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Ask the Right Questions

How can parents get more information from teenagers? By asking more effectively

Questions like, “What were you thinking?” and, “Why would anyone even do something like that?” rarely get answered, at least not to any satisfying degree, by teenagers. The real answers are usually something like, “I wasn’t thinking at the time.” and, “Because we’re adolescents, and we do that kind of thing all the time, you just don’t catch us.”

Too often, parents get upset and express their confusion, frustration, and bewilderment in the form of a question. These questions are pretty much un-answerable if we really think about them. Open-Ended InterrogationIf you want more information from a teenager’s perspective, ask open-ended questions. For example, “What went on last night?” as opposed to “Were you out doing something you shouldn’t until 5am?” stands more chance of receiving an answer beyond, “Nothing.” or “I don’t know.” “Why would you do something like that?” is not as effective as, “What did you think would happen?” or, “What would you do differently knowing what you know now?” It is important to listen after asking questions, and even more important to not interrupt.

Teenagers want to be heard and, although it may not seem like it to parents, they want their parents to hear and understand them. For example, if you can listen, and reflect without sounding like a therapist, your teenager will feel heard. “You thought you wouldn’t have to deal with getting drunk, but just wanted to drink a little?” rather than, “You should have known that when you drink it makes you drunk and then you don’t know how much you have been drinking!” Some reflection and validation is helpful in such situations. Confident, Compassionate CommunicationBear in mind, none of these approaches will work if they are done with a tone of sarcasm, anger, or irritation.

Teenagers are experts at sarcastic come-backs, and again, they often forget that every single adult was once a teenager. If you find yourself unable to respond in a loving, patient, and calm manner, practice some centering skills like taking some slow deep breaths, asking yourself, “What can I do to bring love or compassion into this situation?” or knowing when to step away from a situation for a few moments.

When we are confident in our stance, “I am absolutely going to follow through with this consequence, even if you try to manipulate me to change my mind”, and are compassionate, “and I get that it is tough to have to follow rules that you didn’t want in the first place,” we can communicate in a way that softens some of our anger, frustration, or irritation.

Parents often ask me how I am able to confront a teenager or young adult so directly and honestly. My response is always that I temper my bluntness and honesty with compassion. I will tell a teen that she is being self-centered and selfish, and, in the same conversation, will let her know that I get why she has had to focus on her own needs so much, given that she doesn’t feel confident that her parents will take care of her and consider her desires or hopes. It also helps that I try to show compassion for parents, regularly letting them know that parenting is one of the toughest jobs in the world.

Communicate with love, confidence, and compassion and take note of how things go. If something doesn’t work, resist the urge to blame yourself or the other person and instead ask, “What could I do differently?”

More from Fred Peipman Ph.D.
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