Thursday, July 14, 2011

Try Talking to a Teenager

Girls back-to-back

Remember when your children couldn't talk to you enough?  From the time they are born, children are trying to communicate with you.  All the cooing and giggling, the chatter and the even the crying were their attempts to communicate with you, to tell you something.  Then they began to make words.  You were so excited when they spoke that first word.  You called your spouse.  You called the grandparents and aunts and uncles.  It was all so exciting!

Then they started putting words together.  They made sentences.  They didn't always make sense to us, but they did to them.  And they never stopped!  That's why parents invented the 'quiet game.'  You know, "Let's see who can be quiet the longest."  It never lasted very long at my house.  My son just could not be quiet.  From the time he was very young, he was verbal.  He was telling everyone exactly what he thought at three years old.  Gee, I wonder where he would have learned that?

The next step was school and they began to tell us how incorrectly we spoke.  Regardless of our own educations, we just didn't do it right.  Well, thank goodness we had our children to train us up correctly!

Then one day, your child was replaced with an alien!  They no longer could speak your language, and when they would show glimpses of remembering their verbal skills, you wished they hadn't.  Looking back you should have seen signs of the inhabiting of their slang entered their vocabularies, the looks they gave you when you tried speaking to recognize after the fact that there were clues you missed.  If only you'd recognized them at the time, perhaps you could have performed an exorcism or said extra prayers or something!  You never thought it could happen to your kid!  You were always able to talk to each other about anything!  What happened?

All of a sudden you're seen as the enemy.  They tell you you're judgmental and critical, you're interfering and 'lame' (whatever that means...I'm pretty sure it's not what my dad used to say about our horses).  And you know what?  We are all of the above.  But not because we're just trying to be a pain.  We want to be sure they're all right.  For the first time since they were put in your arms, you don't know what is happening with them or to them, and you just want to make certain that all is well.

It's been several years now, since my son and I began this teenage journey.  In fact, in a little over six months I will no longer have a teenager and I'm seeing signs that we may have forged our way through this minefield and may well be coming out in pretty good shape on the other side.  Here are some things I've learned (many of them the hard way) through experience and from the experts:

The direct approach probably won't work
If you try to ask direct questions of your son or daughter, you are probably going to face a brick wall.  For instance, I found that I didn't know some of my son's new friends' names.  When I asked who they were, I got a question back, "Why do you want to know?" or "What difference does it make?"  He ended up stalking off and I was left angry and with no answers. 

I learned to listen when he was talking to me and he would mention a name I didn't know.  I came to know who his friends were by accumulating all the pieces of information I could gather when he was telling me about his activities.  I understood that the long conversations we used to have were, at least for a while, not going to happen so I had to get my information in the little snippets he was willing to share.  I learned that I had to be ready and willing to listen when he was ready to talk.

Don't practice reflective listening
As a teacher, I had spent a big portion of my life reflecting back what students said to me.  This practice is used by teachers and counselors to effectively communicate with our students or clients.  It's a good skill to have in those fields of employment.  It's also a good tool to use with other adults, but it is NOT a good practice with your teenagers.  On more than one occasion when I tried this with my son, I heard, "Well, duh.  I think I just said that." 

Instead I learned to empathize with him.  When he would say something like, "I really suck at math, Mom."  I learned to commiserate with him and say something like, "I know, Honey.  It's really hard when you can't do something as well as you'd like to."  I also learned not to try to make him feel better.  When I would try to do that, it would very effectively close all communications before they even really started.  Just empathizing with him opened the channels of  communication much more effectively.

Their choices are not about you
This was probably the hardest lesson for me and I think it is for many parents.  For so many years, your child has been an appendage.  You dressed them up in the cute little clothes that you chose, they participated in the activities that you chose for them.  They tried their best to please you in everything they did.  And now, all of a sudden, they are making choices without you, and they're not the choices you think they should make!

You are no longer one entity, you have become two and you will disagree, probably a lot, until you remember that the choice was theirs to make.  If you try to judge or condemn their choice, you are forcing them to hide from you and when their choice turns out badly, as it will inevitably at times, you want to be able to help them learn from it.  If you have been critical or judgmental, you will have forfeited that opportunity.

In all things, remain calm
As a single parent, I've had many opportunities to 'lose it,' and I believe I've done it very well.  Even with all of my professional experience and expertise, I would find myself in a rant that sounded vaguely like one from my parents.  (How does that happen)?  "Why didn't you call?  Where were you?  How long would it have taken to send me a text (OK, that one was me, not my parents)?  I even discovered that you can rant through texting.  Who knew?

I was perfectly within my rights to be frustrated and frightened, but by approaching my son in this manner, I was only successful in closing any opportunity we might have had to talk through the situation.  When I was ranting, he felt accused.  That was not my intent.  He understood that I was concerned because I loved him and my ranting wasn't helpful in communicating anything to him, except the finger pointing in his direction (I believe that one came from my dad). 

I learned to, as calmly as possible, ask what had happened.  Many times I discovered that something totally out of his control had taken place.  Several times he was helping a friend.  But when I remained calm, we were able to discuss what had happened and plan for the next time (and there's always a next time).

For now, you are not your kid's friend
I don't care how great you were as buddies before, at this point in their lives they don't want you for a friend.  This is not to say that it won't happen again someday down the road, but for now they are trying to make the break with you.  They're trying to learn who they are, separate from you, and they have to do this all by themselves. 

They don't want you as their enemy either.  They don't like the continuous battles any more than you do.  They want and need their space and when we allow them these things, then the journey through this time will be a little easier.  This does not mean that you turn them loose and let them La Vida Loca.  You are the parent.  It's your job to set the boundaries and to enforce them when necessary.  This has always been your job.  Now, you do it a little differently. 

Parenting a teenager is one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life.  I understand why God intended each child to have two parents, but I've learned that you just do the best you can each day.  Tomorrow is a do-over.  Whatever mistakes you make today, and you will make some, you can do again tomorrow, hopefully better. 

Remember when they first came home with you and you were afraid that everything you did might 'break' them?  Well, they didn't break then, and they won't break now.  Probably the biggest thing I've learned to say to my son is, "I'm sorry."  When I am able to say this to him, he understands that I am not perfect, and he doesn't have to be either.  It tells him that we are human, that we will try again, and that we will be better.

There have been many times over the past few years when I wondered if we would ever get through these 'terrible teen' years.  I know that we're not done yet, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  And maybe it's like childbirth, at the time it was horrible, but once you're through it, it wasn't so bad after all.  You're both different than before you started, but hopefully, you're both better because of it.

I wish you all good luck and safe passage!   
The light at the end of the tunnel free stock photo

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