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Want Less Silent Treatment and More Talking?

Four effective strategies for communicating with your teen

Splitshire
Source: Splitshire

Right now my 10-year-old daughter wants to talk. A lot. She wants to tell me about her day, what she ate for lunch, who got in trouble with the teacher, the latest 5th grade jokes. Even though I want to listen, sometimes I have to tell her that I am in the middle of doing something, but if she will wait 5 minutes, I can give her my undivided attention. I set limits with her so that she knows that I am interested, but will listen only when I am ready.

However, fast forward a few years and this will definitely not be the best strategy to use. Sadly, I realize that soon she might start to shut down and not be so eager to share her life with me. I will need to use active listening skills that are based on the premise that I am communicating on her terms, not mine. As parents of adolescents already know, adolescent parenting requires a different way of interacting, one that will serve to keep the door to communication open, not nail it shut. So what are the new rules for communication during the adolescent years? Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • She decides when to open up, not you. Accept that she may or may not want to talk just because you are ready to have a conversation. Don’t try to force her to share more than what she is willing to give at a particular time. Be patient.
  • Listen with full attention. However, when the time is right and she does choose to open up to you, listen with your undivided attention. Welcome this time of communication and treat it like a precious gift not to be squandered. Drop everything else and listen fully, using the skills below:
    • Use attentive nonverbals. When I teach new counselors basic counseling skills, I tell students to face the client, make eye contact, and to never look at their watch (or even worse, their phone) during a session. Why? Because it indicates that you are not fully listening, that you need/want to be somewhere else, that you are in a hurry. And so it should be with our daughters: Silence your phone/tablet/laptop and put it away! Turn off (not just mute) the TV! Convey that having an open dialogue with her is the most important thing in the world to you at that moment.
    • Don’t interrupt her. Allow her to pour out her story, and as we know, this can take a while at times. Listen for the purpose of understanding what she is saying, from her perspective. Show her that you do understand her thoughts and feelings, and while you may not necessarily agree with them, convey that you do get where she is coming from. Think back to a time when you felt truly understood by someone else; it is a liberating experience. Most likely, it helped you to feel free to think more clearly and to move closer to a decision about what you want to do about a particular situation. Why not make every effort to provide this experience for your daughter?
    • Use door openers. A door opener is just that, an open invitation to talk more about a specific topic “Tell me more about….” Use door openers to keep her talking so that she can further explore her thoughts and feelings about an issue.
    • Limit questions. Use door openers instead. If you have to ask a question, make sure it is an open question. Open questions will usually begin with: who, what, when, where, how, and why. (Note: Be careful with the why questions though, because they tend to elicit a lot of defensiveness. Think back to your own teenage years and how you reacted when your parent asked you, “Why did you do that?” There is usually a tint of accusation or judgment in a “why” question—whether you intend it that way or not—so use your “whys” sparingly if you want her to keep talking.)
    • Reflect feelings. Once you think you have grasped her thoughts and feelings about an issue, let her know that you understand. Counselors call this skill reflection of feeling (“You feel shocked and betrayed because you believed Devin was your best friend, but then she spread a lie about you around the school today”). Listen closely for understanding and then validate her feelings whenever possible. This is a powerful skill that will bring you closer to your daughter if you put it into practice often (Note: Don’t offer generalities like “This too shall pass” or “You’ll look back on this and laugh”. These are not reflections of feeling and they are not helpful in the moment. She wants to feel understood, not dismissed).
    • Respond and don’t react. Try really, really hard not to explode: “YOU DID WHAT????” Yelling will shut down the communication almost immediately. Again, listen and try to understand.
  • Don’t give quick advice. After listening and reflecting, try to refrain from giving advice. Think of how frustrating it is when you are trying to tell someone an emotional story, and they interrupt you with pat answers and a quick fix. You probably make a mental note not to open up to that person again because you felt misunderstood, and you probably didn’t really want a hastily offered Band-Aid anyway. Let’s try not to make our daughters feel that way either.
  • Help her problem solve. Use some basic problem solving questions to help her to think about how she wants to move forward with the situation: “How are you thinking about handling this? “What are your ideas for solving this problem?” This helps her learn to figure out her own ways of navigating problems before she turns to others to solve them for her. If she does want your opinion, keep it short and sweet. As Greenspan-Goldberg wisely advises, “Less is more and don’t be a snore.”[i] So even when you do offer feedback, do whatever you can to increase her talk time and decrease your own.
  • Use attentive nonverbals. When I teach new counselors basic counseling skills, I tell students to face the client, make eye contact, and to never look at their watch (or even worse, their phone) during a session. Why? Because it indicates that you are not fully listening, that you need/want to be somewhere else, that you are in a hurry. And so it should be with our daughters: Silence your phone/tablet/laptop and put it away! Turn off (not just mute) the TV! Convey that having an open dialogue with her is the most important thing in the world to you at that moment.
  • Don’t interrupt her. Allow her to pour out her story, and as we know, this can take a while at times. Listen for the purpose of understanding what she is saying, from her perspective. Show her that you do understand her thoughts and feelings, and while you may not necessarily agree with them, convey that you do get where she is coming from. Think back to a time when you felt truly understood by someone else; it is a liberating experience. Most likely, it helped you to feel free to think more clearly and to move closer to a decision about what you want to do about a particular situation. Why not make every effort to provide this experience for your daughter?
  • Use door openers. A door opener is just that, an open invitation to talk more about a specific topic “Tell me more about….” Use door openers to keep her talking so that she can further explore her thoughts and feelings about an issue.
  • Limit questions. Use door openers instead. If you have to ask a question, make sure it is an open question. Open questions will usually begin with: who, what, when, where, how, and why. (Note: Be careful with the why questions though, because they tend to elicit a lot of defensiveness. Think back to your own teenage years and how you reacted when your parent asked you, “Why did you do that?” There is usually a tint of accusation or judgment in a “why” question—whether you intend it that way or not—so use your “whys” sparingly if you want her to keep talking.)
  • Reflect feelings. Once you think you have grasped her thoughts and feelings about an issue, let her know that you understand. Counselors call this skill reflection of feeling (“You feel shocked and betrayed because you believed Devin was your best friend, but then she spread a lie about you around the school today”). Listen closely for understanding and then validate her feelings whenever possible. This is a powerful skill that will bring you closer to your daughter if you put it into practice often (Note: Don’t offer generalities like “This too shall pass” or “You’ll look back on this and laugh”. These are not reflections of feeling and they are not helpful in the moment. She wants to feel understood, not dismissed).
  • Respond and don’t react. Try really, really hard not to explode: “YOU DID WHAT????” Yelling will shut down the communication almost immediately. Again, listen and try to understand.

When our daughters choose to share with us and walk away feeling understood, not judged or criticized, they will be far more willing to approach us again the next time they feel troubled or confused. And as they learn to trust us with stories from their daily lives, they will also feel safer in approaching us with more complex and life-altering problems in the future.

Notes. [i] Greenspan-Goldberg, A. (2011). What do you expect? She’s a teenager!: A hope and happiness guide for moms with daughters ages 11-19. Napierville, IL: Sourcebooks.; See also Ginsburg, K. (2011). Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings. Elk Grove, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

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