Talking to teens is tough, but it is not impossible. I know this because I’ve been teaching teens for 20 years and now I have a teen living in my house. Teens are many things. They can be unreasonable, uncommunicative and trying, but they can also be sensitive, struggling, and thoughtful. The real problem with teens is that you don’t always know what you are going to get. Tonight I was the blessed receiver of the “latter” type of teen. My usually quiet one was talkative and introspective. Here’s what happened.
We were in the middle of dinner. I am not sure how the conversation started, but I tuned in when my son Cole said, “It’s like soccer. The more skill you have the more choices you get.”
My BF, the soccer coach, nodded in agreement. “Yes, it is so important to really learn and understand the skills required, so you can really see who to pass to or if you should just keep dribbling.” My son nodded in unison as he took another bite of his chicken fajitas. His plate was littered with the peppers and onions he picked from the folded shell.
“You know,” I chimed in. “This soccer thing is really a great analogy for life.” My younger son groaned.
“Mom,” he said. “Are you going to make this into a teaching thing again?”
“Yes,” I answered. “Of course I am. It’s really perfect. In life, if you get the skills and the education, you get more options. So what are some things you can do to up the options you have as you go through life?” Cole was not daunted by my question. He answered almost immediately.
“Well, I guess doing well in school. Practicing soccer to get better,” he said.
“Right,” I responded. I put down my fajita because it really felt like he was getting what I was trying to say. “And what are behaviors that would limit your choices?”
“I guess drugs and alcohol,” he replied.
“Yep,” I said. My palms started to sweat. I was almost giddy. “How about committing a crime?” He nodded.
“Yeah, that would really take all of your options away,” he said. The conversation continued a little further with a bit of discussion among all of us. It was nice, but how did we get here? What are the things that we have in place so this discussion could happen?
We eat dinner together as a family almost every night. We have a somewhat set dinner time. Each member of the family is expected to attend. No one eats until we are all sitting. There are no phones at the table. We talk to each other though the TV or music is usually in the background. I can honestly say that there have been plenty of nights when my teen wants to get out of dinner and says he’s not hungry. There have been many meals where they might not even want what we are having for dinner, but the expectation is that we sit together as a family. On Fridays, I don’t cook. We generally get takeout and watch a movie while we eat in the living room. Fridays just need to be chill.
We hear each other by practicing active listening. Do not underestimate the power of listening to your teen. Sometimes it is really hard to hear what they have to say. Sometimes it is easier to hear the words and say to them that whatever is important to them is not a big deal. It is easy to disregard a teen’s feelings, but it is one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a parent. A child who does not feel heard can and will do much damage to themselves and others. Sometimes I go into my son’s room and just ask him a question about his video game. I hate video games. I dislike the violent video games I know he plays with his friends. I don’t care about the fancy cars he makes or the characters he creates, but I do love and respect him, so I listen and ask questions. When he is angry or upset, I listen, and I say to him, “Okay, I hear you saying…” Or when he is angry with me, I put aside my hurt or frustration and I say, “It is totally okay for you to be angry with me, but it is never okay for you to be hurtful or disrespectful.” Listening is an amazing gift you can give any teen and the best part is that it is free.
My son is given reasonable expectations for behavior. I never try and change the things that make up who my son is. He is laid back and very relaxed all of the time. He prefers to not care about the details. This makes him wonderfully pliable in tough situations. Cole can adapt to anything and be solidly content. He finds the good in everyone and in every situation. Often this is great, but sometimes it makes things tough. The consequence to not doing his best in school is that he loses his phone. He adapts quickly and is barely affected by this. He completes an assignment for school, but he does not feel the need to revise and look for any and all errors. He drags his feet and delays tasks that take effort. He is always looking for the path of least resistance. I don’t want to change the part of him that makes him so malleable and flexible. I never name call or demean him. I refuse to shame him into doing well in school. I never tell him he is lazy, and he will never amount to anything if he doesn’t start caring. But we do have expectations surrounding three things: family, school, and sports. Each category has the same expectations that you always do your best, you stay positive, and communication is key. When these behaviors shift, we set goals, rewards, and consequences to get back on track. The goals, rewards, and consequences are a family conversation and decision. We focus on changing the behavior not the person. Cole is exactly who he is right now. Accountability does not mean I change who my son is to get his compliance and for him to gain my approval.
So these are just a few things I’ve learned. I hope if you are raising a teen you can use them too.
Love and Light, All!