Gayle Marie, a fifteen-year-old, spoke with few pauses during the first half hour of our initial consultation hour. Her parents watched, seemingly amazed, as she poured out a litany of complaints about them, and her belief that they consistently failed to listen to, or hear, her.
After 30 minutes or so, I asked the parents to talk about their version of the difficulties that brought them to my consultation room with their daughter. Both admitted that they were frankly astounded at much of what Gayle Marie had had to say, and at how easily she seemed to have “opened up” to me. They described the “usual” communication mode between parents and daughter at home as alternating--between compete silence and
“a battle!” Both parents stated that one of their primary concerns about Gayle Marie was the fact that she simply “did not communicate” with them. They were amazed at how much I had “gotten out of her” in one brief period.
Why did Gayle Marie, reportedly a “closed off’ teen at home, speak with me so freely? Certainly the fact that I was not one of her parents helped tremendously. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that I have trained myself to listen. Parents can (and do!) learn this skill, with significant “payoffs” in their ability to communicate with their teens.
There are always two parts to communication: content and process. Content refers to the words which are spoken, and ideas or feelings that are expressed. Process refers to that which is not said, or to that which is nonverbal--it’s the hand gestures, the breathing, the posture and the facial expressions of your teen--it’s reading that which is communicated “between the lines.” Listen with your eyes as well as your ears; this is what I like to refer to as listening with the third ear.
Let your teen overcome his or her natural anxiety about sharing with you. Don’t ask too many questions, especially questions that start with the word “why”. Listen to understand your teen’s feeling or viewpoint, and without ridiculing or refuting. Try not to plan your rebuttal, or your agenda for “setting his straight,” while you listen. The teen may well need to be set straight--but not while you are trying to listen. If all a parent wants to do is set the teen straight, it will be most apparent--and an effective conclusion to your teen’s willingness to talk with you. Remind yourself: all I am supposed to do right now is make sure that I understand what she is saying.
While your teen talks, nod your head, utter an occasional “umm”, or raise your eyebrow periodically. This lets your teen know that you are, indeed, listening. After a few sentences or paragraphs, interrupt and say, “Let me see if I understand what you’re saying.” Restate what you believe you have heard, and allow the teen to clarify if you have misunderstood something. Up to this point, do not agree or disagree. It is enough to let your teen know that you respect her enough to really listen carefully--carefully enough to really understand.
When is the “best time” to try to talk with my teen?
Generally, talking is going to be easier when it is your teen’s idea. If necessary stop what you are doing and listen without distraction. Don’t try to “listen” while doing something else. It is difficult to enthusiastically communicate against one’s wishes. Timing is particularly important when the subject is touchy. Let your teen know that you want or expect to talk, but that you are willing to do so later if it facilitates communication. FOLLOW THROUGH.
How should I behave in conversations with my teen?
Be natural--and be yourself! It’s okay if the dress and the setting are informal and relaxed. But it is also a mistake when adults believe they will be more “credible” with teens if they try to adopt their dress, attitude and jargon. Teens need their adult models. You do not, as Orvin (1) states, need to behave like a “stuffed shirt.” But do behave like the adult you have hopefully become as parent to a teen.
How do I present my view of things?
After (and only after! ) you have truly listened to your teen, be honest in your response! Call a spade a spade. Stealing is stealing, not “taking things.“ Lying is lying, not “failing to tell the truth.” Don’t tempt your teen to lie by asking, “Did you do this?” when you know he has. Try to use appropriate descriptors of behaviors and events, and encourage your teen to do the same.
What questions can I ask my teen?
Generally speaking, it is best to begin your questions with “How do you feel about…?” or “In your opinion, what is the cause of…?” Don’t ask questions that no one wishes to answer, e.g., “Why are you so stupid?” or “so bad,” or “so sassy.” “Why did you do that?” is also particularly problematic, for it forces the teen to attempt to justify something that may well have no justification! “How did you feel when you broke your word to your father?” may yield much more than “Why did you break your word to your father?” Help your teen to answer your questions, and hopefully to facilitate her own understanding of what has occurred, versus putting her on the defensive.
How do I encourage my teen to talk?
There is a general rule of thumb here: if you want to get information from your teen, let her talk. If you want to convey information, you do all the talking. This is a difficult concept for most parents of teens to master. But the truth is that teens will never talk if their parents go on and on, especially with demands of “Why did you?” or “Why didn’t you?” Instead, focus on trying to understand what your teen is saying. Let him or her finish, and then ask, “Is that all? Is there anything else you need to tell me?”
Next week we will continue with the effective communication skills with your teens.
Orvin, G.H., M.D. Understanding the Adolescent, Washington D.C., American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1995