Remember the good old days when all parents of teenagers had to deal with was sullen silence?
Teens today hit the same developmental stages that we did: separating themselves from us by walking three paces behind in public or answering questions about their day or friendly parental greetings with "I don't know" or "Nothing" or "Whatever..." Now, aided by electronic distractions, they can shut themselves away from parents in a whole new way.
How can you penetrate this wall of silence and start communicating with your teen again?
- Set a time when everyone in the household unplugs. This might be during dinner when all cell phones and other electronic devices are shut off to make room for the possibility of real conversation. And if, because of habit or busy schedules, a sit-down family dinner is increasingly rare -- make time for it at least several times a week. And involve your teen in the preparation. Some teens open up and talk most readily while performing tasks side by side with a parent.
- Take walks or drives together. An evening walk is good exercise and a chance to talk without it being a confrontation. Sometimes teens are more likely to open up if they're not sitting face to face with you, but walking beside you or sitting by you in the car during a drive.
- Take steps to communicate their way some of the time. During a recent visit, my friend Sharon impressed me with her texting skills. "I had to learn," she said, laughing. "For a while, it was the only way to communicate with my daughter. You have a kid, you learn!" It can't hurt to let your teen know that you love him or her or that you're wishing him or her well for a critical test, a tryout or other major event, or that you're looking forward to seeing him/her at a family dinner or a nightly walk via texting. Use electronics, in between good conversations, to make a warm connection.
- Recognize that at some point during the teenage years, kids are more likely to confide in their friends or non-parental adults than in you. That can hurt, but be assured that as they mature, they'll come to realize once again that no one loves them more than you do. In the meantime, respecting good friendships and allowing them to be close to other adults -- a grandparent, aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher, neighbor -- is a very special way of showing your love.
- Take care to listen. Never will your listening skills -- and patience -- be more crucial than when your kids are teenagers. If you want to encourage conversations, don't be too quick with criticisms, interruptions or long stories about your own teen years or your opinions. When your teen speaks, listen. Encourage him or her to say more with your questions and your willingness to hear what he or she is saying. I sometimes cringe remembering my teenage rants about how I was never, ever going to be a housewife like my mother but was going to be an independent career woman like Aunt Molly. My mother, who had given up a high profile career she loved to raise her three children, would listen quietly and comment "I'd love to see you enjoy a wonderful career. There's nothing like that. And there's also nothing like raising a family you love if you decide to do that someday." And she encouraged my closeness to Aunt Molly, her never-married and childless sister-in-law and best friend. Only years later, looking through the scrapbooks of my mother's career as an aviation pioneer -- a nurse turned airline stewardess in the 1930's when that was a fabulous career and led to product endorsements, modeling in ads, being mentioned in gossip columns, doing radio shows and mingling with celebrities and world figures (there is a picture of my mother presenting a plaque from American Airlines to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) -- did I understand the enormity of her sacrifice -- and her love for us. Not to mention her patience with a daughter who took a while to get a clue about the value of her life choices.
- Let your memory be your guide. Think back. How much did you really tell your parents? How much time did you spend talking with them on a daily basis? Are you expecting more of your teens? My friend Andrea, reflecting on her daughter's teen years, remembers that "it was a shock when she started tuning me out. Of course, MY parents had been a temporary embarrassment during my teens. But I was a cool parent. I was with it. I couldn't understand why she'd slide down in the backseat of the car when I'd sing along with her generation's music. After all, her friends who were riding along with us didn't seem to mind! I soon learned that they didn't mind because I wasn't their parent. My daughter's attitude passed quickly enough and she became the talkative and terrific companion she had been before. But remembering how I was, for a time, with my parents helped me wait it out and let her know she was loved and cherished even when we didn't communicate that often or well."
- Ask your teen's opinions. Encourage him or her to voice opinions about interests or causes you share -- or could share. Ask what he or she thinks about a news event or a t.v. show or movie. Listen closely to her reply. Let him know that you value his opinions -- even if these differ from yours.
- Be an askable parent. The late psychologist and author Dr. Sol Gordon used to define an askable parent as one whose teenager knew that no situation would be made worse by his telling his parents about it or by asking for parental advice. It can also mean not jumping to conclusions when your teenager asks for information or your opinion about a controversial or sensitive issue. Instead of starting with "Why do you want to know THAT?" try just answering the question with information or your honest opinion. And, if you're not sure how to answer, say so in a non-threatening way -- e.g. "I'm not quite sure how to answer that. Let me think about that for a moment..." or "I'm not sure what I think about that....or I'm not sure I have all the correct information either. Let's get online or consult a book and find out the answers together."
- Keep your sense of humor. My friends Tim and Barbe raised four of the most wonderful kids imaginable. But Tim says there were some tense times in their teens. The best advice ever came from a middle school guidance counselor who told him "Never lose your sense of humor! You need it most during these years!"