Most people can remember that adolescence was a time of emotional upheaval, whether they are in their 20’s or their 80’s. Times, culture and global circumstances have changed, but the hormonal frenzy of trying to find an identity will always stay the same. For parents or caregivers of teenagers, this time can be frustrating and may cause feelings of helplessness and ineffectiveness as an authority figure.
The good news is that there is a “language” that an adult can use to communicate with a teen that can be effective without giving the impression of being nosy, bossy or invading the personal space of the adolescent. Sometimes this language calls for silence, but mostly, it draws on respect. As Jackie Robinson once said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” Isn’t that what everyone wants?
How many times have parents said, “Because I said so!” in response to a child’s inquiries? While sometimes there seems to be no other answer, when dealing with a teenager, this is the most ineffective “answer” a parent can give. Yes, you are the parent and yes, your child needs to listen to you and obey your rules. But teens have developed abstract thinking processes, and unlike with younger kids, “because I said so” is a non-answer. If you put yourself in the teen’s place – honestly wanting and needing an answer to a question that you perceive is important and legitimate – you’ll see how frustrating this can be, making defensiveness come out in spades. No matter how ridiculous your adolescent’s question may seem to you, put some thought into it and answer his/her question honestly, giving an explanation of your decision (if applicable). Sometimes, the child will have a valid counter-argument, which ideally needs to be considered before the conversation ends. This conveys respect to the child, which will often generate respect from the child. Teenagers have developed the ability to see through non-logic, unlike younger children. Answers that may appease a 10 year-old will not fly with a 16 year-old, just as it wouldn’t with you as an adult.
“My kid needs to earn my respect!” is something I hear quite often from parents of teenagers, and I don’t disagree with any of them. However, many parent/teen communication cycles are stuck in the “negative” mode. Just like in a romantic relationship, it takes one person to break that cycle and turn it into a positive interaction, which leads to more positive interactions. In a marriage situation, I often urge partners to be the “bigger” person and do something to start a positive cycle. In a parent/teen relationship, the parent is already the “bigger” person in many ways (size, authority, etc.), but that fact is too often used in a dictatorial way. It may be very difficult to extend respect “on credit” to your teen, especially if his/her behavior in the past has been less than respectful to you. But if you use your position of authority to wipe the slate clean and give your teen a chance to earn your respect by extending respect to him/her first, a positive cycle may actually begin. If you approach your teen with respect, he/she may actually open up to you and let you into his/her world. This may sound extreme, but to your child, respect can mean the difference between Hitler pounding at the door vs. Gandhi knocking gently.
One important thing to remember anytime you are interacting with your adolescent is that this age range is extremely difficult to navigate, no matter who you are or where you come from. Saying “no” to a request to go to a party may send your teen into a tailspin because it really does feel like the end of the world to him/her at that moment. Many times, the child will ask, “Why not?” This is your opportunity to be honest and extend respect. If you don’t want her to go because you know the party’s host won’t have adult supervision around, say so. It may not even be your kid that worries you, but the negative influence of the other teens at the party. Make sure you mention this. If your teen has a history of going to parties and exhibiting poor judgment, give this as evidence. Sometimes, if you extend “one more chance” in a good faith gesture, it can actually “plant a seed” which may flower at the party, causing your child to say, “No thanks” to alcohol, drugs or driving drunk.
Learning to put yourself in your teenager’s shoes is the most important part of learning to speak this language of respect. Of course, there will always be the kids that will rebel and get into trouble no matter what you say or do, just as there will be the kids who never get into trouble at all. But if you’re having trouble communicating with your teen and don’t know what else you can do, try this “language.” It may feel counter-intuitive at first, but after you see results, it will make perfect sense.