Remember when your little one learned how to talk? You were so excited and hung on her every word. The world stopped as you listened to those precious utterances in her early days.
When I look at my two teenage boys, I am not nearly as giddy as I once was, but I still treasure our talks. I savor the moments when they invite me into their world and share a part of themselves. They don’t do this as readily as my 8 year-old daughter. She is bubbling over with ideas all day long. No, for the boys it is different. They have developed a world outside of me, and their interests go beyond the borders of our home. I know this is a necessary part of adolescence, so when they choose to open up, I want to make sure I am ready to listen.
True listening is hard, especially when the one we hope to hear most is someone we love with all our might. We want to listen objectively, but our own hopes and fears and failures get in the way. Our past mistakes, insecurities and precious pride suck the life out of what our teenager needs us to hear. Often, teenagers and their parents end up at a stand-off, completely frustrated. Eventually, communication stops or becomes so censored that it is nothing but a formality.
As a school counselor, kids sit in my office day after day sending the same message: I want someone to hear me—truly hear me. And from parents, I hear much the same thing. They wish their teenagers would simply talk to them. So what gives?
Our teenagers need to know they can share themselves with us—without losing themselves. They need to be able to invite us in—without losing their independence. For parents, that’s harder than we think. We have invested so much in this young person and have had so much influence, it is hard to accept a lesser role.
Here are some things I have learned over the years of communicating with teens. I do not say this from a position of authority because I struggle with these myself. I am far better at applying these concepts in my office than in my own home. It is impossible to be fully objective and fully mom at the same time. However, I surrender daily and try to do the best I can. When I blow it, my boys offer me grace to start over as I try to remember the following:
- No interruptions. I mean none. Resist the urge to cut them off, make a correction to what they are saying, or interject an opinion. Let them speak fully and freely without comment or complaint from you. This is difficult, especially if what they are saying is not accurate or is misguided. For whatever it’s worth, their perspective is their reality. You can offer guidance or redirection later, once they feel you understand their state of affairs They will value your input more when they feel it is coming from a place of understanding.
- No judgment. This one is tough, especially since we are the ones who are responsible for raising them, right? When it comes to our kids, we are used to the role of sheriff, judge and jury. However, if our goal is to get them to share with us freely, we need to withhold judgment when possible. I am not saying that consequences may not be in order, but refrain from shaming them or passing judgment on them as individuals. Questions such as, “What were you thinking?!” or “How could you?!” are never productive and will only leave them feeling isolated.
- No assumptions. Listen without assuming you know how they feel. After they share with you, ask them how they feel about the things they have shared. Their answers may surprise you. Don’t assume you know what it is like to be in their shoes or how to fix their problems. Ask them what they would like to see happen or what change they would like to see. Their perspective is what matters if your goal is to understand. Minimizing or assuming devalues their feelings.
- Be genuine. Your kids know you better than most. Unlike your friends, they see the real you on a regular basis. Strengthen your relationship by being genuine. This does not mean they are entitled to know everything about you. You are still the adult in the relationship, and you have the authority to decide what information you will share. However, they do deserve the courtesy of authenticity. No one wants to confide in a phony. It’s okay to let them know you don’t have all the answers or that you are vulnerable, too. In doing so, you will build their trust in your relationship.
- Empower them. Allow them to find their own answers and resist the urge to give too much advice. If they ask for your opinion, dole it out freely, but remember they are learning to become adults. Help them develop the confidence necessary to solve problems on their own. Let them know they can bring their problems to you, without surrendering them to you. Their problems are still their problems.
- Affirm them. They are not as confident as they appear to be. Inside those big, adult-like bodies, they are still boys and girls seeking acceptance. They may not show it, and they would never dare to speak it, but deep down, they still need to know you accept them. Acknowledge what they are doing right. In the areas in which they still need to grow, let them know you will be there for them until they figure it out.
When our kids are little, there are days when we wonder if they will ever stop talking. However, as they approach adulthood, they continue talking, but not always to us. Cherish the moments when they choose you. Enjoy them for who they are and all they are trying to become, hearing them with all your heart.