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The Cool Communicator: Getting Teens to Talk Without Pulling Teeth

The Cool Communicator: Getting Teens to Talk Without Pulling Teeth

By Jody Pawel ~

Parents often ask me how to get their children/teens to confide in them. Here are a few “starting” suggestions.

First, think like teens. When I do workshops with teens, I ask if they talk to their parents. Most groan and roll their eyes. I ask them to list their reasons for not wanting to talk. Here is one list, exactly as they wrote it:

•   Afraid will use against us.

•   Don’t want them to get mad at me for what I feel or did.

•   If we open up, they will interrupt us and preach.

•   Keep bringing up the past.

•   They try to make us learn from their mistakes, instead of letting us learn from our own.

Whether parents actually do any of these does not matter as much as the fact that many teens believe their parents will — so they don’t risk opening up.

So Rule #1 is to listen to the small stuff. This is how teens test whether they can trust parents with the big stuff. Put down what you are doing and give your full attention. Be present, really listen and, at least, nod your head.

Then — this is the important thing most of us don’t do — summarize what they told you and how you think they might be feeling about it. Do not give advice or ask “How does that make you feel?” Teens usually think, “Well if you’d been listening it would be obvious!” In words that are authentic to you, say something like, “You sound (feeling) because (summarize what) happened.”

If they think you don’t understand, they’ll clam up. If you show you are trying to understand but are off-base, they’ll often clarify by sharing more. If you are on the money, they’ll usually keep talking.

Now comes the tricky part. When teens open up, they may tell us things we don’t want to hear. We often shut down communication by getting upset, telling them what to do, or minimizing their issues by saying, “It’s not a big deal. Don’t let it get to you. Let it go.” It sounds so wise, but to teens their issues are a big deal and they don’t have much experience in “letting go.”

Parents, we must realize that if we invite our children to open up, we have to be ready to handle whatever comes out — and learn how to bite our tongues and not jump in. So what can we do?

The number-one most important skill all parents need to learn is how to ask helpful questions. I’m not talking about fact-finding questions that “grill” teens, but questions that “put the ball in the child’s court” and help children think for themselves. Here is an example:

Teen says: “Joey is such a jerk!”

Typical response: “That’s not a nice!”

Effective response: “Wow, you sound mad at Joey. What did he do?”

Teen says: “He called me a —— in front of my friends!”

Typical response: “Well don’t let it bother you.”

Effective response: “Jeez, that was hurtful and humiliating! What did you do?”

Listen – without judging. Decide if he needs to (a) just blow off steam or (b) find a solution. If (b), ask “So what can you do?” Listen to your child’s ideas, ask “what would happen if you did that?” and let them decide what to try. If they suggest an unhelpful idea, keep asking, “Then what would happen?” or ask a question that helps them think about something you think they need to consider.

Finally, remember three important points:

1.  The quality of the child’s solution is not as important as the process by which the child reached it.

2.   The only way children will learn to solve their own problems is with practice. Parents can be supportive and helpful by guiding their children/teens through this process without taking over.

3.   Some people are internal problem solvers. Encourage them to write down their feelings and ideas.

Get more information from Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, second-generation parent educator, president of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, parenting expert to the media worldwide, and author of 100+ practical parenting resources, including the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop at: