The first rule for fostering communication between you and your child is simple: Never stop trying. “Parents shouldn’t misinterpret a lack of response to mean that their kids aren’t listening,” says Dr. Robert Blum, director of the adolescent health program at University Hospitals in Minneapolis, and a father of three. On the contrary, says Dr. Lia Gaggino, a pediatrician from Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Kids want to talk and want your feedback”—even if their facial expressions and body language appear to say otherwise. The tips below will help you both listen and talk in ways that will keep the doors of communication open between you and your child.
Listen. Really listen. “The parent who listens is the parent who gets heard,” says Dr. Roberta Beach, director of Denver’s Westside pediatric and teen clinics. She, like many other experts, recommends practicing active listening, also known as reflective listening. Pay close attention to your youngster’s body language, the tone and inflection of her voice and her facial expressions, all of which convey important information.
After your teenager finishes speaking, clarify the problem or question by repeating back to her your interpretation of the central idea or emotion she is trying to express, without being judgmental or critical: “I want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly, so let me repeat what you just said. Your geometry teacher made fun of you in class for giving the wrong answer, and all the kids laughed.”
You can go farther and gently suggest how you think she might be feeling. This requires the ability to empathize—to put ourselves in our youngster’s unlaced high-top sneakers and reflect on how we might have felt at that age under the same circumstances. A parent’s broader vocabulary and insight can help a teenager to sort through conflicting feelings and express herself more accurately.
“It sounds like you were really hurt, and angry at your teacher. I know if that had been me, I’d certainly have felt that way.”
Tread carefully, though. If you’re on target, your teen might reply (in astonishment, no doubt), “Wow, Mom, you really understand!” But mislabel a child’s feelings, and she’s likely to become even more upset, perhaps accusing you of not listening or not caring. Should she say in exasperation, “You just don’t get it,” Dr. Adele Hofmann suggests replying, “Well, I would love to understand.
Why don’t you explain it to me?”
Refrain from offering advice until you’re sure you’ve digested all the details.
Then ask, “Would you like to know what I think might be the best way for you to handle this?”
Only then do you give your opinion on how you think she could resolve matters.
Look at your teen when the two of you are talking. You’d be surprised how many times we don’t bother to glance up from the newspaper, the TV or washing the dishes when talking to our kids. Maintaining eye contact is just one way that we silently communicate, “I am genuinely interested in what you have to say.”
Don’t interrupt. The same admonition we give our kids applies to us as well. Respect their right to express an opinion, even if you disagree with it. And if their viewpoint is based on a misconception, hear them out before correcting them—tactfully, without being condescending.
Watch your tone of voice. Asking questions is one thing; interrogating, using an accusatory tone, is another. And let’s do our best not to bark at our teenager, as we sometimes do when we’re pressed for time or worn out at the end of the day.
Ask questions that elicit conversation. Be resourceful! Create opportunities for discussion by asking questions that compel youngsters to describe, explain, share opinions—and the more specific these questions, the more based they are on what you already know is on your child’s mind, the more effective they will be. “How did your English class like your speech this morning?” will go over much better than “How was school today?”
Grab opportunities for conversation whenever you can. Sometimes we put off talking to our kids, waiting instead for that perfect time to chat. Given today’s fast-paced lifestyles, those ideal moments arrive far too infrequently. Car rides are terrific times to talk, if for no other reason than both of you are a captive audience, in an environment free from many distractions. Another benefit is that when you are in a car you’re usually sitting parallel to each other, not face to face, which makes for a less confrontational setting.
Feel free to share your own life experiences, even those that may not cast you in the most glowing light. We say this with some reservation. Sometimes parents reveal details from their past inappropriately. Before you regale your youngster with lurid tales of your past, ask yourself, “Is knowing this about me in my child’s best interest?”
That said, your teenager may appreciate hearing how Grandma and Grandpa once grounded you after you skipped out on school to go joyriding with your buddy in his new car. Just prepare yourself for the possibility of an unreceptive audience, and responses ranging from, “Oh no, here we go again...” to, “But that was when you were a kid!” That’s okay: At some point your teen will reflect on what you’ve said.
Repeatedly reassure your youngster that she can come to you with any problem, then make good on your promise of unconditional acceptance. Convey shock or disgust, even nonverbally, and you’ve just torpedoed the bridge of communication between you. “I may not approve of everything that you do,” you say, “but no matter what, I’ll always love you.”
Keep your antenna raised for signals that your teenager wants to talk. Your child might secretly be aching to confide in you but is too self-conscious, or scared, or simply doesn’t know how to begin. Clues that he might have something on his mind include:
- Questions concerning “a friend” (often anonymous) with a problem: “Mom, this kid I know at school shoplifted a Chicago Bulls jersey. If he’d gotten caught, would he be in really big trouble?”
- Questions about your own adolescent experiences: “Dad, how old were you when you first had sex?”
- A magazine left open on your youngster’s bed, turned conspicuously to an article. For instance, “Teenagers Get Depressed Too” might be a cry for help.
If you’re too uncomfortable to discuss certain subjects face to face, write your son or daughter a letter. “Letters are a great way to get your thoughts out in an uninterrupted fashion,” says Dr. Ray Coleman, a pediatrician in Rockville, Maryland. “It also gives you a hard-copy record of your feelings and advice.”
A letter shouldn’t be regarded as a substitute for verbal communication, but when addressing potentially volatile issues they can enable you to express yourself more thoughtfully than you might in person. What’s more, stating your concerns in writing is less likely to provoke a defensive response or spark a conflict, simply because you’re not physically there. This is also the perfect forum for saying “I love you” or paying a compliment.
Find other adults with whom your child can speak freely. Even if you have an exceptional rapport with your youngster, there may be times when she needs another supportive adult’s perspective. What if you’re a single mother whose twelve-year-old son has questions about his changing body? He might prefer talking to his uncle, an older cousin or his best friend’s dad than to Mom.