by Dianna Flett
It is such a complicated time of the year. The holidays are over and there is a long sloshing road to make it to spring break. I’ve had parents ask for ways to talk to their children and tamp down the back and forth arguing that we all know develops. That sort of dialogue is not good for anyone. Here are some things I tell them.
Don’t take the bait.
When my boys were young and came home from daycare, my husband and I knew we’d experience at least 60 minutes of disruptive behavior. They cried, they fussed and in general were not themselves. At least three times a week we worked through a mess of emotions and tantrums. We came to understand the boys were decompressing after a day of stress. Not that our care providers were in any way unpleasant. In fact they were great. But it was a different stress, a social stress that impacted them.
A similar thing happens with our tweens and teens. They know us as the people who love them unconditionally. Having that security can sometimes lead them to bait us into conflict so they can get out their angst and frustrations from a day in complicated social and school environments. My husband and I learned to take a deep breath and “not take the bait” when our teens were trying to draw us into a fight. We would literally say:
“I’m going to walk away now. I won’t accept you talking to me like this.”
Then we walked away. It is hard, of course. Sometimes mind bend discomfort comes with holding your tongue. But when our teens lose the payoff of the argument, they find other more constructive ways to interact.
Seek first to understand.
If you experience one of those rare moments where your child wants to talk to you, consider Dr. Covey’s advice to “seek first to understand, and then to be understood”. Be present with your children and listen as they share their good news, frustrations, stories and angst. Do not offer solutions at the start of these discussions. More good comes from simply listening and making sure your child has a safe place to vent. Even when you absolutely understand and know how to fix whatever “it” is, let them talk. Keep your language simple and if you see yourself—or them—getting upset then take a break. But always seek first to understand what is happening from their perspective. It validates their feelings.
Here are some things you can say while you are listening:
“I see this really upsets you.”
“I think I understand.”
“It’s understandable that you’d feel that way. I imagine it was (embarrassing, frustrating, or unpleasant).”
Starting conversations with these sentences shows no judgment and can help them open up to your coaching and advice.
Be cautious about offering your own stories at this initial stage
Even when offered from a place of understanding statements like “when I was a girl” or “oh, that happened to me, too” can work to minimize your child’s experiences. Our stories can make the issue seem less impactful and may even lead your child to stop talking. At this stage we want our kids to keep talking. As parents we tend to offer advice too quickly when just listening and validating is key.
Use active listening techniques
We have to learn to show good listening skills. Push away from your computer or lay down your phone. Turn your body toward the person talking and if it is comfortable for your teen, work to make good eye contact. If they don’t return the eye contact, that’s fine as long as you are engaged with them. Ask simple questions that show you’ve been listening.
“Was there something in particular that threw you off?”
“How often does this happen?”
“How did you react?”
Try not to ask “yes” or “no” questions as they can easily stop conversations. The questions above are considered “open ended” and provide opportunities for continued dialogue.
Ask empowering questions
It isn’t natural for us to stay out of things. Instead of saying how to fix something, we can help by asking empowering questions.
Here are some examples:
“Have you thought about what you want to do about this?”
“What are some of the outcomes you want to see?”
“What’s your plan?”
Then you can ask, “Would you like me to help?”
Asking the right questions is key to supporting their plan of success; but don’t go too far. The difference between asking questions about their plan and the haranguing alternative of “shooting holes” in their plan is a fine line.
There has to be trust and the trust has to work both ways. You need to be able to trust your child and they need to be able to trust you. You may hear things you don’t want to hear and don’t like to hear, but if you can accept they are trusting you by telling you things, you can help them process their situation. The trust you build now will go a long way in keeping communication open during these very complicated years.
While the minutes pass slowly, the years do pass quickly. Our goal is to have a strong relationship on the other side of this phase of growth with your young adult.
(This article was written with inputs of Tina Unrue, certified life coach and owner of “Selfish Mama LLC”. Check her out here: https://www.selfishmama.com/about/ )