I did my Bachelors degree in Communications, but it never prepared me for dealing with teens (particularly in groups). Tweens and teens have their own language- one that I couldn’t use, nor often interpret. They can use that language to exclude and even ridicule their parents.
When I first started working with teens, I was young enough to use their lingo sometimes, casually, so that they felt like I was one of them. That’s not a privilege that is lended to older people, including their parents. So when I started working with parents, to try to help them talk with (not talk at) their children, I had to figure out new techniques.
So let me share one idea this week:
1. “Talking At” is Less Effective than “Not Talking At All”
What I mean by this is that if you find yourself talking to your teen, and realize that he/she is not listening, then you’re basically helping to train their ears to not listen to you in the long run. It’s the same as if you live near the train tracks- at first, you hear them, but after a week or so, your ears learn to tune them out. As a parent, being tuned out is a dangerous state to remain in. Tuning out means you’re no longer giving them relevant information.
But I know what you’re going to say: they block you out when you’re giving them vital information. They block you out when you’re telling them what’s good for them, and what’s not good for them. They shut their ears when they simply don’t want to hear what you’re saying.
The fact is that there are rarely teens who actually don’t want to learn about new things. There are rarely teens who actually want to choose the worst for them. (There are some, however, that seem to, but if that’s the case with your teen, then I would say that’s a major red flag. There’s saying “I’m hurting and I’m going to hurt myself more to try to show how much I’m hurting.” If your teen is doing this, then please get them more serious help with counselors, etc.). The majority of teens are actually interested in learning and being successful and avoiding conflict and avoiding harm. It’s just the manner of delivery.
Teens live in a highly interactive world where they need messages succinctly and directly. They get the messages from their world (mainstream media, text messages with friends, etc) through one liners.
So instead of talking at them, by saying great, expected parental ways of saying things like:
“I don’t understand why you’re not doing well in that class. You are much smarter than this. I know that you can do better. We will need to get you a tutor, or you’re not allowed to go out on the weekends until you turn this grade from an F into a C. (etc etc)”
I would recommend cutting to the chase:
“Ok, what are you going to do to improve this grade?”
[wait for answer- likely there won’t be a good one given]
“Well it’s up to you to figure that out. I have some suggestions, if you want. But you’re not going out on the weekends until we see improvement.”
In the first scenario, you’re creating solutions for your child. In the first scenario, you’re sounding, well, rather predictable and blaming.
In the second scenario, you’re sending the signal that you’re happy to support them (“I have some suggestions”) but that you believe they’re smart enough to figure it out on their own. You also give them the option of asking for more of your talking, rather than being forced to listen to more of your talking. You accept that there’s nothing that can be done with their current grade (as in, in life, there will be times where you make a mistake and nothing can be done but look toward the future to make the next time better). You also outline that you have greater expectations, and there are consequences to their mistakes (eg. not getting to go out), and that it will take work on their part to solve such problems in their lives.
So basically, I’m hoping you can help your child from hearing you as background noise, while at the same time creating healthy expectations and clear consequences. May you always find a way to talk with your teen, as opposed to talk to them. Because conversations, remember, involve two people both listening and speaking, not just one talker and one listener. It’s a partnership.