The "Open Mic" Solution
Saving communication when talking with a teen gets difficult
Posted August 1, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Communication is key in parent-child relationships.
- Communication gets harder as children grow older.
- It is always worth the challenge to finds ways of communicating.
There we were—my younger self, an eager therapist with my clipboard and matching therapist chair, giving out advice to a mother who could have been my mother and her son, who could have been my brother.
And I was anxious.
I like to think of myself as young now, but I was actually young then, and giving advice to someone much older than me can be more than daunting.
I don’t think I took one note.
Like most young therapists, I was concerned for how I was going to be perceived, but I was more concerned with the mother, who felt she didn’t know how to communicate with her son anymore.
She was dealing with the pain and struggle of no longer knowing how to talk with her son. Her son, a bright, burly adolescent himself, was dealing with struggles in school and the obstacles of not only having Asperger's but facing the wide world of every coming-of-age change.
And suddenly their lines of communication weren’t as open—for whatever reason. Their mom-and-son routine had become a new, muddier version of its once open friendship.
She felt like he didn’t value her anymore, that his needs weren’t so easy to figure out, and that the open stage of honesty and heartfelt conversation between them was now strained and confused. Their bond had bent and wavered, and her little boy was now taller and bigger than she was, but his reality, tinged with anger, centered on the pressures of being a high school kid and no longer the little boy who loved his mother and had the world all figured out.
My professional and human instincts kicked in; I could feel myself pulled towards my training as a therapist, but also as a musician. I excused myself, ran to my car, and grabbed a microphone and mic stand. When I came back in I literally set the stage for communication: I hosted an open mic.
“Look,” I said, nervous that I was going out on a stage I wasn’t prepared for, “this is going to be an open mic and there are no rules, no judgments, and you’re each going to have enough time to speak your mind.”
And then I waited.
Just like a real open mic, where everyone is listening and no one is passing professional judgment, I wanted them to come at each other with raw, unrehearsed concerns and raw emotions.
And it was incredible. The kid, who struggled socially, even with making eye contact, spoke his mind clearly about feeling hurt, lonely, and how difficult it was to simply exist as himself in what were previously familiar environments.
The mother expressed deep and beautiful emotions, conveying her want for better communication with her boy. By the end of the session, they were bawling; it was cathartic and opening and from there on we used that as a reference point to set the ground rules for dialogue.
They just needed the right space for communication. And once they had that (even as a reference point), they could pave new roads of one-on-one discussions that had been built on years of dialogue but had since come up against adolescence, which was the real adversary of their open and honest talks.
When children are young, there is a dynamic between parents and children that changes through each season of growth. First they’re babies with easy needs, and then children with open and honest desires, and then all of the sudden they’re teenagers and you’re walking on eggshells, trying to figure out exactly what to say and when not to interrupt--and you’re both guessing who is overthinking, whether it’s you or your instinct.
A lot of times teenagers fear that if they open up to their parents, the reaction will be an event they won’t know what to do with, or that it will backfire. Or that somehow they’re always in trouble, even when they’re not. This is why humans—not just teens—are so secretive and depend on false truths and lies to get by when what's needed is open, honest communication (which happens to be the hardest kind!).
Parents need to make time for “open mic” conversations—but that time is not during movies or TV time, or loud sports games, or events where one-on-one conversation are subject to interruptiions. You need time to be able to really get into whatever it is you’re discussing.
We can’t assume these times will simply happen on their own, either, and they're not for those moments when the teen shows up with pot or drunk or way too late after curfew. When you find out about that secret boyfriend or that dropped class, or moments of self-harm that you would never think your baby would do, that’s when all those years of communication need to come into play.
Dinnertime is one of those focused places; everyone is seated and ready for the friendly “interrogation” about each kid's and each parent’s day. It’s when we speak up about the things we care about and can speak openly without worldly interruption.
Other times—a planned weekly one-on-one lunch date or an afternoon reserved for parent and kid—lay the foundation for open communication, as most parents know. It could even be a local open mic with dinner before and coffee afterwards, but there needs to be an environment where two can talk with focus, even if it’s for short amount of time.
As our “babies” age, the communication gets harder, regardless how easy it used to be when your child would communicate with wide eyes and a softer heart.
But like so many challenges of parenthood, it has to be a constant goal.