Talking to Teenagers

(The Freeman) - October 27, 2018 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines — Most parents would admit that it is quite a hurdle talking to their teenage kids. This is a problem that breeds tension at home. Parents get frustrated or angry, and the teens tune out as their parents begin to criticize and speak harshly.


There is hardly any constructive communication going on. It is always a struggle, on both sides. Parents always struggle to set clear boundaries and ground rules with their kids, while teenagers resent the fact that their parents tend to ‘stifle’ them.

Well, it’s true that most parents do not know how to talk to their teenagers without bossing, criticizing, or attacking. They just don’t know how to do it properly and right. Most probably, parents simply follow the way their own parents talked to them in their time.

But what is the proper and right way of talking to teenagers? Laurie Sue Brockway, at the website www.pgeveryday.com, shares pointers she gathered from experts:

Don’t be too bossy. “Teens hate to be told what to do,” says family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, PsyD. “Parents shall phrase commands, directions, and suggestions in such a way that your adolescent doesn’t feel dictated to, or that you are decreeing laws.” And do it with a smile and humor whenever possible.

Speak privately. “Try not to criticize a kid in front of friends and siblings,” says Juanita Allen Kingsley, director of business development for Century Health Systems, where she teaches courses for teens. A caring tone is also recommended.

Be constructive. “Criticism should be a learning tool, accompanied by an explanation,” says Allen Kingsley. Make sure your words are meant to guide – not aimed at hurting someone.

Other experts also caution about certain phrases to say to teens:

“You should…” “It doesn’t matter what follows these two words, it’s human nature to rebel against them for most people, and teens feel this more strongly than most,” says family physician Deborah Gilboa, MD, author of “Get the Behavior You Want... Without Being the Parent You Hate.” “This is the age when autonomy means everything, and that means not doing whatever a parent thinks they should, even if they agree.”

“You are lazy.” This will not get chores done faster. “Most children are not lazy,” says psychologist Stacy Haynes, EdD, LPC, ACS. “What happens is, we wait until they are teenagers to give them chores and then expect them to be on it.” Get kids involved in helping around the house earlier, so it isn’t a big surprise when they are asked, she says.

“You won’t be able to do that.” Teens are hypersensitive to criticism, so parents shall try to offer a rationale. “On its own, telling a teen that she’s not capable is negative and hurtful,” says Allen Kingsley. “But to say, ‘I’m concerned that you won’t have the time you need to get this done well,’ or ‘You’d have to make sure you learn about X-Y-Z to do this’ – now the teen has an explanation.”

“You’d be so pretty/good-looking if you’d just…” Teenage life is all about wanting to be liked and seen as attractive. Be gentle if addressing appearance. “[Teens] are truly sensitive to parents’ criticism, no matter how hard a shell they may seem to present,” says Gilboa. “Since our child’s appearance is nowhere near the most important of his or her attributes, we need to focus on the self-exploration and keep negative comments to ourselves.”

“What a mean, nasty person you are.” Psychologist Alex J. Packer, PhD, author of “How Rude!,”says negative statements about a teen’s character can lead to a place of “great shame, hurt, regret, confusion, and anger.” He suggests trying something like “You’re usually a kind and generous person, so we need to talk about why you said such mean things to your sister.” This helps parents learn about their kids, and restores calm while addressing grievances.

The fact that there’s no school or such institution preparing people for the arduous task of parenthood leaves many parents groping in the dark with the challenges ahead. Parents have to learn on their own, including how to handle their teenagers.  Sometimes the stresses of child-rearing and life in general cause parents to be short-fused and say things they don’t mean and later regret.

It will help, as well, that in the midst of a conflict or provocation, the parent shall count to 10 – or, better yet, to 100. If possible, the parent shall momentarily get out of the situation for some time to think. It is okay to say, “I need to give this some thought,” or “I want to calm down a bit before we discuss this.”

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