (validating) and I disagree. I’ve been doing some research and getting some very different information (I statement).”
“I know you felt like I wasn’t hearing you (reflection). I’m sorry I walked away. [pause] I was having a hard time listening when I felt so disrespected by the way you were speaking to me (I statement).”
9. ASK PERMISSION FOR INPUT
The basic skill: When your kids share their tough or confusing life experiences with you, ask them whether they’d like to hear your ideas or related experiences instead of assuming it’ll be helpful for them. If it’s a must-have conversation, give them room to choose when it happens.
Why & how: Another daily complaint I hear from teens is that sometimes they “just want to vent” and we adults have a habit of automatically launching into advice-giving and trying to fix things. It’s just our love-based instinct. We have so much brilliant wisdom to impart, and surely all their problems would be immediately solved if they just followed our lead. But, this can feel really disempowering at a time when they’re trying to gain more trust in their own capabilities and strengthen their own problem-solving muscles. So first listen, next validate or reflect, and then simply let them know you’ve got some input if they’d like to hear it.
“What a tough day (validation)! I went through something really similar with my friends at your age. Would it be helpful to hear how I handled it?”
“That sounds like a difficult situation (validation). I’ve got some ideas if you’re open to hearing them.”
“I’m worried about you having unprotected sex, babe (I-message). I totally get that’s an awkward conversation for you (validation), but I’d like to talk to you about contraception. When can we do that?”
The basic skill: When we get all of the above (and more) wrong, it’s crucial that we own it. This models an accountability, authenticity, and grace that we want our kids to have with us, others, and themselves.
Why & how: Our teens are crouched and waiting for any glimmer of hypocrisy...and we give them plenty of it! Acknowledge where you fell short of how you believe in parenting, that you realize it felt crappy on the other end, and commit to keep imperfectly working to do better. It will go a long way in disarming and building trust with your kiddos. Remember to end your apology with a period and not a Big Ole But!
“I’m sorry I spoke to you so sarcastically this morning. I feel really disrespected when you talk to me that way, so that was just straight-up hypocritical of me. I promise to keep working on that.”
“I’m sorry I was mocking your friends. I would’ve gotten pretty pissed too if you did that with my friends.”
Bottom line is this: the more comfortable our kids feel talking with us, the greater chance we have of being let into and influencing how they navigate their increasingly challenging worlds. Working the above strategies seamlessly into our communication - without our teens suspicious we're "doing an awkward thing" - takes experimentation, practice, and patience. Now that your Jedi training has begun, Initiates, you’re ready to bravely embark on those challenging conversations about substances, sex, porn, mental health, dating, and friend drama with your tweens and teens! May “the force” be with you.
*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.
The Ten Teen Communication Jedi Skills are a skimmed and trimmed version of what will soon appear in the upcoming e-book “How to Be a Teen Whisperer.” Stay tuned!